Within two weeks of hearing about a planning application for residential caravans on Green Belt farmland in the Dollis Valley, well over 500 objectors registered their opposition, backing a campaign mounted by residents of Mays Lane and surrounding roads.
They say the two-acre paddock, at the Arkley end of Mays Lane, has been used for many years for grazing horses.
In their view, it forms an essential part of a wildlife corridor extending down from Arkley through the Dollis Valley and on south to Totteridge Common.
Barnet Council has been asked for permission for a change of use of this Green Belt land to station two caravans for residential use, together with hardstanding and adjoining dayrooms.
Opposition to the application, which is being co-ordinated by nearby residents, has already gained the support of the Chipping Barnet MP, Theresa Villiers.
The application for two residential pitches has been made by Mr Patrick Casey whose architects, Green Planning Studio, say there is a “recognised need” within the Barnet area for facilities “to accommodate a gypsy lifestyle”.
Layout of the site has been designed in line with the 2008 Good Practice Guide on Designing Gypsy and Travellers Sites and the application says that despite being sited within the Green Belt, “there would be, at worst, limited impact or other harm to the area”.
The paddock adjoins the car park of the Brethren’s Meeting Room in Mays Lane. The Brethren recently sold the paddock at auction for £491,00.
Their meeting room, which is also on the market, is currently under offer and is thought to have attracted interest from developers. Under present planning law the meeting room could be demolished and redeveloped for housing.
When residents met to discuss tactics, they said they recognised there might be a need for travellers’ sites in and around Barnet but there were numerous brown field sites that were available and could be used.
Their objective in fighting the application was to protect the green belt and they believed the track record of the Mays Lane community in preserving the Dollis Valley countryside spoke for itself.
In 2010 they succeeded in winning village green status for the field beside the former Quinta Club and in 2013 they joined forces with a residents’ campaign in Arkley to thwart plans to establish a woodland burial ground in nearby fields.
They argue that a residential caravan site would be out of character with the fields that make up the Dollis Valley green space.
Their experience with similar planning applications that attempted to get round the Green Belt, was that once one minor change of use was agreed there was inevitably pressure for additional development.
Although the Mays Lane application is for only two caravans, this is a two-acre field, and there was every likelihood there would be attempts to increase the number and before the residents knew it there might easily be 20 or more caravans on the site.
In her objection to the scheme, Ms Villiers said a residential caravan park close to the Whitings Hill Open Space would go against fundamental planning law which protects Green Belt land against residential use without “an extremely strong and exceptional reason for doing that”.
Robin Bishop, who leads for the Barnet Society on planning issues, agreed: “Our first concern is protection of the Green Belt, and the government's Planning Policy for Traveller Sites states, 'Traveller sites (temporary or permanent) in the Green Belt are inappropriate development.'
“We will consult our committee before submitting a response, but the society is minded to object because it is in the Green Belt.”
Ms Villiers considered the infrastructure around the proposed caravan park was completely inadequate for residential use. There was not even a footpath along this section of May Lane – a point emphasised by the local objectors.
According to the residents Underhill was already one of the most deprived wards in High Barnet and there were not the facilities for what could become a large site for caravans and mobile homes.
Whitings Hill Primary School was already understood to be oversubscribed, and there was pressure on doctors’ surgeries and Barnet Hospital.
The success of the residents’ campaign to establish the Mays Lane village green on land next to the abandoned Quinta Club had shown they could mobilise support to preserve an asset for community use.
It took five years to finally get approval for the land to be registered as a village green and kept open for recreational use.
Then in 2013 they combined forces with Arkley residents to oppose the plan for a woodland burial ground, when again one of the main arguments was the importance of the wildlife corridor that includes the paddock in Mays Lane.
A wide variety of wildlife, including deer, badgers, hedgehogs, and foxes who all thought to rely on a corridor like this for food, water, shelter, and space.
One of the nearest approved gypsy traveller sites to Mays Lane is the caravan park on Barnet Road, at Brookes Place, Potters Bar, where Mr Patrick Casey, the Mays Lane applicant, has been listed by Hertsmere Borough Council as being a part owner.
The site is directly beside the M25 motorway, on the Potters Bar side, immediately after the bridge over the Barnet Road, and it currently comprises 25 pitches with 39 caravans – a number that has increased steadily over the years.
Travellers have used the site since 2000. After successive planning applications to Hertsmere, the council agreed to increase the number of pitches to six in 2002; to 12 in 2006; to 21 in 2012 and then to 25 pitches in 2013 with a limit of no more than 39 caravans.
In approving these applications, Hertsmere’s planners said the Brookes Place caravan park caused limited harm to the Green Belt.
The land beside the motorway was untidy; the site was dominated by an electricity pylon with high voltage cables overhead and a vent from the railway line tunnel underneath.
Therefore, bearing in mind the unmet need in Hertsmere for pitches for gypsies, there were “very special” circumstances which outweighed the inappropriateness a having a travellers’ site within the Green Belt.
Nearby residents objected at the time to the applications to increase the number of pitches. Potters Bar Society said it had warned in 2006 that this would inevitably happen with the result that the site was too dense for the location.
Mays Lane – like Brookes Place – is no stranger to the constant pressure for development within the Green Belt with demands for more housing within the Dollis Valley.
In 1989 Barnet Council agreed as a “one off” that a former pig farm – on the other side of Mays Lane to the proposed caravan site – could be redeveloped to provide an estate of 21 houses in what became Partridge Close.
Shortly after that development was completed in 1993 permission was granted for the Brethren’s Gospel Hall to be built on the other side of the road, when the Brethren moved to Mays Lane from their previous meeting hall in Union Street.
In 2021 the Gospel Hall Trust asked Barnet Council to release their Mays Lane site from Green Belt restrictions to allow for new housing and for the delivery of “family sized homes”.
The trust’s agents questioned Barnet’s policy of resisting the release of Green Belt land which might assist in urban regeneration.
Rather than a blanket refusal, they suggested Barnet should follow the example of the London Borough of Enfield and explore the potential for releasing Green Belt land to meet housing needs.
As nearby residents build their case against the proposed caravan site, they recognise more planning applications are likely and that they could have a wider fight on their hands to protect the Arkley end of Mays Lane from further urban sprawl.