Monday, 15 July 2019

Environment Monday - What has happened to the Mill Hill Branch of the Extinction Rebellion Campaign?

My larger wildlife pond
This morning, BBC Radio London has been talking about Extinction Rebellion going national, as part of a 'summer uprising'. We all vividly remember the scenes from the Central London protests. Many friends locally went down to take part. What we now need is a local, Mill Hill flavoured mini 'Extinction Rebellion'. Given Mill Hill's almost unique geographical quirks, we see a microcosm of many of the issues that affect London.

London is a great city, if you pay the property premiums we have to, you must like some aspect of it. If you live in Mill Hill, you probably also enjoy a bit of tranquility

Mill Hill has perhaps the best transport links of any London outer suburb. The Thameslink service and The Northern Line give excellent access to Central London, with quick journeys. There are eight bus services from in and around the Broadway. We have some decent shops such as M&S, Iceland and the amazing independent retailers. We also have beautiful parkss, the Green Belt and the Conservation area. We have Darlands Lake Nature reserve, several picturesque ponds and many small streams. We have an amazing array of wildlife living in and around this. We are one of the few London postcodes that have working farms and herds of cows.

Last year I published my agenda to address some of these.

1. Properly protect natural habitats and refuges in the Borough of Barnet. We've seen constant attacks on these. Sadly there is no evidence at all of proper enforcement. The debacle of Darlands Lake is perhaps the worst example. This week we had a meeting of "The Environment committee" at the Council. This week the environment committee met. One item was the Parks and Open spaces strategy. There was no mention at all of measures to strengthen protection of our natural habitats. That is bordering on criminal negligence. The first thing we need is a proper audit of the wildlife and the habitats they need in Barnet. I am shocked at how many people are unaware of the diversity of reptiles, amphibians, birds and small mammals in the Borough. I was recently chatting to some young people at the studios I run, talking about our trip to Australia. One said "I wouldn't live anywhere with snakes and spiders!". When I said "Did you know thare are adders and grass snakes inthe Borough?" they were shocked. What sort of education are children getting, when they don't even know of the reptiles on our doorstep? Something is sriously wrong.
2. Waste management. One of the most criminal acts against our neighbours in the future has been the abandonment of seperate food waste collections by Barnet Council. This was deliberately concealed from the public before the last election. That is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of Barnet Council and waste. Most of what we produce is sent to incinerators or buried in landfil sites. The council is constantly trying to find cheaper ways to get rid of the huge grey bins full of rubbish we produce every week. When I was a kid, we had one small metal bin. Now we have three that seem to be full every week. The simple answer is to have less packaging. If the govt forced supermarkets to cut packaging, every council would have a huge windfall and our future neighbours would have a far more pleasant planet.

3. Energy management. Back in 2010, I proposed that all libraries and public buildings in Barnet be fitted with solar panels. I made the case that this would have paid for itself in five years and then made a huge profit. Had they done this then, the council would have been £2 million better off and used an untold amount less CO2. Sadly the generous tariffs that applied then have long gone, but there is no reason why the Council should not still invest. The payback would be 8-9 years, but as the recent Saracens deal has shown, money can be borrowed from the public works board at low rates. If this was done over 20 years, the council would see  profit next year on its budget. It is a win-win and one that there is no sane reason not to persue. Every school, library and other public building should do this. When you consider that schools use energy during the day when the sun shines, they would end up paying almost nothing in energy costs for most of the year.
4. Electric vehicles. I simply cannot understand why Councils do not use them. Birmingham Council had a whole fleet of them decades ago. Barnet must commit to ensuring the next generation of vehicles are fully electric. Volvo have announced the launch of one with a range of 200km. As far as I am aware, that is more than ample for Barnet. I would ask the council to commit to electric for the next generation. We can't win all of the battles today, but we must start planning for the future.
5. Encouraging walking and cycling. Barnet has appalling air quality by major roads. The undercroft of Mill Hill Broadway station has been measured as having the worst air quality in Western Europe. That is scandalous. We urgently need to reduce the number of car journeys. There are several practical ways that this can be done. I would start with the school run. I would give precence to all applications for schools where parents commit to walk to school. I would then give schools the ability to sanction parents who make a commitment to walk and then renege. As for cycling, Barnet has an appalling record in providing safe cycleways. I believe that this is vital not only to protect our neighbours in the future, but to regenerate our High Streets. I have long wondered if there is any way that Councils could be encouraged by reductions in business rates, to get more customers cycling. As someone with a background in card technology, I was wondering if we could have a system where customers who use a cycle dock could get a 5% discount on products etc? If this was funded by a Business rates cut then it would be good for all. Now I am sure someone will say "who will pay for this?" The answer is simple, bicycles cause no wear and tear on roads. When we see potholes on roads, these are caused by cars and lorries. It seems there are no official studies that show increased cycling reduces highways maintenance, but it is clearly something Barnet Council should study. Another point worth considering is that walking and cycling improve health (except when bad car drivers become a part of the equation). This will save in healthcare costs. If we start planning eco friendly, viable foot and cycle networks now, our neighbours of the future will surely have less reason to hate us.

