On the eve of a critical public inquiry, Barnet Council has withdrawn its main objection to plans to build 152 homes on fields and woods in the Whalebones estate, Wood Street, Barnet.

Nearby residents and amenity groups say they are shocked by the sudden U-turn.

They are puzzled as to why the council has unexpectedly abandoned a planning committee decision to reject the application by Hill Residential Ltd.

Letters sent to residents and other objectors say the council has resolved “not to defend” its earlier refusal of the development.

On the casting vote of the chair, the planning committee voted in October 2020 to reject the construction of 152 new homes on the grounds it would mean the loss of open green land and harm an important part of the Wood Street Conservation Area.

By withdrawing its opposition at the planning inquiry – which opens online at 10am on Tuesday 31 August – the Barnet Society will, by default, become the main objector to the scheme proposed by Hill Residential and the trustees of late Gwyneth Cowing.

Over 500 objections were registered with the council, including those of the Chipping Barnet MP Theresa Villiers, and those opposed to the loss of the agricultural holding at Whalebones estate believed their case had been strengthened when the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, refrained from giving the scheme his support.

Nearby residents say they are at a loss to understand why they have been abandoned by Barnet Council at such a critical moment.

“Frankly I am dismayed by the council’s tactics,” said Monica Gilbert (above) who lives in Wood Street, close to Whalebones.

“We have all received a letter written in the most confusing language which indicates the council is walking away without objecting, yet we know our MP Theresa Villiers has been objecting to houses on the Whalebones estate for the last five years. What is going?”

Ms Gilbert’s dismay was shared by other nearby residents who said they hope the Barnet Society would stick to its guns and speak up for those campaigning to save the last green space between Barnet and Arkley. 

Robin Bishop, who leads for the Barnet Society on planning and environmental issues, is now expecting to become the lead objector at the inquiry.  

In its submission to the planning inspector, the society said Whalebones included the last remaining fields near the town centre and was an integral part of the Wood Street Conservation Area. Mr Bishop, seen here far left at a Whalebones consultation meeting in 2018, says the conservation area encapsulates 800 years of Barnet history.

"At one end is its church and original marketplace, chartered in 1199; at the other, open fields. Their juxtaposition is richly symbolic. Barnet's growth to national status derived chiefly from livestock: herds were driven from across the country to their final pastures on the fringe of the town, then sold at the market. Loss of the remaining last fields would destroy the conservation area's integrity and amount to lobotomy of our collective memory." 

Since hearing unofficially in mid-July that there was a possibility that the council would no longer be objecting at the planning inquiry, the society had drawn together a group of local experts to consider how best to fight the case.

The council’s letter to objectors gives no reason for the sudden about turn, but it seems to relate to the Barnet local plan which indicates that in January 2020 Whalebones had been zoned as the site for as many as 149 new homes.

To the surprise of the council's planning department, Hill Residential applied to build 152 homes – sufficient to attract potential support from the Mayor of London – and it seems the planners were outmanoeuvred by the strength of local opposition.

When Hill’s application was considered by the planning committee, the decision was tied by a five-five vote and the application was only rejected on the casting vote of the then committee chairman, Councillor Shimon Ryde.

Objectors were encouraged still further when in March 2021 the Mayor of London refrained from intervening, saying he would respect the planning committee’s decision.

When Hill appealed to the planning inspector, a concerted effort was made to ensure objections were filed by the closing date in June to illustrate the depth and extent of local anger over the loss of the last remaining fields and woods.

Ms Villiers encouraged residents to join her in trying to ensure the Whalebones farmland was “saved for future generations” as an irreplaceable green space.

Despite the withdrawal of its main objection, Barnet Council says it is still insisting Hill Residential meets the necessary planning obligations to ensure an acceptable development of the site.