Sunday 13 August 2017

The fields lie sleeping: the story of Victoria Park Lodge

Victoria Park Lodge

Once you get outside the inner areas of old cities ... you do not have to go far down to find real earth, the kind cows walked on and crops sprang from, lying there fallow beneath the weight of stone. In this sense the past can be said to be still there, not just existing in the minds of those who seek it, but actually, physically still present ...

Anyone with an interest in local history is likely to have read, at one time, the classic work by Gillian Tindall  -'The Fields Beneath, the History of One London Village'. First published in 1977, this study of Kentish Town is not just a mildly interesting account of the development of that area, but as its introduction reveals, it proposed a new way of looking at urban history, unpicking the layers of time that lie underneath what was once a collection of villages, now held within the sprawling reach of Greater London.

Tindall focuses on the story behind the 'unremarkable' buildings and streets of Kentish Town, such as a row of houses then being occupied by squatters, embroiled in a row with Camden Council. She looks beyond the facade of the twentieth century, and examines the foundation of forgotten history  that underpins the present: noting the inscription carved into a lintel of one of these houses: The Fields Lie Sleeping Underneath.

Even in the most built up of areas, she observes, the traces of the past have shaped the reality of the present: the bend of a road still tracing a long disappeared piece of marshy land, or the line of a garden wall following the boundary of a hedgerow. 

Here in Finchley, such traces are not so hard to find. Long Lane, for example, is recognisable from views in old postcards, not so much by the buildings on one side, although many Victorian and Edwardian examples remain, as by the road itself, some of which, opposite the park, not only follows the line of the old hawthorn hedgerow, but has remnants still in the front gardens of some of the houses. One of these is on the other side of the park entrance - and the old Park Keeper's Lodge. 

Ah yes: the Park Keeper's Lodge. Still standing: just about, but sold to a developer who thinks he can knock it down and build a block of flats. Yes, a block of flats - in a park. 

A park: a recreation ground, created by local philanthropists, with money collected to celebrate the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria, and opened shortly after her death by her daughter, Princess Christian. 

The philanthropists and benefactors who dedicated themselves to the idea of a recreation ground for the people of Finchley included the MP, Henry 'Inky' Stephens, from Avenue House, and a man named Francis Hamilton, who was a former merchant, now retired and living at Brent Lodge, one of those large Finchley residences which have disappeared, this one demolished in 1962, despite protest by Spike Milligan and the rest of the Finchley Society. 

Inky Stephens

Hamilton had spent much of his life in Liverpool, engaged in trading with America, particularly cotton. As his obituaries tell us, he was a deeply religious man, a faith perhaps all the more important to him because of the tragic loss of his two young sons, within a fortnight of each other, in 1866. He believed that charitable work was a Christian duty: and he duly gave a portion of his income to a range of good causes. When he died in 1907, his funeral cortege passed through the streets of Finchley, streets that were lined with local residents; blinds were drawn, and tradesmen shut up their shops, as a sign of the respect they felt for him, and as a mark of the loss to the local community. 

Francis Hamilton gave £1,000 towards the purchase of land for Victoria Park; Inky Stephens and Mr Crisp each gave £400; but there were many other subscribers - the list takes up almost all the central column of the front page from January 13th, 1898, reproduced below - some two hundred people gave a contribution, from five shillings from Mr A K Dunkley, to ten pounds from ... the Reverend Batty.

As well as public subscription, grants from Middlesex County Council also went towards the purchase of land from Mr Crisp, and Mr Brooks: the wording of the agreement with the County Council is unequivocal - given for the use of the public 'for ever as an open space and recreation ground'. For ever. 

The first trustees carefully  laid out a covenant that applies to the section of the park which includes the Lodge site, facing on to Long Lane, to protect the recreation ground from development. Other pieces of land to the east and north were added some years later.

The land sold by Mr Brooks and Mr Crisp - at a discounted rate, in acknowledgement of the use to which the sixteen acres were intended - were former fields that once were part of Cobley's Farm, and on the border of Finchley Common. 

The Common has a long history: apart from its associations with highwaymen like Dick Turpin, and Jack Shepherd, and a reputation as dangerous territory, it was the site of military encampments, from the time of the Civil War to the Napoleonic period. 

