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black-path-cleanup_ft

Network Rail brings clarity to Black Path

Industrial strength machinery brought in to tackle Black Path

Industrial strength machinery brought in to tackle Black Path. Photo via Richard Olszewski

Months of recent community work and lobbying came to some fruition on Tuesday 20th with a site visit to the Black Path and meeting with local residents by representatives from Network Rail, the British Transport Police, Camden Council and the West Hampstead Safer Neighbourhood Team.

They were joined by two very welcome maintenance workers from Network Rail, who were armed with machinery more suited to the task of cutting back years’ worth of overgrown vegetation than that with which we came to the WHL-organised community clean-up day back in September. As a result regular users of the path will notice a huge improvement in some of the most obstructed stretches.

David Rose, from Network Rail’s East Midlands team and Tim Ramskill, who works on crime prevention for the BTP, came to discuss safety and maintenance issues on the path. In the wake of a small number of attacks on the path in the last few weeks, Jim Craig and Simon Bishop from the SNT were on hand, as was Fortune Green councillor Richard Olszewski – who himself uses the path regularly.

Personal security and the vexed question of overhanging vegetation were top of the agenda of course, but discussion points also included safety issues around the tarmac surface, walls and lighting, as well as ownership and responsibility for the path itself.

L-R, Network Rail's David Rose, local resident Julia Deakin, Cllr Richard Olszweski, Simon Bishop and Jim Craig from West Hampstead SNT discuss safety and maintenance on the Black Path.

L-R, Network Rail’s David Rose, local resident Julia Deakin, Cllr Richard Olszweski, Simon Bishop and Jim Craig from West Hampstead SNT discuss safety and maintenance on the Black Path.

Mr Rose was able to confirm that Network Rail owns all the land from the railway line up to – but not including – the walls and fences that border the backs of gardens along Sumatra Road, which belong to the respective property freeholders. However the path itself (not including fences on either side) is leased to Camden, so the council is responsible for the surface, lighting and security. He also raised the question of what might happen if or when government policy forces Network Rail to sell off the land in the future; an unknown quantity obviously, but a potential concern if the path were to fall into private hands and be taken out of public ownership.

The SNT told us that it is currently advising people not to use the path for the time being whilst their investigation into the recent attacks is is ongoing. If you do choose to continue using it, the police recommend carrying a personal alarm. All at the meeting agreed that installation of CCTV would be hugely helpful, but cost and logistical issues may make this unfeasible: the path is 500 meters long and would have to be cabled all the way, even before accounting for the expense of upkeep.

Whilst some of the worst of the overhanging tree growth was cleared by the Network Rail team and their chainsaws, many of the most obtrusive plants are impossible to deal with effectively from the path and would need to be tackled by their owners from within Sumatra Road gardens. By coincidence, later that same day, detective work on the part of a particularly diligent local campaigner revealed that the freeholder of one of the worst-offending gardens is a West Hampstead businessman. Residents are now urging Camden to issue an enforcement notice to the freeholder in order to oblige him to maintain his garden and repair its damaged fence, which intrudes onto the pathway.

It was a productive meeting that ended with a real sense that all the stakeholders were engaged with the problems faced on the path as well as other local Network Rail-owned properties, such as Billy Fury Way, and that solutions could be found for some of the most pressing issues. With vegetation cleared, sightlines would be improved along the whole length of the Black Path, giving better visibility both to pedestrians and cyclists – and fewer places in which to hide. There will be further challenges along the way, as budgets continue to be slashed both at Network Rail and Camden, but the willingness at least is clearly there.

Meanwhile, if you live on that side of Sumatra Road: please, find some time over the holidays to get down the end of your garden with a large pair of shears

Tunnel of shrubs - time to do something about it?  And throw some light on the Black Path

How can you help brighten the Black Path?

Every morning, and every evening, hundreds of West Hampstead commuters use the Black Path that runs along the railway line to get to or from the stations.  But at several points along the path they need to either dodge mounds of ivy or duck beneath tunnels of over-grown shrubs. During the summer this is annoying but, as winter draws in, the overgrown foliage makes parts of the path dark and unsafe. So unsafe that one user ended up in hospital after damaging his eye.

The Black (Eye) Path was cleaned up in a blitz a few years ago but has since deteriorated. So why does nobody do anything to get it sorted again… and that includes all those commuters?