6. Tree/shrub planting. Where I live, I have the M1 motorway at the bottom of my garden. When I walk my dogs to Mill Hill Park, we cross both the A1 and A41 trunk roads on the Watford Way. The Road has a grass verge. It is generally full of litter and really adds no value to anything.  I discussed this situation 20 years ago with a leading UK environmentalist. He suggested to me that we should replace all such grass verges with hedgerows, trees and shrubs. He explained that species with sticky leaves actually pull diesel particlautes out of the air, making it cleaner. This reduces asthma. It also gives a habitat for birds and small mammals. Noise is reduced  and rather than staring at concrete, we have a pleasant shrub/tree lined vista. Urban greenways are the way of the future. I believe that citizens of the Borough would buy into such spending. The associated improvements in air quality would also have benefit for health budgets.
7. Action on littering. Littering is perhaps the most widely seen anti social activity that is tolerated by society. I completely fail to understand why this is. A litter strewn street or park is pehaps the most depressing sight of all in our borough. Over the last year, local citizens in Barnet have been forming litter picking groups, but I'd like to see Barnet Council, schoos and local enforcement agencies take a far more proactive role in addressing the problem. There are three simple measures that we should do. Schools should educate children to realise that littering is anti social and boorish. Sadly the worst places for litter in the Borough are outside some of our schools. The second thing is that Barnet Council should ensure that the bins are properly emptied and the final thing is that anyone caught littering, even with cigarette butts, should be given the choice of a large fine or have to participate in a litter picking session. As my wife broke her arm in October after being tripped by a piece of litter, I realise this not simply a matter of tasteful ambience.
8. Pesticides. Barnet Council uses dangerous pesticides to kill weeds on pavements etc. There are alternatives. We have seen decimation of bee populations, that poses a clear and present threat to the food chain. The seriousness of this cannot be underestimated. Barnet should take the lead by banning them ASAP.

9. High Street regeneration. You may wonder what this has to do with protecting the environment. The answer is quite simple. The carbon footprint of a pint of milk you buy when you walk to your local shops is far lower than the one you buy after a car journey to a superstore or when an online delivery brings it to your house. In Mill Hill, we are lucky to have Marks and Spencers, Tesco's, Iceland, Gerards Butchers, Mill Hill wines and a range of great convenience stores. Shopping in these and cutting out the car journey makes a big contribution to reducing your carbon footprint. The more shops we have, the less need there is to travel far and wide. Sadly the council has no policy on trying to protect our High Streets. 

10. Planning Policies. This is the biggest one. I've left it until last. My views will not be universally liked. There is a housing shortage in Barnet, as there is across London. There is a labour shortage and there are homeless people.  Whatever we do in terms of planning, has to address these issues first. A cursory glance at the planning portal on Barnet Councils website shows a plethora of planning applications. I can see virtually none that address these issues and none that demonstrate joined up thinking in relation to the issues that face our society. My view is that any speculative building must be forced to address these issues in some way, shape or form. Barnet needs robust guidelines that developers know will be enforced. Perhaps the most scandalous aspect of planning in Barnet is the antagonistic relationship between the Council and the Mayor. Between the two of them, they have a responsibility for planning. Barnet's Conservative Council passed a politically charged motion declaring the Labour London Mayor an "enemy of the people". This was 100% guaranteed to ensure a bad working relationship. We need an end to name calling and a council and Mayor that puts the real issues first. If the Council and Mayor can't they will both be quilty of crimes against our future neighbours. One other thing Barnet Council needs to do is take enforcement seriously. For too long, developers have thought they "can simply get away with it". If the expectation was that Barnet Council will enforce the law, they would soon change tack. Barnet Council should announce a zero tolerance policy towards breaches of planning law. In the long term, this would save money, as developers would soon take the hint and comply with the law.

