Basement excavations top CRASH agenda

If you can’t afford to buy a bigger flat or house, what’s the next best option? To extend. If you live in a ground floor flat, then you can either go out into the garden, or down into the ground. Or both. Basement excavations are proving an incredibly popular way of gaining floorspace, but on some streets there are so many (and they are so large), that neighbours are growing increasingly concerned. On Canfield Gardens, there will be six basements in a row of nine houses if the latest one gets planning permission.

South Hampstead looks lovely from up high - but the issues lurk down below

South Hampstead looks lovely from up high – but the issues lurk down below

This will be the main topic of discussion at Tuesday night’s AGM of CRASH. CRASH is the slightly strange acronym chosen for the local residents association in South Hampstead – the conservation area between Belsize Road, Finchley Road, Broadhurst Gardens and West End Lane.

CRASH used to be moderately active up until a couple of years ago. Residents associations (bodies that the council formally recognises as representing a group of streets) often wax and wane depending on the enthusiasm and energy of their leadership. CRASH had very much waned.

Peter Symonds, chair of CRASH today, became involved when his then neigbhour – French rugby legend Thomas Castaignède – sought to excavate a basement. As a result, Symonds has since become something of an expert on basement excavations and their implications.

Aside from the impact they might have on water tables, building foundations, and the underlying geology of the area, basement excavations can also cause misery for neighbours both adjacent to and above the flat in question. Symonds points out that while the owner of the flat usually has to move out during the works, this is a cost they factor into the decision. Flats above don’t have any choice in the matter, and yet a basement excavation can go on for months, or even years.

The issue is a problem across this part of Camden. Crediton Hill Residents Association chair Larry Trachtenberg, recently suggested a moratorium on all such plans until more research into their impact had been conducted.

Frances Wheat, Camden’s head of Devleopment Control, will be speaking at CRASH’s AGM along with the relevant planing area team manager Bethany Arbery. The talk is entitled “Planning: What it’s all about and how you can get involved”, but expect the Q&A part to focus pretty heavily on that thorny basement issue.

Symonds has breathed new life into CRASH, but is very keen to get new members – not just for their £5 annual subscription, but so the group can be more representative. CRASH covers an unusually large area for a residents group, which means there are many issues besides basements that arise.

If you live in those streets and are even remotely interested in issues that affect the area, then why not sign up – it’s only a fiver! – and why not come along on Tuesday night to the Crossfield Centre on Fairhazel Gardens (roughly opposite The Arches wine bar) from 7pm. If you’re a property owner, then CRASH can help you navigate Camden planning and the conservation area restrictions, and if you’re a tenant, then you might find some good contacts for other problems such as parking, litter, overhanging foliage etc. etc.

You can read more about CRASH on its much improved website.

Tom gets romantic at The Arches

I took an overdue trip to The Arches on Fairhazel Gardens the other night; always such an interesting venue to enjoy some good food and wine, with elements of mystery and intrigue to go with the fun and craziness of the place.

As ever, a waitress directed our gaze to the mobile specials board, and I instantly locked onto the fisherman’s stew. There was a slight error when ordering; enquiring as to whether the stew came with anything, I was told no, and hence ordered chips, but in fact a large side of rice accompanied the dish (and indeed worked very well with it). Even by my gluttonous standards, powering through all that lot would have been a little too much – though I did my best!

Look at those "proud, glowing" prawns.

Look at those “proud, glowing prawns”

The stew was wonderful; large, proud, glowing prawns (perhaps just a fraction well-cooked), swordfish, and mussels, nicely accompanied by some al-dente, attractively sliced carrots, and bell peppers which had been grilled or baked first to get some charring on the skin. It wasn’t a particularly wet stew; more a seafood and sauce affair, but the latter was intense and well-seasoned, and of a most satisfying orange-red colour. A simple, but soulful meal, great for people like me always complaining about the weather.

Shock of the day was my remarkable decision to share a dessert for the first time ever… who says romance is dead?! In fact, I…oh hang on, incoming text message..

**Sorry, rather not c u tnight, yr table manners are questionable to say the least, & difficult to hold a conversation if u will drink 2 bottles of wine that quickly. Bye**

Oh well – back to my window seat with a newspaper in La Brocca!

Assessing the cycling contraflow scheme

A little over a year ago proposals came forward to allow more contraflow cycling in South Hampstead. Some people thought this was madness, but it went ahead anyway.

One thing that seemed clear was that for it to work safely, the signage both in terms of road signs and on-road markings, would have to be exemplary.

