Monday 11 October 2021

Why is it that when Town planners talk about 'creating a hub' it is invariably a crap plan?

 This blog has been following the plan for a 'Hendon Hub' with a sort of morbid interest. A couple of weeks ago Dan Thomas, leader of Barnet Council posted up an article on the Council website extolling the virtues of this plan. I actually find the language that Cllr Thomas uses hilarious. Why is it that when people are trying to big up bonkers schemes they lose the ability to speak the Queens English (yeah, I'm dyslexic, so I shouldn't throw stones, but you know what I mean). 

Lets have a look at what Mr Thomas had to say

“Making these planning applications brings us a big step further towards starting work on the Hendon Hub. The development will benefit residents and communities based in Hendon, and draw much-needed investment to improve public spaces and university facilities that will be available for all to use.”

The concept that this is being done to improve the space for locals seems to be rather at odds with the perception of locals. If I were a cynic I'd say that I'd be surprised if the University was spending millions on the scheme so local residents could have unfettered access to them. Maybe a few meeting rooms and all weather pitches etc may be available to rent (* Conditions apply) when the University isn't using them, which is a rather different thing.

“Plans for Hendon Hub have been carefully and sympathetically designed by Barnet Council in partnership with Middlesex University. We have sought opinions of residents through an extensive public consultation earlier this year. We now invite residents to have their say on detailed plans as part of the statutory consultation process.”

When Cllr Thomas says plance have been 'carefully and sympathetically designed' I rather wonder what this in actual fact means?  The Oxford dictionary gives a few definitions of the word 'Sympathetically'.  The one that comes closest is 'in a way that makes it easy to like somebody; in a pleasant way' I suspect that what this means is that the developers will find it very easy to like the Leader of the Council. From what I've seen, very few locals have any sympathetic views towards the scheme. 

The press release also says "New buildings will be functional and designed to complement, and not consume, existing historical buildings. Where possible, the development will also bring some historic facilities back into community use."

This is what we call a tad disingeniuous, given that it was the council that removed community use. 

There is an 'interactive virtual consultation website'. Whilst this sounds fancy, it is a faily dull website, with a few slides about the plans, which rather lack detail with links to the various plans. I had a look at the planning application for the Fenella site. There are currently five comments, all objections. I wondered if the commenters feel the development is 'sympathetic'?  Here are a couple of the comments

"The proposed building is significantly higher than surrounding buildings and nearly every other building in the area and for that reason is out of character and overbearing. It also provides greater density of accommodation while reducing the amount of car parking servicing the area."

"Not wanted by local residents/businesses buildings far to high. Not in keeping with listed buildings surrounding development. Overlooking neighbouring properties. Loss of parking in Egerton Gardens already CPZs in area caused by expansion and 1 campus model, essential for church services, funerals, weddings etc, elderly and disabled. Public Library should stay in the listed building. What happened to the Restrictive Covenents on Fenella and Ravensfield. Not treated by Barnet Council the same as Hampstead Garden Suburb Conservation area. No benefits for residents just for University and Capita who will gain 30% in rents. The area is not big enough for increase in residents without appropriate parking."

I was quite shocked that there are not more comments. I'm not surprised by the lack of support, but by the general apathy. Could it be that locals simply know that the Council will ignore them anyway?

I was particularly struck by one answer in the FAQ's section

Is this project based on increasing the number of students studying at Middlesex University?

The university has no current plans to increase the overall number of students studying at its Hendon campus. The project is based on existing student numbers overall, though it is likely that there will be some increase in the number of students that live locally

This is clearly misleading. The whole game here is to concentrate as many people on the Hendon site as possible. The University has all manner of sites, some which it feels are too small and inconvenient. When it says it is 'likely that there will be some increase in the number of students that live locally', this is a bang on certainty as the same website says that there will be 384 purpose built student accomodation units. I really don't think it helps anyone when it is clear that people are being mislead.

On a more general point, I have a problem with the whole 'Hub' concept. Whenever I've seen plans for what are described as 'Hubs', it is invariably a ruse to tart up a scheme that is badly thought through, usually derived by people who never use such spaces. I've been involved in setting up a few spaces over the years. The ones that work well are set up by people with a passion for what they do. The ones that don't work are where people have a vague 'build it and they will come' mentality. Generally the idea is that if you bung lots of disparate ventures together, you create a critical mass that somehow miraculously generates a hugely successful, thriving centre. Often the people pushing the schemes are people who are good at setting up spreadsheets and imaging ever more weird and whacky ways to populate the columns on them. There is this idea that you can have a space that is a theatre, a cinema, a music venue and meeting room space. What is missed is that each different use has a whole different set of requirements. If you look at The Kiln, in Cricklewood, which is a successful arts centre, they have a dedicate theatre and a dedicated cinema, run by a team that understands how to programme the space for the local area. I went to see the new Bond film last week at the iMax in Swiss Cottage. This space works because it is a great cinema. You would never put a band on in such a space, for a host of reasons.

The Hendon Hub, is in fact just a large university campus, being sold to the locals as something, by a council which cares nothing for the existing locals who have paid their taxes for generations. I've no objection at all to the University expanding and becoming more successful. Where I take issue is when they start bulldozing historic sites. There are plenty of far more suitable sites for redevelopment in Barnet. 

One thing I'm pleased about is the fact that Cllr Thomas has spoken so effusively about the scheme. He has nailed the flag of himself and his regime to the plan. If you live in and around the area and are none too keen, you know what you need to do. It is interesting to note that one local Tory Councillor who dissented, got deselected. Unlike his predecessor, Cllr Richard Cornelius, Cllr Thomas was not born or raised locally. He's stood several times in his native Wales as a prospective parliamentary candidate. I am not in the least surprised that the feelings of locals for well loved landmarks and the community are at the bottom of his list of priorities. In thirty or forty years, we will look back on this particular era as we now look back on the plans of British Rail to demolish St Pancras. As a community, we need to fight to keep the good things in our locality. When people talk them down, I always say "Were you born and raised around here?" I'm sure you can guess what the usual answer is. And as for hubs? Back in the sixties, estates like Grahame Park were seen as the way forward for social housing. The people who designed them, never went near them once they'd been built. Mega estates popped up all over the place. I suspect the 'Hub' concept will be viewed in the same way in the not too distant future. I just hope some of the nice things in our community survive this current Maoist attack on our culture. 

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