Monday 11 February 2019

Environment Monday - Why Cricklewood is the model for Barnet Town centre teams

Welcome to Environment Monday. This series of blogs is dedicated to exploring ways that we can shape our local space to be healthier, more sustainable, safer and more pleasant to live in. When people talk about the Environment, we often think of rainforests, coral reefs and melting icecaps. At the Barnet Eye we believe that whilst these issues are important, we should be looking at where we live, where we work and how we travel. We should use our own communities to learn the lessons before we start pontificating about what everyone else should do. There are great things going on locally, there are also some massive challenges. Our mission is to promote the great things and get to work on the challenges. Today we look at one of the jewels in the local crown, the work of The Cricklewood Town team and also some of the challenges they face.

Last Tuesday, we visited Cricklewood to meet with representatives of the The Town Team, The Cricklewood Collective and the local Vicar. They are doing some amazing work, check out this video to see what we found.

Several areas in the Borough of Barnet have groups of residents working to improve the local community. In Mill Hill, I am involved with the Neighbourhood Forum, but the Cricklewood Town Team is by far the most established, active, well organised and successful. This is not a criticism of the other groups as the Cricklewood team has been around far longer. They have successfully managed to pull people in from across the community to harness the energy of local people and deliver real, tangible improvements. These include

* Designation of the Green by B&Q as an asset of community  value and a greenspace, with a wild flower garden and artworks.
* Improvements to the station, with a book club scheme and a general brightening up.
* Support of other schemes such as Cricklewood Farm.
* Organising community festivals etc

I also met with the Orna from the the Creative Cricklewood Collective, a group of artists who are dedicated to creating a thriving local arts scene. I loved what they were doing and it is clear to me that Mill Hill is crying out for justs such a group, to pull together the amazing artists that we have in our locality.

What is clear from what I found in Cricklewood is that local people were not prepared to put up with a drab, miserable town centre. They wanted a bright, vibrant, welcoming place, of which the community could be proud. Anyone who has known Cricklewood over the decades will see the huge difference that has been made. I am proud to have been involved in a small way with all of this. I've supplied sound systems for the Town team over the last four years for community events. This has allowed me to see the team in action, which has been a pleasure.

The team has many challenges. The old station building, which could be a centrepiece, is derelict and a complete eyesore. Local Councillor, Anne Clarke, who is to my mind a model of what a local councillor should be, has been working with Network rail to address this. Like her predecessor in the Childs Hill ward, Anne is well known locally and as we walked around people stopped for a chat. Sadly when I see many other Barnet Councillors, ordinary locals haven't a clue who they are. Anne was involved in the Town Team long before she was a councillor and the team also includes locals from the Boroughs of Camden and Brent, which are all part of the Cricklewood mix. Angela, one of the volunteers from the Brent side also came along. Angela is typical of the unsung community hero's who make such projects work.

I would urge anyone trying to set up a similar group to drop in at Cricklewood and meet the team. Although other town centres have such teams, none have delivered anything like what Cricklewood have. Sadly in High Barnet and North Finchley, Boris dished out grants of over a million pounds, but they have none of bright, welcoming innovations, such as the sheep, swans, wild flower gardens and the multi coloured cow of Cricklewood, all done by local artists for a fraction of the cost.

The difference between Finchley/Barnet and Cricklewood is that the changes in Cricklewood are driven from the ground. The locals who live there are the commissioners of works. They have made sure the cash is well spent. In Finchley and Barnet, highly paid external consultants were drafted in with little regard to locals. Whilst in Cricklewood, the art is by local artists who understood the culture and history, in North Finchley, the improvements were simply mundane and unimaginative, a lick of black paint on railings etc.

The other thing that the Cricklewood Town Team have done far more effectively than anyone else in Barnet is to engage with Network Rail. The station has been transformed from an eyesore, to a welcoming and exciting place with "Wow" factor.  I remember when Mill Hill Bus station was opened under the M1 in 1968 (I think). I thought it was the most amazing space I'd ever seen. The brutalist arches with buses underneath are stunning, but rather than celebrate this and make this space an eyecatching centrepiece for the town, any talk of it amongst the powers that be always refer it as an eyesore and a problem, this is a complete failure of imagination. Cricklewood have set a fine example of how the least promising of spaces can create an amazing area for the community. It is time for other areas, like Mill Hill to follow the lead and start to celebrate our assets, rather than be ashamed of them and work out how to hide them.

I was also impressed by the energy of Roy, the local CofE Vicar. Roy is my type of clergyman. I had to insist he wore his dog collar for the video above, he prefers to be informal. I felt that it is easier if people see it, to understand the visual context. Roy isn't a bible basher, he's a practical man wanting to do good for the community. His passion is Basketball and he wants to set up a coaching scheme for local young people. Whilst many would despair, Roy seeks out the good, working to make a difference.

As I look around the London Borough of Barnet, it is clear to me that, as a community, we need to up our game. We need to take responsibility for our own communities and our own destiny. There are all manner of brilliant local schemes, such as the litter pickers and the Town Teams. It was suggested to me that there should be a committee set up to pull all of these things together. I was horrified. The majority of people who get involved don't want that, they just want to do practical things that make a difference, rather than attend endless meetings. Social media allows events to be organised and co-ordinated with a minimal amount of administration. What we do need is a central focal point in Barnet Council for these groups to get support where necessary. We need a community Tsar, who has a telephone that you can get to without navigating and incomprehnsible switchboard, who can organise litter sacks for litter pickers and signpost grants etc for colourful cows. For established groups like the Cricklewood Town team, they have these knowledge to navigate these hurdles, but for any new groups it can be demoralising.

I'd love to see the likes of the Town Team properly recognised by Barnet Council. None of them want gongs or platitudes. What they really need are things like the community space that Orna spoke about for her Arts collective. The Council should make sure that there is always such places. The old station building would be the perfect place. Maybe Network Rail and Barnet Council could work together to make it happen. It is time that Barnet Council see the value of such places, rather than as a way to generate cash for the council, as has happened with the lease for the Mill Hill Library/Hub.

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