Duck! Image: Caroline (who is tall and has to duck as well)

Duck! Image: Caroline (who is tall and had to duck as well)

The big challenge is that nobody seems to be ‘responsible’.  It is, as I was once told, S.E.P. (Somebody Else’s Problem). The path itself is not a council-maintained path, it’s on Network Rail land and some of the foliage is also on Network Rail land, so no doubt that Network Rail bears some responsibility. But the biggest cause of the problem is foliage over-growing from gardens of houses on Sumatra Road (and it is often difficult to work out which ones).

Council officers are, if not pro-active, then at least willing to help, even in times of tight budgets. The path is kept fairly well swept (around the growing mounds of ivy)! But the council has employees (and councillors) who could report these larger problems and come up with solutions.

West Hampstead also has local civic groups such as WHAT or the NDF, but they have limited resources and are focused more on lobbying and policy than getting their hands dirty. It’s certainly not clear what role they should play.

Rubbish behind the fence is also a problem image: Shelley

Rubbish behind the fence, on Network Rail land, is also a problem. Image: Shelley

The Black Path seems to be a Grey Area, where the role of the individual, the council, and the state in the form of Network Rail is still unclear. What are our rights and what are our responsibilities? Where do the council’s responsibilities end? And what happens then? There seems to be no clear answer.

One of the main issues that arose during the NDF consultations was the poor state of local streets and dumped rubbish – so it is an issue high on resident’s list of concerns. How to do something about it? Should residents abdicate all responsibility even when it is they (collectively) that do the dumping, or let their trees overgrow? Whatever your political persuasion, having a decent, pleasant local environment (where people care) is surely something everyone agrees on?

Tunnel of shrubs - time to do something about it?  And throw some light on the Black Path

Tunnel of shrubs – time to do something about it? And throw some light on the Black Path

In the meantime it’s getting darker earlier. So rather than talk about it more, isn’t it time to do something? If you are one of those commuters who is constantly ducking under trees, or even if you just live locally and care about this kind of thing, then please email moc.l1496142248iamg@1496142248daets1496142248pmahw1496142248rette1496142248b1496142248 and join us on Bank holiday monday from 2pm in the afternoon to help clear up the Black Path. Even if you can’t make that date (and it is a bank holiday weekend) then still drop us an email, as there will probably be another date in September.

The very nature of nature means that this can’t be a one-time thing. And yes, of course, also speak to local councillors about finding some longer-term solutions and liaising with Network Rail.  Plus this has taken on an added degree of urgency in the light of the attempted sexual assault on Billy Fury Way last week.

Thameslink_foliage

More noise as Network Rail to clear vegetation overnight

Residents near The Black Path, which runs along side the northern side of the Thameslink line, may find it’s not just the warm weather keeping them awake at night next week.

Network Rail is going to be removing vegetation along the track behind Sumatra Road and Ravenshaw Street between 11pm and 5.30am from Monday to Friday and the work will apparently involve the use of chainsaws, flail machines, chipping machines or handsaws – so it could get a bit noisy!

Thameslink_foliage

It’s not clear why the work all has to take place overnight or whether it requires five full nights of work. Perhaps one of our new West Hampstead councillors could look into this, and ensure National Rail does indeed have all the correct permits for this after-hours work.

Local residents were sent a circular alerting them to the potential disruption, and are advised to call the 24-hour national helpline on 08457 114141 if they have any concerns, though it seems unlikley that that’s going to stop any noise then and there.

Residents may find it’s a long week as some are also likely to be disturbed by the more extensive Overgound construction work taking place on Sunday night. The Ivory Coast vs Japan World Cup match, whicj kicks off at 2am Sunday morning, might have a disproportionately high number of viewers in NW6.

Concept drawing - station front

Sneak preview of Overground station plans

Concept drawing - station front

The first pictures have emerged of what West Hampstead Overground station is going to look like after a complete remodel. The £7m scheme is still in its early stages but it looks like it will resemble most other modern stations with an abundance of glass and steel.

The Overground station, which opened in 1888, handles 3 million passengers a year, so more capacity is needed as well as longer platforms to accommodate the new 5-carriage trains that will start to run from 2015.

We reported last year that TfL was planning to rebuild the station, partly thanks to almost £1 million from Ballymore as part of its contribtuions to the community for West Hampstead Square (the Section 106 money). Architects are now finalising initial designs in advance of the planning application, which will be submitted in the spring. Before that, TfL will consult with passengers and the community to comment on the proposal.

Looking east - the footbridge is further down the platform than it is today.

Looking east – the footbridge is further down the platform than it is today.

The existing station will be partially removed so the pavement can be widened. The new station will be between the existing station and West Hampstead Square, and there will be step-free access from street-level to platform via lifts. The current platforms are too narrow for lift shafts so they will need to be widened by at least 3 metres (this will of course ease the crowding on the platform too).