(I once met a woman who lived a couple of streets away from the park, and claimed she had seen the ghost of a soldier, in an old style red and white uniform, pass through her garden, one dusky evening. She didn't know about the history of armies pitched on the Common, or even know about the Common ... so perhaps she really did have a fleeting glimpse of some moment in Finchley's past ...)

A few paces away from the fields on Long Lane, where Mr Cobley had his farmhouse, at Fallow Corner, Charles Dickens came to stay, in rural isolation, in the summer of 1843, working on 'Martin Chuzzlewit':

'I have discovered a lovely Farm House at Finchley and am going to bury myself there for at least a month to come ... immersing myself in my story.'

Cobley's farmhouse was demolished in 1902, the same year the park was opened. All around the area, the fields were turned to housing, rows of Edwardian terraces. The huge boom in building over the last couple of decades was, in fact, as press reports of the time show, a major factor in the decision by Stephens and Hamilton to make a public recreation ground: they wanted to make sure the residents of the new houses had somewhere green and open, where they could spend their limited leisure time.

Early on in the planning for the park, problems arose as a result of a disagreement with local workers, at a public meeting, who wanted allotments, rather than a recreation ground. Dissatisfaction continued after the opening, when the land was used primarily for rather more middle class pursuits such as cricket: but worse was to come ... within a year of opening, controversy emerged over plans to allow a military band to play music in the park on Sundays. According to a report of a meeting of Finchley District Council in July 1903, local vicars were enraged by this proposal and wrote to complain, and so too did Francis Hamilton: 

'The original scheme', he wrote, 'was to secure an open space for cricket and other games, and on this understanding I contributed a large sum. The ground has been diverted from the original plan, as a sort of shut-up common garden, the front gates being always closed. Had I suspected the ground would ever be used for musical or other such entertainments on Sundays I certainly should never have contributed a farthing toward it. The plan adopted is calculated to bring all the idle loafers, to draw teachers and children from the Sunday Schools, and greatly to interfere with all the endeavours of those who are trying, by religious and philanthropic work, to elevate the neighbourhood'.

Interestingly enough, the councillors, such as Mr Wightman, and Mr Stockman, were not inclined to be bullied into stopping the entertainment: they believed it was important for ordinary local people to be able to spend their one day of leisure in the park, listening to music, if they wanted to - and the band played on. 

Cricket was played in the park, but only by children: any adult in breach of this rule was reprimanded by the new park keeper, who lived in the Arts & Crafts style Lodge at the Long Lane entrance, and he was very firm about this - as we know from a letter to the local paper, in 1909 - the council made sure the playing of games was regulated, and in keeping with the byelaws they had put in place.

This of course was in the days when local councillors saw their roles as a form of civic duty, unpaid, and as a way to help to build a new community, with new parks, new libraries, and new hospitals. How times have changed. 

Now the heirs to Mr Wightman, and Mr Stockman, our Tory councillors and their private contractors, are busy tearing apart everything they created, destroying the library service, opening up the grounds of Finchley Memorial Hospital to development, and selling off parts of our parks, also for development.

Or trying to. 

We know that the Lodge site sale, whether a breach of the covenant or not, was meant to be a test case for other parks and open spaces. Another part of this park, by the main entrance, may be next - and all other parks in the borough are now at risk from development. Unless we make a stand now, over Victoria Park: and over the plans to build flats on the Lodge site.

Back to Tindall:

The situation of specific buildings - pubs, churches, institutions - often dates from long distant decision and actions on the part of men whose names have vanished from any record.

The buildings remain, when even those names vanish, or when the history is forgotten. But if we want to preserve those buildings, we must remember their history. And the history of Victoria Park, and its Lodge, is in danger of slipping out of memory, along with the names of those who created the park, used the park - or worked and lived there.

Newspaper archives tell that story, if you look. And that story is also the wider history of Finchley, in the last century. From the earliest days, and class conflict over the proposed use of the purchased land, with the emergence of a working class prepared to challenge the benevolent paternalism of local worthies, to arguments over cricket, and the threat to the authority of the church, and beyond: the looming clouds of war, from massed celebrations of Empire Day, to the first years of the Great War, and recruiting rallies. 

