Monday 15 August 2016

Another Blot on the Landscape: the threat to Victoria Park, and what you can do to fight it ...

Residents fighting the development of the Park Keeper's Lodge, in Victoria Park

Update: the Lodge is the subject of the leading story in Private Eye's Rotten Boroughs, in the new edition, out now, available at all good newsagents. And WH Smith. Do run off and buy a copy. Look: all those new PR people in Barnet's Comms Team (costing us £800,000 over 2 years) are huddled over their desks, weeping ...

The infant Mrs Angry, you may be surprised to hear, was quite often in trouble, as a young child, with her sternly disciplinarian parents, for all sorts of perceived misdemeanours, all the more unwelcome due to the impeccable behaviour of her older brother, who was never naughty, of course, and indeed, whose early life bore more than a passing resemblance to one of the infuriatingly wholesome early lives of the Catholic martyrs and saints, as described in a set of green covered volumes on this subject given to our mother, for some reason, at the time of her marriage. 

Well, in fact the reason may have been that she was marrying a non Catholic, and some of her pious relatives thought her soul was in danger of corruption by Protestant heresy. The books remained in a cupboard, unread by all, except me, on rainy days, when I had read all my library books, and had nothing else to distract me.

But there was one notable lapse in my brother's otherwise unblemished childhood, an indelible memory, you might say (and one which aged 63, he still denies, readers, the big fibber, and yes I will keep repeating this story until you do) when he got hold of Mrs Angry's toy post office, and deliberately smashed the little bottle of Stephen's ink, which she had thought was a thing of great curiosity, and never opened, leaving the tiny cork stopper intact,until the dreadful deed was done, and it was too late.

Ink was important, in my childhood. Ink for the John Bull Printing Press, which I suppose you could say saw the first attempts at Mrs Angry's non digital blogging, perhaps an expose of in house miniature post office break ins - but was too laborious a process to pursue. And then there was the matter of writing, in ink, with a pen.

You were only allowed a fountain pen, once you reached the age of reason, in time for your eleven plus, and, hopefully, for all children of working class parents whose eyes were set on an upward tangent of social aspiration, a smooth transition to grammar school, where the desks, as I recall, still had ceramic pots for inkwells, in honour of dipping pens that we only used for geography, and drawing maps.

Ink is still important, to me, in my middle age, as I still can't write legibly with a biro, or anything else, and I still love the feeling of ink flowing from my broad nibbed pen, shaped and bent as it is now to the mad, angled flow of writing from my dyspraxic hand, the right hand which I was forced to write with, even though, as I discovered rather too late in life, I should have been left handed. 

Stephens' Ink was for fountain pens: a blue-black colour, created by an experimental Victorian 'colour manufacturer', whose guarantee of 'permanence' appealed to the sense of entitlement that our nineteenth century forebears carried, as a natural part of their psyche, a duty and a privilege, a role of colonialism, and empire: making your mark, and asserting your authority, on the ledgers of commerce - and governance.

The 'uncrowned King of Finchley' - Inky Stephens, the son of the colour manufacturer - lived at Avenue House, now rebranded as 'Stephens House' - from 1873, to his death in 1918, at the end of a war which saw the house and grounds he had created turned into a hospital for soldiers wounded in the trenches. In the nineteen twenties his former home was given to the local council, a gift in perpetuity, for the benefit of the people of Finchley.

The people of Finchley still very much enjoy their use of the grounds and house that Stephens left for them. 

Avenue House, now Stephens' House, and the gardens, landscaped with earth excavated as a result of the new railway cuttings, for the GNER railway that employed the first occupant of my house, just along the road, a railway clerk called Nathaniel Corbett, whose dutifully neat census entry, in his own handwriting, may well have been written in that same Stephens ink. 

Famous for its durability, that ink; that permanence - to the extent that it was used not only by Scott, in his ill fated exploration to the South Pole, but in the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, that saw the end of the terrible first World War, that left so many men, so many of my own great uncles, injured, or in need of the rest and recuperation that places like Avenue House were used to provide.

But in an age of paternalistic politics, and philanthropy, Stephens' benevolence saw an earlier act of patronage, one whose motivation, to celebrate the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria, was really a pretext for the creation of an amenity to benefit the people of Finchley, in fields that he knew as a boy, and a young man, living just a short distance away, across the other side of Ballards Lane.

I thought about Inky Stephens, and his legacy, the other day, wandering about Avenue House, and the grounds he left to us, an estate now run by trustees, and a central part of our community, in this part of Church End, Finchley. 

