Monday 29 July 2019

Environment Monday - Solving the housing crisis in London

Brent Cross - One of Barnets mega schemes
There is a myth being perpetrated, mostly by developers and their stooges, that the answer to Londons housing crisis is to allow developers to build massive tower blocks on every available piece of land, with a designated percentage deemed 'affordable'.  To me, this is an absolutely insane approach. I must say that the whole approach of Sadiq Khan has been less than effective. There is no argument that there is a crisis and there is no argument that this needs addressing. What clearly is ripe for a very big argument is how this problem is addressed.

My solution to this would be to set up a London housing commission. The first task would be to identify what sort of housing we need to address the crisis. The first principles should be

* There is affordable, cheap and decent quality housing for key working people, close to their place of work. So developments near schools should have a designated percentage of units for teachers and other support staff at rents which are affordable, or with schemes to enable the staff to buy at heavy discounts (perhaps with partial ownership etc). The same should be true for hospitals, police stations and other key public industries.

* Large new developments should include a percentage of council housing. The developers should build these and supply them to councils at cost. These would then be available to councils to address the huge waiting lists.

* Councils should be legally obliged to set up hostels and proper support services for London's homeless. I have been a volunteer at several charities for homeless people for many years. I find the comments of some commentators laughable when they talk about luxury housing developments being the solution to these problems. The needs of the homeless are very specialised. Many have issues with substance abuse and mental health issues. The first step on addressing their housing problem is to get them proper medical treatment for such issues.

* Measures to address land banking and the buying of properties for investments, that are left empty. Many developers have bought huge swathes of land and are not developing it, as this ensures that the demand is greater than the supply. This means that large profits are guaranteed. As to the practice of building luxury flats and selling them to offshore investors, who simply leave them empty, this is criminal when people are unable to find accommodation. My solution would be to introduce punitive tax rates to ensure that if land is lying undeveloped or properties are sitting empty, the owners will be highly taxed, to incentivise them to develop the sites or open them up for rental. I would ensure that the income from these taxes was directed into procurement of council housing.

* Creation of a 'London land register'. Local authorities, state industries, developers and other large land owners should be compelled to provide details of all land holdings of over 2 acres. These could then be assessed as to whether they are suitable for development of social housing. A key feature of this should be to also match this with a London Transport plan. It is pointless building homes on places where there is no sensible infrastructure to support the homes. Air quality and other pollution issues must also be considered.

* Allow local authorities to employ their own labour force to build council housing. My brother worked for the GLC when it built the Grahame Park Estate. When Margaret Thatcher became PM, she disbanded the GLC and ended direct labour forces. The passing of the right to buy laws and the forbidding of using cash raised to build more council housing is the root cause of our current crisis.

In short, the answer to the problem is for councils to build decent council housing for young families and key workers. This can either be done in partnership with the private sector or by authorities setting up their own labour forces.

My belief is that by setting up a proper plan for London housing and infrastructure, we could make our city work of the people who live here. Just plonking huge skyscrapers on islands of land surrounded by busy roads, with no local infrastructure to support them is not a fit for purpose solution. Building 'luxury flats' for offshore investors, who won't live in then is, to my mind criminal.

Grenfell - why high rise needs sturdy regulataions
This blog is not anti tower blocks in all cases, but we have many concerns. Perhaps the biggest is that the lessons of Grenfell seem to not be learned. Shoddy building practices resulted in complete death traps being built. What should have happened was that an emergency fund was set up to make every tower safe. The fact that many are still clad in inflammable over two years after the tragedy is criminal. I believe that a moratorium on the building of new Towers should have been called until a full set of building control regulations had been drawn up to ensure that any new towers are completely safe.

The second issue I have with large tower blocks is that they are not places to raise families. Children need space to roam. I see no problems in working people living in high rise flats, but as soon as they have children, they need space. The UK is having a mental health crisis and I believe that a contributing factor is the lack of space to roam safely for children. Garden spaces should be seen as a right for families. The towers that Sadiq Khan passed last week, may be suitable for student accommodation at Middlesex University, assuming the transport issues can be resolved, or for single workers commuting into the city on Thameslink. It is not part of a holistic solution for the housing problems of our city. sThe fact that one in six of the new flats going up in London are being sold to oversees investors shows that the developments are not for Londoners. In sought after areas such as Mill Hill, this percentage is likely to be much higher.