Sadly, there has been no  improvement on any of these issues, if anything matters are worse. As we stated, the most important issue is the issue of planning and overdevelopment. Mill Hill is seeing huge, very intensive schemes. These are not delivering properties in the price range of key workers.

The Barratts scheme at the National Institute for Medical Research,  has started advertising and the cheapest dwellings listed are £799,000 for two bedroom flats. My daughter works in Finchley Nurseries, next to the development. The chaos this development has caused to local businesses and residents has been considerable. Whilst this would perhaps be acceptable if the properties were in the price range of the junior teachers who work in the many schools located on the Ridgeway, with such price tags, they have once again been left behind. The developers have now put in planning permission to squeeze another 50 dwellings into the scheme.

You can read more by clicking here -  Please object to this scheme via this link

I would suggest that the following grounds be considered.

  1. Lack of parking and public transport infrastructure to support such a development
  2. Overdevelopment of an already intensive development
  3. Will interfere with the activities of Residents, Finchley Nurseries and the MillHill Village Cricket club.
  4. The Mayor has already approved the previous plan, which Mill Hill Residents felt was over intensive
This scheme is clearly an attempt by Barratts to squeeze even more profit out of an already very flawed scheme.

As you can see from the pictures on the illustration, the blocks Barratts are erecting are of a very uninspiring design. The premium is purely derived from the 'stunning views' that they will afford over Totteridge Valley, Mill Hill and Central London. I used to work in the Medical Research centre and can confirm that the view from the top is stunning. On a clear day you could see what we then called 'The Post Office Tower'. Sadly these blocks are not sympathetic to the ambience of Mill Hill. Asking for good design and appealing buildings is not an issue of snobbery. It should be a matter of principle for all developments. The really sad thing for me about the Barratts development is that there was competition to design the new development. The winning design was quite attractive. Sadly this went out of the window when Barratts started on the scheme. It is not hard. If you look at what has been done at the St Josephs College site, another Mill Hill landmark, you will see that it is not impossible to build great flats without building eyesores.

My biggest fear is that developers are continually seeking to encroach more and more into the green space. If we lose the green belt, the effects on air quality in Mill Hill will be catastrophic. Mill Hill Bus station already has the worst recorded air quality of anywhere in Western Europe. It is a scandal that school children have to wait for buses in such a place. It is no wonder that Asthma and other respiratory illness is on the rise.

As for our waterways, we have seen raw sewage polluting our streams. Last summer Darlands lake dried out completely, causing a complete extinction of the mature fish in the lake. Angel pond also dried out. Who knows how many small animals and reptiles died for lack of water, during the heatwave.

Then there are pesticides. These are dangerous, but still in use. We need to stop using these as a matter of urgency. If we don't, then pollinators will be wiped out.

The council has done nothing to improve energy management and use of renewables. Sadly the government has removed many subsidies. All new schools and libraruies should be solar powered. Given that they are primarily open during daylight hours, this would make a big difference.

Oh and before you call me a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) type, let me tell you that at the bottom of my back yard, I have the M1 and the Thameslink Railway. I also have these adjacent to my business. Both my business and home are solar powered. In my garden, I've planted over 5 fruit trees, 15 evergreen trees and 10 shrubs of types that reduce pollution. At our business, we've planted over 50 trees. In my garden, we've built 2 wildlife ponds, to give birds, amphibians, reptiles and small mammals a watering hole.

The M1 verge at the bottom of our garden has become a de-facto nature reserve, many birds nest and we see mammals such as Hedgehogs foraging. It has been left to grow wild. Such spaces are vital.

What we need in Mill Hill is a concerted campaign to identify, protect and manage all such areas. Sadly, many are targeted by developers, seeking to fill in every little bit of green space in the Borough. We need everyone who cares to get together and we need  a proper plan for the Borough of Barnet that recognises that we need  a safe, healthy and attractive environment. Humans are not robots. The natural world is key to the survival of our species. We should recognise this. We should insist that those who get paid allowances to represent us, do that, rather than represent vested interests, that make huge profits and move on to the next project.

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