Soon after the outbreak of war, they were holding a series of concerts, in Victoria Park, to raise funds for refugees from Belgium. 

And soon after the outbreak of war the local papers were publishing column after column of notifications of the loss of men from Finchley, in the unceasing toll of casualties. 

Believed to be Mr Smith, the first park keeper and occupant of the Lodge

Here is Mr Smith, the first park keeper. 

Thomas George Smith: born in Great Yeldham, Essex, in the 1860s, but moved to Finchley as a young man, where he met his wife Fanny, a nurse. They married and had two children: Frank, and Dorothy, who would have been about six and seven when they moved into the newly built Lodge, and were became the first children to play in the little garden still there, behind the hedge. Perhaps one or two of the older trees were already in place, when they lived there, and they had a swing, like the children who were evicted a few years ago, when the council wanted to make what they thought would be a quick buck, from the sale of the site, and evicted the family whose home it was.

Dorothy married in 1922, and disappears from the records. Thomas Smith returned to Essex, and died there at the beginning of the second world war. 

The local paper tells us what happened to Frank, in 1917:

When I pass by the gate of the Lodge now, I don't see the future site of a block of flats. I see a nineteen year old boy who used to go to the school next door to my house, emerging from the front porch of his home, a century ago, after a year spent recovering from the hell of Gallipoli - or rather the botched landing at Suvla Bay - packed up, and ready to go to France and die in a trench, somewhere outside Arras. 

And I think of his parents and sister, receiving that letter from his friend. 

The fields lie sleeping.

He made 'the great sacrifice', we read. His parents may have taken comfort from that thought: that their son's death was not in vain, that it was for his King and country, and that his loss, and the loss of a whole generation of young men from Finchley, was to build a better future. 

It seems now we are determined to throw that better future away, with all the progress that came after two world wars, as we plunder every source of profit left in every public asset, every parcel of land, every opportunity for development, regardless of the consequences.

Did the council have the right to sell the Lodge site? 

Morally: no. 

Legally? It is unclear. 

The land is protected by the covenant that was supposed to prevent this section of the park, carefully created by the purchasers acting on behalf of the people of Finchley, meant to prevent the very fate it now faces: destruction and development. 

They were acting as trustees not only for the time of the park's creation, but for its future life, for future generations. How could they know that their heirs, in their role as councillors, would compromise their position as trustees, and guardians of the park, and put the Lodge site up for sale without bothering to check that any covenant was in place? 

That their role as trustees was not protected by the maintenance of a separate body, or committee, that would safeguard the best interests of the park, but would allow the Tory councillors, in an apparent conflict of interest, to approve the sale, as part of their asset stripping agenda, with no consideration given to their duty to uphold the terms of the covenant?

Even the council's own lawyer, at a residents' meeting last year, appeared to have doubts about the sale and any future use of land. She said that the developer may well have bought himself something of a 'white elephant'. In other words, he may have been sold a useless piece of land, that is only of value if he retains and restores the historic property.

And she is probably right, as the covenant makes quite clear that even if the Lodge were not there, the site cannot be used for any other purpose than a Park Keeper's Lodge, a cricket pavilion, or a bandstand. Knocking down the Lodge will not change anything: only another one could be built: or a cricket pavilion, or a bandstand.

When the council first evicted the family that was living in the Lodge and put the property on the for sale list, they had no idea of the restrictions that existed in the form of this covenant. Years went by as they tried to get around this. Eventually they found someone prepared to buy it anyway, in a cash purchase, and washed their hands of responsibility.

Last year this developer tried to apply to demolish the Lodge, and build a monstrously ugly block of eight flats. The plans said eight, but a representative of the company claimed to residents he met outside the Lodge that there would be twelve units. 

Of course any breaches of planning approval in Barnet now, or even unauthorised demolition, are likely to be met with little or no enforcement, and will probably result in Tory members giving retrospective permission. Or so has been the case, until now.

There was a fierce outcry from residents last year, and many took part in a campaign to oppose these proposals: and the plans were rejected. 