The key questions we should be asking are as follows, before we pass large scale plans.

* Who needs housing in the area and what are their requirements?
* Is the infrastructure in place to support the development?
* Are the developments fit for purpose and safe?
* Are the developments affordable for the people who need them?
* What impact will the development have on the surrounding area and the neighbours?

There will always be compromises, but these should never be on safety and well being. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Property developers making profits and being innovative. But there is also a requirement for social responsibility.  Developers agenda is to make as much money as possible. The responsibility for making sure that the requirement to serve the community is served is down to the Government and the Mayor. It is clear that at the moment both are failing in their duties. Not only do we have a shortage of homes. We have a glut of developments that won't fix the problem.

Sunday 28 July 2019

The Tweets of the week in the London Borough of Barnet - 29/7/2019

So, dear friend,  I am sure that like me you have been fascinated with some of the myriad of rather deranged tweets that the world of twitter has produced in this last week. I am not sure whether it was the heat, the ascent of Boris or a new moon entering Leo, but people seem even more hot and bothered than ever. Whenever I see mad, bad and dangerous tweets, I always feel rather relieved. It is like steam coming out of a pressure cooker. When they are ranting and raging on twitter, they are not kicking their cat (or whatever else they take their anger out on). But I guess that as you are reading this, you are a nice, well balanced and sane, rational person, looking for the best in our community, which is what we always try and include in this column. Here is a small display that we still have nice, sane and rational people in our community, spreading light and love on Twitter. And we introduce a new feature. A special guest Tweet of the week. I was delighted to find that one of my Twitter heroes, Nancy Sinatra followed me this week. I've always loved Nancy and I think she is the best thing on Twitter in the USA at the moment. So she has the honour of having the inaugural Special guest tweet of the week.

Special Guest Tweet of the Week.

1. Mark Amies has been campaigning for the Railway Hotel in Edgware to be restored to its former glory for a very long time. We've supported him for a very long time. Lets hope that sooner or later Barnet Council and Historic England start doing their job and get on the case.

2. I must check out the churchyard at St Mary's in Finchley. This is a wonderful picture

3. And while we're on the subject of places worth a visit in Finchley, Stephens House is well worth a look

4. A massive congratulations to the Finchley Childrens Music Group for their amazing performance at the BBC Proms

5. Here is a really important date for your diary from Mill Hill's oldest family business

6. Happy 100th Birthday for one of Mill Hill's most esteemed figures

7. Fancy getting funky in Colindale? A date for your diary

8. Probably the funniest local tweet of the week! (Although not funny for Ed Holloway)

9. Stiffleaf likes one of our local landmarks! Looks like it needs a lick of paint thoigh

10. Need an environmentally friendly delivery service in London?

Well, that's nearly all folks, but as a special treat for you, as we are big fans of Nancy Sinatra, and she's now following us, here is one of her finest moments

Have a great weekend and don't let the bugs bite!

Saturday 27 July 2019

The Saturday List #225 - My ten favourite pictures of Mill Hill with a difference (Vol 1)

There are many pictures of Mill Hill, many views that you can see on all sorts of websites. There are links to several excellent collections on our friend Richard Wilkinsons website. If you like historical piccies these are well worth checking out. I was  at our studios on Thursday and I happened to be looking for my Brother Laurie. Laurie is a fair bit old than me. He was born in the 1940's and is the only one of my siblings living in Mill Hill. He runs the rather wonderful Bunns Lane Welding Business, which has been a key part of Mill Hill since 1979. Every real old Mill Hillian knows Laurie very well. The thing I like best about Laurie is that his workshop hasn't changed since he started, apart from the new tools. He still employs the great British tradition of a tea break, except that he drinks coffee. Unlike myself, Laurie loves coffee. Older residents of Mill Hill will remember when we had Smiths Coffee roasters in Mill Hill. When they roasted, the whole of Bunns Lane had the aroma of  freshly ground coffee. Smiths moved out in the 1990's, but they still supply Laurie with coffee, and he still sells it for them to their loyal Mill Hill customers. Laurie has many strong local interests. He worked for a while in Sainsbury's when they were in Mill Hill. He worked on the Grahame Park Estate in the construction, as time and motion man for the GLC. He then decided that he wanted to work for himself and started Bunns Lane Welding. He invited me to work with him, but I am far too lazy and have an aversion to getting my hands dirty (and getting burned). He employed several of my ex band mates from the False Dots as welders, but these days is semi retired as a one man band. Laurie is responsible in part for my love of music. Him and his twin Frank are excellent musicians, far better than me, and both inspired a love of guitar. Laurie's record collection contains The Steve Miller Band, The Who and Joni Mitchell and much inspired me. He saw Pink Floyd and Ten years after on a boat on the Mersey whilst at Uni in Liverpool in the 1960's and always encouraged my own love of music.