During the second World War, it became the council's headquarters, and the coat of arms above the doors of some of our soon to be closed libraries is still evident, there, on the side of Inky Stephens' house, still bearing a corporate motto of suitably ambiguous interpretation:

Regnant Quis Serviunt  

Which one might like to think means: They serve, who rule, but might arguably be translated as May they rule, who serve. 

The Tory councillors, senior officers, and private contractors of the London Borough of Broken Barnet, however, not schooled in Latin, or the concept of public service, would seem have chosen to interpret this phrase as We pretend to serve, but are accountable to no one, and are laughing up our sleeves at you, the innocent taxpayers, you great eejits - whilst adding to the range of corporate claptrappery a new motto of gut wrenching hypocrisy: 

'Putting the Community  First' ...

As you may have read in the previous two posts ...

... the fate of Stephens' other gift to the people of Finchley, that is to say the creation of Victoria Park, is left in the hands of the heirs to the borough council that once based itself in Avenue House. The councillors of Barnet Council - the Conservative administration - claim to be the trustees of Victoria Park, and acting as such approved the sale of part of it this year, to a private developer, despite the Covenant that Inky Stephens, and Henry Brooks, and all the local worthy figures put in place to protect their legacy for future generations of the people of Finchley clearly stating that the piece of land which has been sold may not have any building erected on it other than accommodation for the Park Keeper, a cricket pavilion, or bandstand.

In other words, the council has sold this land to a developer, despite the fact that - even if they had power in law to sell it, and that is debatable, and being challenged - the land ... may not be developed. 

If I were you, Mr Friedman, I'd ask for my money back. Nothing can undo the terms of that covenant: and just to be clear, just in case something should happen to the building, the land without the Lodge will be even more worthless.

And something could happen to the building, as someone last week slapped a demolition notice on this historic building.* We must repeat: this plot of land cannot be developed, and is worthless without the current building; and if the Lodge were damaged, while the circumstances of the sale are under scrutiny, this would seem likely to result in serious legal - and possibly financial - repercussions. 

*Update: this notice, to which no one know how to object, or if they could object, disappeared today, Monday 15th of August. Mrs Angry has asked the case officer for an explanation. He has replied: 

I do not know why the site notice may have been removed and I do not wish to make any presumption as to how, or who removed it. The legislation relevant to the demolition process states as follows:

"where the site notice is, without any fault or intention of the applicant, removed, obscured or defaced before the period of 21 days referred to in paragraph (b)(iv) has elapsed, the applicant is treated as having complied with the requirements of that paragraph if the applicant has taken reasonable steps for protection of the notice and, if need be, its replacement;"

Very kind of the officer not to make any presumption as to who removed it, isn't it? And all he has to do, as Mrs Angry has suggested, is to ask Mr Friedman, or Mr Gruber, or whoever owns the Lodge and put the notice up, to ... put it up again.

Another issue under debate with the case officer.

The applicants for the current development of the Lodge may have been misled, or simply misunderstood the restrictions on the use of the site. We do not know, as the application, which is online, has been accepted by the Capita planners with the section in which details of the advice given to them in February left mysteriously empty. When the case officer was asked why that was, the response was:

The applicant sought pre-application advice from the local authority earlier this year. That advice was provided. The applicant has stated that that has been received, but has not indicated what that advice was. Clearly it would have been better if that box had been filled in. However, it is not a reason to invalidate the application or the decision. It is not a legal requirement to fill in that box.

Mrs Angry was not satisfied with that reply: why, in the interests of transparency, could the missing information not be supplied now, during the period of consultation? He did not reply until asked again: then responded that he disagreed that this meant the process has been 'less than transparent'. Mrs Angry is not satisfied with this reply, either.

Now here are more curious developments, in regard to this very curious development application.

The proposed development of flats on the site of the historic Park Keeper's Lodge - overlooking a children's playground, which does not appear in this image

Last week a number of residents were asked to go up to the Lodge for a photograph for a local newspaper. While we were being photographed, a young man turned up who claimed he was 'in charge' of the property. Whilst chewing his way through a packet of bread rolls, he regarded us with a fair amount of suspicion, but assumed that we were interested in renting - or even buying - the property.

The Lodge, we learned, could be rented, although some work still needed doing on it. They had only spent a minimal amount on renovating the property.  How very odd: when the sale of the Lodge was approved by councillors, they had been told by officers that it was necessary because it would cost £100,000 to bring the property to a decent standard of accommodation. 

