Critical questions about the future of the town centre will have to be addressed by Barnet Council if plans go ahead to replace much of the Spires with blocks of flats.

Real estate advisers Savills announced last month that the shopping centre opened in 1989 is up for sale at a cut-price offer of £25 million and has the potential to be redeveloped with a mix of flats and retail units.

Freehold ownership of the land was retained by the council when the Lovell Group put together the original deal to build a walk-through shopping centre with the main entrance on the High Street, leading to a Waitrose supermarket and NCP car park on Stapylton Road. 

Adding to uncertainty about the future of the town centre is the fate of the adjoining vacant site of the former Barnet Market where there is no sign of construction starting on a 100-bed Premier Inn for which permission was granted in 2018.

The new hotel was due to open in time for Christmas 2020 but so far Locate Developments, which intended to build the Premier Inn for the parent company Whitbread, has announced no new start date for construction and the three-year time limit on planning approval expires in November.

High Barnet councillors and the Chipping Barnet MP Theresa Villiers are being asked to intervene and seek further details as to how the council as the freeholder might respond to attempts to build blocks of flats on the five-acre site.

There were long-drawn discussions and negotiations during the 1980s leading to the construction of a shopping centre on land being used as a car park after previously housing Barnet barracks.

The Lovell Group worked with the council to create the site. Some of the land and buildings were acquired through compulsory purchase. The High Street Methodist Church was demolished to provide space for the main entrance, but the twin spires were retained and gave the shopping centre its name.

The prospect that much of the Spires might now be demolished and replaced with flats was regarded as a matter of "considerable alarm" by Theresa Villiers.

"It would be completely wrong if the Spires was replaced by housing. We need to retain our shops and we need the Spires to remain the driving force in a successful and thriving retail sector in Barnet's town centre."

Barnet Society member Nick Saul has written to Ms Villiers and the three ward councillors to alert them to the fact that as the council retains the freehold of the land it does have a role in preparations of any scheme to redevelop the Spires.

He said that the idea of a mixed development of housing and retail was specifically rejected in the 1980s on the grounds it would be of poor quality and out of keeping with the area.

The Spires was built to scale to be in character with its surroundings and there were great efforts to block “cliffs of concrete or brick” towering over the surrounding area.

If blocks of flats up to five storeys high were built on the site, they would be far taller than the tower of the parish church.

“Such new structures would dominate the skyline as highly prominent landmarks from a distance both to the south and when approaching High Barnet by St Albans Road or the Great North Road.”

Mr Saul says he personally doubts whether the Premier Inn will be built and hopes Savills, Whitbread and Barnet Council will indicate what if anything is planned for the market site off St Albans Road.

If an application is made to redevelop the Spires, he hopes the council will address the problems that shoppers would face if access through the centre was closed off to the public and the difficulties in persuading displaced shop tenants to return.