With this in mind, Camden Cyclists, a lobby group, set out to explore the streets in immense detail and document their findings in order to suggest improvements.

Their full report is incredibly detailed but as with so many things, this is where its value lies. I hope Camden reads it carefully as some of the recommendations could help prevent road accidents and they are by and large easy to implement.

Perhaps a quick recap of where cyclists can now cycle on one-way streets would be helpful.

Camden Cyclists’ map of contraflows (accepted and rejected)
Click for larger version

Priory Road and Fairhazel Gardens are now both two-way cycling throughout. Fairhazel Gardens is now fully two-directional for cyclists (some sections were changed a few years ago). Greencroft Gardens has been made two-way for cyclists as has Messina Avenue, which gives a link through to Kilburn High Road.

Looking back up Greencroft Gardens from Fairhazel Gardens
“The contraflow facility is useful, but does require some confidence to use.
Note the contraflow cycle logo half-way up the road –
this is barely visible/legible to road users.”
Photo: Camden Cyclists
Looking west down Greencroft Gardens towards Fairhazel Gardens
The ‘No Entry’ on the road is misleading and the ‘No Entry’ sign on the left
is hidden in a tree; the sign on the right is unhelpfully placed.
An entry lane should be marked and the little cycle logo could be bigger!
Photo: Camden Cyclists

Camden Cyclists are still pushing for some additions to the contraflow system.

Compayne Gardens, which is two-way, is preferred by cyclists and is marked with cycle logos. But it fails as an eastbound route because it joins the one way Canfield Gardens before reaching the junction with Finchley Road. We very much regret that LB Camden has so far been unable to provide this link.

These contraflow routes are called “light”, which means they don’t require marked contraflow lanes but use signs and road markings. The Camden Cyclists page explains that last year the Dept. for Transport allowed the use of No Entry signs with “Except Cycles” subplates. “Other relaxations in regulations now allow contraflow cycling without lanes provided that traffic speeds and volumes are low.”

Camden Cyclists’ overall conclusion is that the scheme generally works well: “For the most part, the signage at the end of the roads is of a high standard.” The group does, of course, have some suggestions for improving legibility, especially so drivers are aware of the scheme. You can see all of the recommendations on its website.

Democratic paradox south of the tube line

The local Neighbourhood Development Forum (which is now on Twitter by the way), held its latest meeting last week. I just perused the minutes and was intrigued by a paradox of democracy.

Walk with me.

The NDF has to determine the precise boundaries for its local plan. Ward boundaries are not necessarily the solution, but at the moment they’re the easiest option and the NDF covers West Hampstead and Fortune Green wards. This means that, for example, Broadhurst Gardens is not covered because it’s in Swiss Cottage ward.

According to the minutes of September’s NDF meeting, WHGARA – the residents association for the streets between Lowfield Road, West End Lane, Hemstal and Sherriff Roads – has not yet decided whether to support the Forum, but would make its decision on October 9th. I have discussed before the psychological and physical divide felt by some, but not all, residents who live south of the tube line between them and the rest of West Hampstead.

NDF members said they thought it would be hard for WHGARA to express its views on the development of the area, particularly the Interchange, if they excluded themselves from the Forum; WHGARA’s representative said she “thought the Forum was pro-development and didn’t have much support in the south of the West Hampstead area.”

James Earl, the NDF chair, said that if WHGARA decided not to support the Forum, the southern boundary would probably move north to be the railway line.

This raises a couple of issues. First, I’d like to see the evidence of the support or lack of for the Forum in the WHGARA area. My unproven hunch is that most people have probably never heard of it, let alone have a view on it. Second, although I accept that residents assocations generally represent their area, they are not necessarily representative of an area, so to my mind it seems odd that if an RA chooses not to support an initiative, this automatically means that area is excluded.

But this is not the paradox.

Keep walking with me.

Later, the minutes explain that the October 22nd NDF meeting will be open to the public and run in conjunction with WHAT. “Members said it was important to invite and involve more people than ‘the usual suspects’. There was a desire for publicity to be at the new farmers’ market; in shops and local businesses; and at other public events. Suggestions for poster locations also included on trees; doctors’ surgeries; schools; nurseries; community centres; parks; and cafes.”

Excellent – I wholeheartedly approve, and you can be sure I’ll mention it on here too. Now we come to the paradox. You live in the WHGARA area, but have never heard of it- or it’s not your thing perhaps. You’re browing the cauliflowers at the farmers’ market when you notice a flyer for a public meeting about shaping the future of West Hampstead. This sounds more interesting. You toddle along, but then find all too quickly that it will have no bearing on your immediate streetscape because some people you don’t know have decided not to support it.