Work to widen and extend platforms will commence in late spring, and work on the new station building should follow in early 2015 and take approximately one year – depending on planning permission of course.

The images, courtesy of TfL are still conceptual and are subject to change prior to the submission of a planning application. It’s still hard from these to understand quite how it fits into the streetscape, especially with West Hampstead Square yet to be built.

Trees – there are always trees

TfL has already broached the thorny issue of trees. “In order to complete the platform and station works, it is necessary to remove four sycamore trees from the railway embankment along the westbound platform. The proximity of these trees to the new station building and platform means that the scheme cannot be completed with them in place.”

One of those trees has just had a Tree Preservation Order slapped on it by Camden, but expect TfL (and Network Rail who own the land) to get its way – even if it has to deal with petitions and masked protestors.

Gary Nolan, TfL’s Stakeholder Communications Manager, Rail, said “We are currently in discussions with tree officers from the London Borough of Camden regarding these trees and we intend to re-landscape the embankments to the rear of both platforms following the completion of works.”

Tree Preservation Order_West Hampstead overground_ft

One tree given extra protection… for now

The campaign to save the Ballymore trees may have failed in its immediate aim. However, Camden has agreed – after much badgering – to slap a Tree Preservation Order (a TPO) on the largest sycamore that falls on Network Rail’s land.

Much good it will do. The TPO means the tree can’t be felled without the written consent of the planning authority, but as part of the plans to redevelop the Overground station it’s highly likely such consent will be granted. Still, Network Rail and Camden can expect to fight a battle to remove this sylvan symbol of the resistance!

The sycamore with a Tree Preservation Order

The sycamore with a Tree Preservation Order

Tree campaigner Stephen Jones, said “We are considering getting the petition going again when the TPO’d tree seems threatened. We are also pleased to see that Camden Council has a bit of a heart!”

Trees: Will they stay or will they go?

The saga of the trees on and around the West Hampstead Square site drags on. The campaigners continue to pester Camden to slap preservation orders on those trees growing by the Overground line that are off the Ballymore site, but on Network Rail land. Camden is resisting, partly because, as I understand it, it wouldn’t have any impact anyway as Network Rail has the power to override that.

As far as I’m aware, Ballymore has yet to respond to Emma Thompson’s open letter to them on this matter.

In the meantime, if you’ve been wondering which trees might stay and which might go in the short term… well, you’re in luck. I was sent a handy visual. I think this is what all infographics should look like.

Trees on Network Rail land liable to be removed at a later date

Tree debate moves to Network Rail

If anyone still sent actual letters, then the local back-and-forth about the chopping down of the trees on and near the Ballymore site would have accounted for a small copse all by itself.

Mercifully, it’s only been everyone’s inboxes taking the strain as councillors, concerned locals, residents associations, the Neighbourhood Development Forum, council officers and the developers have been trying to establish clarity on the subject. The one group conspicuous by its absence from these discussions is Network Rail and yet it is in their hands that the fate of many of the remaining trees rests, along with the views of many future West Hampstead Square residents.

One of the issues seems to be that it’s not easy to determine from the ground (without access to the building site), precisely which trees are on the Ballymore land, and which are on the railway embankment by the Overground lines and owned by Network Rail.

These must be Network Rail trees, right?
(photo via Candice Temple)

This story first came to light about six weeks ago, when it appeared that Ballymore was going to cut down all the trees on its West Hampstead Square site. This was in line with its planning permission, but there had been some hope that a small handful of trees might be spared.

One communication from Camden, which followed a meeting between a Trees and Landscape Officer and Ballymore, says “The large sycamore at the top of the site and trees at the other end of the site can and will be retained.”

If this is the case, then this is already better news than we had back in August (if you’re in the pro-tree lobby). Ballymore has planning permission to cut down all the trees – although the report it’s using does suggest that some could be spared.

If Ballymore does the right thing and saves the trees it doesn’t need to remove (and plenty of eagle-eyed locals will be watching very carefully), then the issue then becomes the trees that fall outside the Ballymore footprint. These are Network Rail trees and are highly likely to be removed when the new station or access point from West Hampstead Square is built.

Neighbourhood Development Forum member Mark Stonebanks manage to dig up the document that summarised the key themes that emerged as the views of participants in the main public consultation for West Hampstead Square. It dates from July 2011, and says: “The development should retain the existing trees along the boundaries of the site where possible to help soften the proposals”. It even includes a direct quote: “People won’t mind the height so much if there’s a lot of green grass and organic things growing up the building.”

