Looking down on the rest of London from 400 feet above sea level, Chipping Barnet is quintessential “metroland” – a former market town and staging post on the old Great North Road which became a suburb as the capital expanded along with the railways in the late 1800s and when the Northern Line came to High Barnet in 1940.
Green Belt rules meant the area marked the point where the city met the country, and it formally only became part of Greater London under the local government reorganisation of 1965, a fact “many people still regret today”, local Conservative MP Theresa Villiers asserted in her maiden speech in 2005.
Villiers has championed her constituency as a place where families move to “get away from the pressures of high-density high-rise urban living”. She now describes it as being “under siege” from tower block “urbanisation” at the hands of property developers, Sadiq Khan and her own government’s housing targets. Villiers is on the front line of a new battle for the suburbs.
Spearheading November’s backbench revolt against those Whitehall targets, she earned unflattering descriptions across the spectrum: she’d “properly drunk the ultra-Nimby Kool-Aid” said Robert Colvile of the Centre for Policy Studies, while for the Guardian she was the “patron saint of Nimbyism”.
But Villiers was on home ground last week as the Barnet Society met to discuss “better housing for Barnet”. One audience member said “Theresa has done a fantastic job” and should he should wear that Nimby tag as a “badge of honour”.
Sharing the platform was Ross Houston, chair of Barnet Council’s housing committee since Labour’s convincing 41 to 22 seat victory in last year’s local elections which brought the borough under full control of his party for the first time in its history. But if anyone was expecting a stand-off, they will have been disappointed.
Labour’s manifesto last year election blasted the Tory administration for allowing “rampant overdevelopment” and encouraging “tower-block blight”. It pledged to strengthen policies on newbuild height and density, and to develop new low and medium rise design guidance.
True to those words, the administration’s draft Local Plan policies have been revised to restrict high rise development, an expert panel is coming into place to advise on design, and major tower block schemes have been successfully opposed, including for 2,400 homes on an underused business park, 1,049 homes in Cricklewood and 250 in north Finchley.
Houston turned out to be a “gentle density” advocate too. “With good design you can deliver schemes that have higher density which people will find attractive,” he said. “Most people don’t like glass boxes. They like something with a bit of character.”
Sweetness and light in the suburbs? Some questioners weren’t so sure that better designed schemes were the answer, or that any more density was needed, or indeed many more homes at all.
The real problem, said one, was not design quality but too many firms setting up in the capital, “drawing in” people who then needed somewhere to live. Businesses should be incentivised to relocate outside London – and penalised if they didn’t – to reduce the demand for more homes in the first place.
Villiers was sympathetic. Other regions should get their share of new homes, she said. That was what levelling up was about. But the government’s new homes targets had continued to “push more homes to the crowded south of England”.
The suburbs could have a lifeline after Villiers’ amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill prompted the government to step back and consult on making those targets advisory only. Councils would be able to ignore them if meeting them would “significantly change the character” of an area. The Chipping Barnet framework, perhaps.
It’s a controversial move. Planning consultancy Lichfields warned only this week that implementing the change could suppress the rate of net additional homes to just 156,000 a year – 77,000 below recent rates of delivery and amounting to only around half the 300,000 a year figure which is the government’s assessment of minimum housing need in England.
But Villiers would go further. She told the inquiry into the council’s new Local Plan that Barnet’s current 2,364 homes a year target, while below the government figure, was still too high to protect local character. Nor was “gentle densification” the answer, in her view. Overdevelopment “cannot be cured with high-quality design”, she said in her response to the government consultation.
Villiers, of course, insisted she wasn’t against more housing. “I welcome new homes where they are in tune with the surrounding neighbourhood,” she told the Barnet Society meeting. Architect and local resident Russell Curtis meanwhile reminded the audience of some home truths: 3.6 million younger adults still living at home while house prices were massively outstripping wages and rents were soaring too.
“We need more homes of all types and tenures,” he said. “And we need to stop talking about density as a problem and more about design quality.” Houston was treading a careful line too. “We have long waiting lists and a crisis in private rent affordability,” he said. “We are not going to get to a point where we don’t need more housing in London any time soon.” He’s planning to build a thousand new council homes, but “don’t worry, it won’t all be delivered on one big site”, he told the audience.
Big challenges are coming; Transport for London’s plans for 300 flats on High Barnet station car park are still on the books, and the new owners of the Spires shopping centre on Chipping Barnet High Street have unveiled an update including 280 homes of up to six storeys high.
Villiers has already flagged over-development, and won a round of “hear hears” when she stressed the need for parking. “The 15-minute city is not the way our suburb works,” she said. But the Barnet Society has warned of an “aura of decline” on the high street and the draft Local Plan suggests “significant residential growth in town centres” is needed to boost footfall and support local businesses.
Chipping Barnet has seen significant change over a thousand years or so. Can Villiers, who likes to describe herself as “obstinate”, stop the clock?
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