Moving beyond the usual suspects is surely the right thing to do – the process should be open to as many people as are interested. So why then, is something as important as the boundaries for the whole plan dependent on the powers that be at WHGARA? More bluntly: what sort of majority off what sort of turnout is needed at a WHGARA meeting to determine whether it’s a yay or a nay? Do leave a comment if you know the answer to this question.

I would urge the NDF to stick to its guns and use the two ward boundaries as the basis for the plan. Even though I don’t think it’s perfect, I remain unconvinved that the lack of support of a residents association (should that be the eventual outcome) is enough reason to shrink the size of the area.

And there’s the paradox. Democracy should be about opening up decision making to the people, but it’s also pragmatically about electing decision-makers and abiding by their rules. Yet at this hyperlocal scale, the two seem to have the potential to clash.

You can stop walking now.

Driving’s hard enough, says CRASH

Back in October last year, Camden asked locals what they thought of some changes to our streets. The most controversial was the provision of “cycle permeability“. In other words, allowing cyclists to pedal the wrong way up one-way streets. Not all one-way streets were included; some, such as Broadhurst Gardens, were considered unsuitable. But many of the quieter residential streets, especially around the Gardens area of South Hampstead were part of the plans.

There were 76 replies to the consultation [pdf], 21 positive, 37 netural and 18 objections. Camden made a couple of tweaks to the plans, but otherwise decided to go ahead. Fairhazel Gardens has had such a system in place for more than 10 years, so one assumes that both the council and cycling lobby groups have sufficient data to make meaningful recommendations. Indeed, looking at a map of pedestrian and cyclist accidents in London from 2000-2010, there wasn’t a single reported bike accident (or pedestrian accident) on Fairhazel Gardens during that period.

Fairhazel Gardens has had contraflow cycling for years

However, South Hampstead Residents’ Association (appropriately, in this case, named CRASH) is not happy. At this late stage, it is appealing for people to write to Camden expressing their horror at this scheme. Their argument is that it is unsafe for cyclists and other road users (the scheme was initially proposed [pdf] by Camden Cyclists). Crash’s argument includes this gem of a debating point (original emphasis):

“You will not only have to keep an eye on your rear mirror and side mirror for cyclists on your left, as usual, BUT AT THE SAME TIME, look forwards and in your right hand mirror for a cyclist on your right”

Imagine having to look forward when driving!

In other words, drivers would have to behave as they would on a normal road – checking both side mirrors and their rear-view mirror, as well as keeping an eye on the road ahead. Or as they have been doing on one-way stretches of Fairhazel Gardens for many years already.

Is there a safety risk? Well, cars should be driving slowly anyway on these residential streets. It’s also up to cyclists to ride responsibly and err on the side of caution (and use lights when it’s dark). But to my mind it doesn’t seem to be beyond the wit of man to accommdate such a thing, even if drivers do occasionally have to look in the direction they’re going.

Tom is entertained at The Arches

The Arches was excellent last night; I had the special of cod fillet in tempura batter, with chips, and the whole thing was a demonstration in perfect execution – superb – right down to the quality of the rich tartare sauce. Friend loved his smoked duck salad starter and meatball linguine, and we managed dessert too (I’m full of surprises!)

We happily absorbed a Marlborough Pinot Noir, then a Malbec, and “entertainment” was provided via the adjacent table, from where Keith Floyd’s apparent long-lost brother proceeded to bombard us with a series of ever more ludicrous tales, whilst his partner looked on, nonplussed. Landing planes without lights in total darkness, unlikely prison terms, unlimited wives, and relatives seemingly inventing everything but the wheel. With his penchant for adventure, I was tempted to politely request that he headed for The Kilburn High Road without delay. 

Tom visits The Arches

I had an impromptu dinner at The Arches last night…good food.. I had a Moroccan chick pea soup to start, then baked whole sea bass – very nice. Excellent sautéed potatoes, with that dry, crisp outside. I wondered if they did those with goose fat or something but the waitress just said “deep fried in oil”. Pleasingly large cheesecake to finish, and 4 glasses of Pinot Noir which I was surprised to find later on was Chilean (I thought it was French, but not a Burgundy). Looking back, it did have similarities to that Chilean drop I like to guzzle in Brocca. Checked the bill today, a bit cheeky, the 2nd two glasses were large ones – I was drinking 175s at first – no wonder I have a frigging hangover!