A year later, in the middle of the summer holidays, when many local residents who should be consulted are away: here we go again: this time an application for six flats - or so we are told. The new design is a less modernist, more aspirational retro in style: still utterly inappropriate to the predominant architecture of the surrounding area - even if for one moment we put aside the fact that it is proposed to put this block in a public park.

Last year the consultation process was marked by controversy over the so called 'supporting' comments which were, by some means never explained, despite complaints, routinely anonymised, so as to protect the identities, or apparent identities, of those who claimed to support the plans. Some of those comments were frankly offensive: using allegations of crime and the risk of rape as a reason to approve the plans. The anonymity was dropped after the complaints: but no explanation was offered as to why the page seemed to have been coded in such a way to allow this facility.

Local resident and green spaces campaigner Mary O'Connor - pic local Times group

This year, some residents keeping an eye on the online publication of comments noted that a number of the objections disappeared one night: a substantial proportion - one of the residents calculated a loss of about 21%, a reduction which of course altered the balance of objections to supporting comments. The comments may have been retained as documents, but anyone looking at the online version would think that the objections were not as high as they really were. And why had this occurred? 

Only one supporting comment appears to have been lost: one supposedly submitted by a woman using the title 'Mr', making remarks about the 'raping history' of the park. 

The rest of the 'supporting' comments are largely from people who live miles away, yet apparently like to cross the borough to come and walk in Victoria Park at night, but worry about 'crime'. 

You might wonder how giving approval to a block of flats (overlooking a children's playground) would mitigate against the risk of crime, rather than, say, re-introducing park keepers, improving the lighting, or allowing the police to do their job - but there you go. 

You might also wonder about using the pretext of a perceived risk of sexual violence in regard to a planning application. 

The subconscious implications of the use of such terminology might be read as projecting something that others see as an assault of another kind: an enforced intrusion, or the imposition of power and profit, in the context of a vulnerable, community held space.

Perhaps someone did think twice about the 'rape history' comment, anyway - as last time anyone checked, it was still missing, and not replaced, as the objections were, eventually, but only after much lobbying.

Several complaints were made about the missing objections to the Chief Executive. Capita planning officers said they would look into it, but despite continual prompting, no explanation was forthcoming until they decided to blame it on 'a third party provider', that is to say IDOX, which runs the online procedure. 

But are you saying no planning officer has login access to IDOX? You and your third party providers are data processors: is our personal data secure? No reply. 

Then we heard they were asking IDOX to look into the matter. On Friday, right at the end of the consultation period, residents were told the reason for the disappearance of objections was an 'outage', between two dates in July. An outage that apparently only affected objections.

Thing is: the dates of the 'outage' ... were three days after the comments disappeared. 

So this excuse would appear to be utterly spurious.

The other problem, which several residents have contacted me about over the last few weeks, is the inadequacy of the notification system. As you may recall, one A4 piece of paper, shoved into an open flimsy cover was put on a lamp post, facing away from the street, at a point on Long Lane that was  the furthest possible from the Lodge, even though there is a perfectly good post right outside the property. As soon as it rained, of course, water seeped through and the notice was largely illegible, and looked old, of no current interest to any passer by.

Only after continued complaints did Capita officers agree to put up more notices: although not on any of the park's own notice boards. These additional notices also, predictably, have all been soaked and made largely useless. Officers have refused to use the laminated notices - twice the size - routinely displayed by Capita colleagues in Highways. Why? 

Only latterly did they send letters to all residents who commented last year. And the changing dates of the consultation, amended in some notices, but not others, has caused endless confusion. This is not an efficient or fair way to run a public consultation.

Another peculiarity is that even though the outcome of the consultation, and the decision by officers to recommend or reject the plans has officially yet to be made, it was spotted early on in the consultation that a planning meeting had already been set for consideration of the Lodge application. 

When this was pointed out last week to officers and copied to the Chief Executive, and the suggestion made that it might imply the matter was pre-determined ... suddenly the date was removed. 

How curious.

Many local campaigners now feel that there needs to be an investigation into the handling of the whole process of consultation over the Lodge plans. It seems clear, moreover, that it is a wider issue than simply the matter of one planning application - it goes back to the central problem, one that our Tory councillors are only just beginning to grasp - and that is the loss of control, of democratic oversight, over the delivery of planning and enforcement services in this borough. 