There was a brief flurry of interest on Friday when it appeared this might open up a loophole to save more trees, but the document states clearly that this is simply a summary of participants’ views, not something the developers should adhere to.

Another school of thought suggests Camden hasn’t enforced its own planning guidance to Ballymore, citing one sentence: “Ensure appropriate relationship to adjoining open space and ecological corridors and provide new open space”. Again, it strikes me this is all open to interpretation. What’s an “appropriate relationship”? Nor is it saying Ballymore must provide its own ecological corridors.

If it is indeed correct that Ballymore is able to retain a handful of trees on site, that is good news. If it can now be persuaded to engage with its development partner Network Rail to protect as many of the trees that are in the line of fire when the new station is built, even better.

Remember these are trees that screen the railway lines from the expensive flats and if you think it’s just quiet London Overground trains on those lines, think again. Tomorrow alone, 24 freight trains are scheduled to use that line between 6am and 8pm. If I’d paid north of £700,000 for a 2-bed flat with a balcony on that side of the building, I think I might expect a few trees between me and the freight trains as I sat outside with glass of Chablis and farmers’ market goats cheese.

WestHampsteadSquareTrees

Who’s saving which trees now?

The saga of the Ballymore trees has been clogging up my inbox over the past week or so. It feels like there’s some confusion as to which trees it is exactly we’re all hell bent on saving. What’s becoming clear though, is that Network Rail is likely to be the destroyer or saviour of the trees that really matter.

In my article the other day, I focused on the trees at the westerly end of the West Hampstead Square site, which were the ones assessed as being in the healthiest condition – the ones that didn’t have to be felled.

Campaigners have (more optimistically?) also been arguing that the trees nearest the Overground station on the other side of the site should be kept. They got a reply from Ballymore’s construction manager Peter McCall, which was fairly clear on both:

“Our development will require the removal of the trees along the track side as it is extremely unlikely that the trees if left in place would be viable with the proximity of the new development.

The trees which you were most concerned about will not be affected by our development but it is our understanding that these are to be removed in conjunction with the improvement works associated with the station itself. These works will be under the control of Network Rail / LUL”

Those last two sentences are really the important ones. If we accept that the trees on the Ballymore site are doomed (I for one have no plans to chain myself to them), then perhaps it’s worth turning to the trees off the site.

What’s also interesting is that Ballymore appears to be using some of the “offsite” trees in its West Hampstead Square marketing pitch. See those trees at the top of the picture below? They would seem to be trees that are now in danger of disappearing. “A natural place to live“, says the caption, not “Panoramic view of freight trains“.

This takes us back to an entirely different conversation during one of the early public consultation meetings about this proposal. Here’s what I wrote in November 2011 following that meeting, along with an artist’s impression designed to show how the large tower blocks would be all but invisible:

“[the developers] argued that the trees that flank the site (none of which are actually on the site and thus their long-term future cannot be guaranteed) give adequate screening for the larger buildings, although the photographs that tried to prove this were taken before the leaves began to come off the trees – they said they would be taking pictures again in winter”

 

I’m not sure whether those winter picture ever came, and you’ll notice that even then I pointed out that as Ballymore didn’t own the trees in question, it was not really their place to guarantee their future. Bear in mind, however, that Ballymore is in partnership with Network Rail so it’s not without influence, and there is that marketing pitch to its wealthy buyers (it issued the first press release today ahead of sales formally starting this weekend – studio flats start at £405,000).

Does Ballymore really want flats that look out over train lines, or would some nice mature greenery be more in keeping with that neighbourhood vibe it’s plugging hard?

It would be fantastic if Network Rail (or whoever owns the land, which can be harder to determine than it should be) could already begin building in tree preservation, or at the very least replanting, into their plans for the redevelopment of the Overground. Here’s an area where our (up-for-election-next-year) councillors should weigh in and discuss the matter with Camden planning officers early.

As a reminder for them, there’s been a strong “green spaces” lobby at most local planning-related meetings over the past couple of years. The placeshaping document published by Camden last year says: “Existing green ‘chains’ and habitat corridors along the railway tracks and existing sites of nature conservation… are highly valued by residents and need to be protected and enhanced.”

So, who’s going to stand up for the trees? Local councillors? Camden planning officers? Ballymore? Or is it going to be down to locals to make a fuss.

Related articles:
West Hampstead Square: All trees to be axed
West Hampstead Place Plan progress report
187-199 West End Lane: The Ballymore proposals