Now then: Mrs Angry has asked for the report which proves this claim, as part of the audit trail - but it has not been supplied. It would seem reasonable to assume that that is, therefore, because it never existed. And if such a high level of cost was necessary to make the property suitable for tenants, why now is the Lodge being advertised to let, when only a fraction of that cost has been spent on it?  

More information was forthcoming from our new friend. Who did he work for? Eddy. Or Adi. That would be Mr Friedman. Oh: any news of Mr Gruber, who bought the property? Nope. Or why had they put the demolition notice up?

Demolition notice? Nothing to do with them, apparently. Goodness me. Then, a little later, when we were allowed into the garden: ah, the demolition notice was for a very small shed, the size of a kindergarten wendy house, that might accommodate one particularly anti social two year old. Hmm. No. No, it's not. And then, after we left, it transpired our friend had admitted the demolition notice (which has now disappeared) was from them, after all. Oh.

We also were told we could buy the Lodge for £1.5 million: a nice little earner from an outlay of £623,000 in cash, and a lick of paint, you might think. Or rent it, maybe as bedsits. Or, when they had knocked down the building they also wanted to let, and built twelve flats, these would be available, but we apparently will have to compete with the marketing of these highly desirable properties to investment buyers from China, who are awfully keen to buy a flat in Victoria Park, you know.

But the planning application, we said, is for only eight flats. Are you sure you are going to have twelve? Apparently so, which is interesting, isn't it, readers?

Victoria Park, 1930s,  Bandstand in the distance

This weekend a number of residents spent time in the park and elsewhere giving out leaflets urging others to object to this most objectionable of planning applications. Mrs Angry would urge you, dear reader, to do the same, by the 23rd of this month. You may do so online - where there are already many sensible objections, from local residents and park users, and - most curiously - a number of very suspicious, anonymous comments in favour of the application, a large number of which arrived, as if by magic, as predicted, yesterday, Sunday.

And here is a very peculiar thing, readers, and one which would appear to have no reasonable explanation. 

Online objections on this application appear to end up as documents, with the names and addresses of objectors clearly shown.

Online supporting comments appear to be automatically anonymised.

This curious phenomenon was tested at the weekend by someone who made an objection, but clicked the box on the webform which asks if you are supporting. Instead of ending up in the document section, this comment was automatically anonymised. How could that happen, do you suppose, and why would there be a difference? Why is it allowable for supporting comments for this application to remain anonymous, but not those who object? 

Is this is another apparent breach in the principle of transparency, in the course of this consultation process?

One example of this sort of comment, from an unknown source, is as follows:

Comment submitted date: Sun 14 Aug 2016
I support the development!!!
I have just graduated from my masters degree and would love to move into one of these beautiful apartments. 
I have been searching for ages for a flat in Barnet and everything is old and worn out. My parents told me about this new development which straight away appealed to me as I visit the park 5 times a week. 
In addition, I have heard of many rape and sexual harassment incidents and I believe that renovating the lodge could eliminate these problems. 

Being AGAINST this development is being FOR rape!

We love the idea, of course, that someone just finishing a master's degree could afford to buy a flat in Finchley. Or a flat anywhere in London ... but in truth, the offensive nature of this particular comment fits horribly the equally inappropriate suggestion in the application itself, in the Design and Access document, funnily enough, that building a block of flats in a public park should be allowed because of some magic power to prevent incidents of rape, claimed here as an argument put by a senior Barnet officer, who, they state:

... also highlighted the serious issues of vandalism and serious crimes including cases of rape affecting Victoria Park, mainly during night time. She was of the opinion that the constant presence of residents in the proposed flats will help reduce this problem. 

In recent years, there has been one incident of rape in the park, and another rape recently in Long Lane. What would reduce the risk to women in this area, and the perception of risk, would be better lighting - something the council has refused to consider only weeks ago - and the return of proper council park keepers to reassure residents and help maintain the park as a safe, pleasant and tidy environment. What will not help is using the issue of rape, and violence against women, in an insensitive and cynical attempt to support a proposal for commercial development within the footprint of a public park.

Parents worrying about the possibility of risk from predatory paedophile activity through their children being observed from the balconies of anonymous residents of this block do not have their concerns addressed by the applicants, of course. And the mitigation for this will be, predictably, look: we will move the playground for you.

Well, no: we don't want our playground moved, for the convenience of profiteering developers. 

We  don't want a block of flats in the park, thank you very much. 

We don't want you to pretend that this is all for the benefit of the park, because - oh, yes, we will move your playground, and it will be a wonderful new playground, and we'll do up the tennis courts, & do the maintenance and improvements you already pay for through your council tax. 