Anyway, enough rambling. I thought I'd take a few piccies for posterity of his workshop. This inspired me to put together a small collection of other pictures of Mill Hill that are a bit 'different'  to the usual ones.

1. Lets start with Lauries workshop, almost unchanged since 1979

2. Anyone who knows Laurie, knows he has many vices, but only in his professional life!

3. When I was a wee nipper, my Brother would stand me on this. It seemed like the highest point on the planet! Old Mill Hillians will recognise the site!

4. Our family has been associated with the motor trade in Mill Hill since the 1940's. I love garages. I intend to do a full study of them. Some might find this ugly, but I really like the utilitarian functionality of petrol stations

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5. I also rather like to raise my eyes and look at what lies above the shops. Clarence House at Mill Hill Circus is one of my favourites, it always reminded me of a mini NIMR.

6. This is my favourite picture of The Harwood Hall in Mill Hill. This was 1980 and The False Dots were doing a fundraiser for CND in Mill Hill. Guitar legend Boz Boorer is joining us. Spot the ciggie behind his ear. Boz still has local ties. We often have a pint at the Mill Hill services club. There is a painting of Boz's Dad's Beaufighter on a mission in Norway by the door as you enter the club. These men built Mill Hill!

7. This is my favourite puddle in Mill Hill. This will always form after a sharp storm. I rather like this picture of it!

8. This picture was taken at the first ever recording session at Mill Hill Music Complex back in 1979. This is the former drummer of the False Dots, Dav about to play. The studios were originally based in the disused caretakers cottage

9. This is perhaps my favourite modern picture of Bunns Lane works in the modern era. It was taken last Autumn and has (to me) a very 'Exorcist' feel to it.

10. And this is my favourite 'noir' shot of Bunns Lane Works, taken from the other end of estate

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That's all folks. 

Friday 26 July 2019

Sadiq Khan approves Pentavia Development

The new face of Pentavia
Yesterday the Mayor of London approved the mega development at Pentavia retail park. I am sorry to say that this was not a surprise to me at all. There are many reasons why.  Let me list a few of them.

1. A 'punishment beating'. Back in late 2017, the Barnet Conservatives, in an extremely stupid moment of political hubris, passed a motion calling Sadiq Khan an "enemy of the people of Barnet". Sane rational people reach out across party lines. This sort of grandstanding has ensured that Mayor Khan takes great pleasure in rubbing the nose of the Barnet Tories in the fact that he has the power and they don't. Why on earth would Khan do the Barnet Tories any favours if they are going to use the council chamber to call him names. Sensible politicians, such as former Tory Seb Coe, reached out to the then Labour Mayor, Ken Livingstone, to ensure that London won the Olympics. When Boris became Mayor, Labour's Tessa Jowell retained a key role in the planning of the Olympics, as it was recognised that she was a sensible, grown up politican. Boris actually made her a Deputy Mayor with responsibility for the Olympic Village. Sadly Barnet and the Mayor are stuck in a cycle of tit for tat actions and name calling.