This in turn has led to a system in which development is given precedence over the best interests of residents, and our environment, and built heritage. 

Park notice board, last opened in 2010: no planning applications here

The Capita contracts allow the council's privatised planners far too much scope to put the generation of income from development before any other consideration: developers may, as in this case, pay a substantial fee for 'pre-planning advice' from officers, given under terms of commercial confidentiality. Residents who may object to the same application are not allowed to know what that advice was. Then the officers run through the sort of low key consultation process we have seen in regard to the Lodge: and one of them makes a decision as to whether or not it should be rejected. Open and transparent? Or is there an inherent conflict of interest in this system? 

Clearly there is pressure on officers to ensure the system is easier and more attractive for fee paying developers, and residents come second best.

If any developer breaches the terms of planning approval, residents are again at a disadvantage, as enforcement by the contracted service is given such low priority, and so few resources. That there is little or no profit to be had in enforcement - no extra fees or performance related payments - is the reason for this. 

Your Tory councillors are pretty laid back about breaches: politically weighted planning committees will often grant retrospective permission for unauthorised buildings, and officers using delegated powers can alter the conditions of approval anyway.

You may be thinking, but: I pay my council tax, Mrs Angry: I am a property owner. I don't want the value of my property affected by all this sort of nonsense. 

I will say to you then: stop voting Tory councillors back into power, because as the recent audit reports show, they are allowing this sort of nonsense to become the mark of their administration, despite all the warnings they were given, before outsourcing almost every council service they could think of.

The reaction from residents in Finchley to these plans is the same as last year: campaigners leafleting in the park and explaining what is proposed are met with open mouthed astonishment: flats? In the park? Yes, in the park. Overlooking the children's playground. By the entrance.

Hard to explain, isn't it, when standing in the middle of a park, that most British of all British public institutions - that a recreation ground meant for the people of Finchley, for their use, and for all time, is no longer dedicated for their use, indefinitely, but must be, like everything else in this rotten borough, carved up, sold off, and thrown in the lap of developers? 

Those squatters mentioned by Gillian Tindall in the house in Kentish Town were evicted, eventually.

 The house had been marked for demolition, as part of a large development: where it stood was going to be designated as an 'open space'. In the 1970s, there was still an acknowledgment that such spaces were necessary. But the development never happened, the house was saved, and  carefully restored by Camden Council. Tindall wondered, then, if this marked a recognition by local authorities, of their duty to preserve our built heritage, not destroy it. 

All these years later, it seems the cycle has moved around again, and we are facing the loss of historic properties to the demands of development, and on a giant scale. 

So let's give the last word, as does Gillian Tindall in her introduction, to the words of William Morris:

These old buildings do not belong to us only ... they belonged to our forefathers and they will belong to our descendants unless we play them false. They are not in any sense our property, to do as we like with them. We are only trustees for those who come after us.

Barnet's Councillors, whether they like it or not, are still the trustees for Victoria Park, and for the Lodge. In that role they have an obligation to protect the park, and the Lodge, for future generations. 

Unless you speak up now, however, they will turn the other way while a part of our local park, and our local history, is lost forever. 

Please act now.

We have until Tuesday the 15th August, this week, to object online to this proposal. Emails and letters of objection may be accepted after that date: but it you post one, be sure to send it recorded delivery.

If you have not done so already, please take the time to read this flyer, and object via the council's website: here is the link.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Mrs A , I am not legally trained in anyway ' But I have dealt with a trust covenant ! As a Trustee your are bound by the trust covenant , if you are not in agreement with the terms of that trust ? Then don't be a trustee , the clue is in the wording & that is that you WILL carry out the wishes of the person or persons that put that Trust in place ! If the current trustees are not following that LEGALLY binding agreement then it reverts back to family members or possibly in this case to the people of Finchley !!!! No one else or from anywhere else to make comment or decisions on the outcome . To me it is quite clear the councilours who made that decision should resign as trustees & the Lodge should be returned to its rightful owners . The people of Finchley .