We don't want you to take money from the sale of the Lodge for 'legal fees', and use some of it to build a car park, in our park, to make money for the council from the flats planned for the old police station, across the road.

We don't want you to take money from the sale of the Lodge: we want you to give it back, as you may well have to, if it turns out you had no right to flog it off in the first place.

The response from residents in the park who were told about the development proposals was one of disbelief. Then outrage. If the Lodge is developed, the fury of park users will be uncontainable, and will reverberate in political impact for years to come, in this largely middle class, conservative minded area. Some residents were going to write to their MP. Ha. Good luck with that one: remember he was Leader of the Council, in 2009, when the decision was first made.

Some of the older residents we met in the park while out leafleting were of course particularly upset by the proposals. Many commented that they had seen the park decline, in recent years, almost as if by deliberate policy.

It's Your Park: Keep it Green - (while we sell it off), say Barnet Council

They are right: cutting the maintenance of parks is all part of a strategy, to encourage people to believe the only way of preserving their local open spaces is by 'self funding', commercial exploitation ... and development. Our Tory councillors are ideologically opposed to what they see as the subsidisation of public services, and public amenities. It is a political choice, not as they pretend, driven by austerity, and budget restraint. 

Only weeks ago, for example, they approved a whopping £800,000 splurge on six new PR posts, in order to 'manage' the reputation of the council, just in time for the run up to the next local elections. And handed £500,000 to a nationally funded body, the RAF museum. All while slashing our local public library service, and demanding our parks find new sources of funding, and approving the sale of our Lodge.

Peter (not his real name) - one of the older residents who spoke to me so on Saturday, in the cafe by the Bowling club, which is threatened by the new plans for a car park, had been visiting the park, he said, for seventy seven years. He is in frail health, and his memories seemed particularly poignant, slipping out of the reach of living memory, and at such a sad point in the history of our park.

Perhaps Peter was one of those naughty boys who used to so torment the then park keeper, and former occupant of the Lodge, old 'treacle feet'. He could remember the pond down by the lower Etchingham Park Road entrance, and the boating lake, and thought he knew where there were still stones from the old fountain. Best of all, he knew the identity of the many unusual trees in Victoria Park: the tree from Africa, by the cafe, which smells of chocolate, in summer; the strawberry tree which flowers and bears fruits at the same time; the mulberry trees, and so many others.

It's not really a surprise that the Park should have these exotic examples planted around the park. And it is shocking that no one has done an ecological and botanical survey of what is there, and the impact any development would have on the immediate environment.

Inky Stephens would have chosen the trees for Victoria Park with great care. In the grounds of his home at Avenue House you can still the range of magnificent examples he planted in his own arboretum, specimens from countries all over the world. 

Stephens lived in the age of the great botanical explorers, and an era of gardening innovation, enriched by discoveries from the far corners of every continent. But it was also, of course, the age of Victorian philanthropy, led by men and women like him who wanted to share his good fortune with others, and enrich their lives, in the process. 

He would have been horrified at the assault on his creation, and the betrayal of the principles in which he believed which the current proposals represent. 

As part of his legacy, he left something precious, now under threat in a way which he foresaw, hence the care he took to protect that legacy by legal restrictions, rights for the people of future generations to enjoy Victoria Park,  in a way which he would have thought was binding, in perpetuity, and as permanent as the very words they are written in, in unfading ink, on that Covenant. 

If you walk about your local park, in this borough, you will notice that the local council has tied laminated notices everywhere, informing you, with no sense of irony, as of course a sense of irony is in short supply, in the corporate offices of Broken Barnet, that 'It's your park: keep it green'.

Well, yes: it is your park, and not theirs. 

Time to remind your councillors, then - and their lackeys in Capita planning -  just whose park it is.

Act now, while there is time - before August 23rd, if possible -  to protect it from the hands of developers, and the ruthless ideological tactics of your local council: please object, either online, via email to -
or in writing, to:

Assistant Director of Development Management and Building Control, 
London Borough of Barnet,
1255 High Road
N20 0EJ

Thank you.

All postcard views of Victoria Park from a private collection.

1 comment:

Mrs Angry said...

Thank you for your comments, "Mrs Crazy", which I'm not publishing in full for tactical reasons. But you are quite right - yesterday 24 objection comments and 48 documents objecting with names and addresses published: 4 support comments - no documents: no names, no pack drill. The result is to that these curious objectors are given anonymity, whereas those speaking out in defence of their park and the Lodge are not.

How very curious.