2. Mayoral Elections next year. The Mayor's term is up in May next year. The Barnet Tories are nothing of not crafty. They know that the Mayor's approval of the scheme will go down like a lead balloon with many voters in Mill Hill. Our GLA rep Andrew Dismore, who spoke against the development has shown himself to be ineffective. Dismore is standing down and the Tories see this as an excellent way to capitalise on the Labour GLA reps inability to influence the Mayor. My sources at City Hall inform me that Barnet's team was not well prepared and were unable to provide key figures when quizzed by the Mayor and his team. in the murky world of Barnet politics, I suspect that there are many reasons this decision will suit Barnet. Good politically, will aid their target to increase house building and no political flack, because the Mayor passed it. Win, win, win for the Barnet Tories (not that I am cynical of course!).

3. Chaos at The Mill Hill Neighbourhood forum. The Mill Hill Neighbourhood forum was co-ordinating opposition to the scheme. Sadly this rather fell apart over the last six months. The chair of the forum did not get on with the Barnet Cycling Campaign, who had identified many valid objections to the scheme. The two organisations did not work together. The Mill Hill Preservation Society engaged a barrister to present their objections. As the Mill Hill Neighbourhood Forum had failed to draw up a Neighbourhood plan for Mill Hill during the five years of its remit, there was little input they could make. The fact that Barnet Council had withdrawn their franchise the night before simply added to the sense of despair.

4. Failure to Learn the lessons of the NIMR. After the Mayor of London approved Barratts application for the NIMR, I suggested that the Mill Hill Neighbourhood Forum work with other groups such as the Barnet Cycling Campaign, Residents Association and Preservation Society to perform a 'Route Cause analysis' on the failure to make the case properly for the NIMR, so that when the next development came along, we could ensure that a robust case, built on planning law was made. The Chair dismissed my suggestion stating 'That is already in hand'. It clearly wasn't and none of the lessons were learned.

In the Mayor's summing up, the only local organisation that seemed to have influenced his decision making was the Barnet Cycling Campaign. The Mayor took on board their well articulated and well reasoned case, based on planning law. The Mayor has ordered Barnet Council to work with the Campaign to address the issues raised. This is perhaps the only positive thing to come out of the whole sorry saga.

So what does the Mill Hill Community have to take away from all of this? Well the lessons are quite simple

1. Form a new organisation to work as an umbrella body representing all of the stakeholders in Mill Hill, with an urgent remit to finish the Neighbourhood plan.

2. Do a proper post mortem on both the NIMR and Pentavia decisons, so that local campaigns can be better informed in how to fight these sort of battles.

3. Start an active campaign to improve the public transportation around Pentavia. The West London Orbital railway, which has a proposal for a station at the RAF museum. The scheme should have included walkways and cycle paths to this. If I was Mayor, I would have made the developers pay for a Boris bike scheme at Colindale/Burnt Oak/Mill Hill Broadway/Mill Hill East/Saracens/RAF museum, with docks at Pentavia and free usage for residents. That is the sort of progressive policy which would make a real difference.

Do I think that Pentavia really will be a disaster for Mill Hill? The site has become an eyesore. The fact that it will become an even bigger eyesore, dominating the skyline and setting all sorts of unfortunate precedents in beyond doubt. I would have supported a six storey development on the site, that improved amenity for Mill Hill, with facilities such as a cinema, bowling alley or other such activities that could be enjoyed by all. My biggest problem with Khan's decision is that people have to live in this block. A soulless tower, overlooking the  A1,  the M1, and the Thameslink railway where you can't open the windows in summer because of the noise and pollution is hardly a great environment to live in. I shudder to think what it would have been like living in such a place yesterday if the aircon failed.

It will be interesting to see what mitigations the Barnet Cycling Campaign and Barnet Council can come up with to improve the transport links.  I rather hope that the predictions of traffic chaos on Bunns Lane and the A1/A41 to Mill Hill Circus do not materialise, but I have little confidence in this. As someone who operates a business on Bunns Lane, I know all about the problems. We advise customers arriving by car not to start  or end sessions between 5-6pm and we don't open until after the morning rush hour due to the problems. This works well for us and we organise our shift patterns around this, but not everyone has that luxury.

People often say  "what can be done". I'veoutlined some steps above, which might help. The key is getting our act together as a community. The bottom line though is that we have to elect sensible grown up politicians who can work together, across party lines, to deliver the right thing for Mill Hill. There are such people in all parties, no one organisation has a monopoly on common sense. Sadly we've not really seen any community leadership on this from our current elected representatives.