Access to well-used footpaths through protected Green Belt woodland off Rowley Lane, Arkley, is being blocked by fencing and other obstructions. Trees and undergrowth are also being cleared.
Nearby residents and dog walkers say they have alerted Barnet Council to what they claim are attempts to start house building without planning permission.
Since this was first reported by the Barnet Society on 19 August more fences have been erected and fresh barriers put in place. A stile with footpath signs has also been removed from the woods.
However, the residents' protests are having an impact: a preservation order now now been issued by Barnet Council to protect all the trees in what is officially known as Rowley Lodge field. (See update below).
Ten acres of woodland, which were once attached to Rowley Lodge, were sold off by a previous owner and the land has now been subdivided and sold off in one-acre plots.
Five have been purchased by adjoining householders, but other plots have been bought by potential developers and are being fenced off from the public.
Jonathan Warren (above, left), who regularly walks through the woods, discovered a fence blocking a path which he and Arkley resident Hayley Lehmann both believe should remain open.
One plot with access to Rowley Lane is already being used to store builders’ materials and machinery, including stacks of tiles and pallets.
Ms Lehmann, who is helping to raise awareness to unapproved incursions into much-appreciated Green Belt woodland, showed the extent of undergrowth clearance and storage to Frances Wilson, chair of the Barnet Society.
After Barnet Council’s planning department was alerted to the potential development without permission, Ms Lehmann was told that the owner of the plot had been contacted and warned that trees on the site were protected by tree preservation orders.
According to the owner, the land was being “temporarily used for storage while refurbishment works to a commercial property” were being undertaken.
A planning officer would visit the site to discuss this further with the new owner, but Ms Lehmann was told by the council that the enforcement of planning instructions and protection of the Green Belt could take “a long time”.
Access to the plot has now been strengthened with high fencing and a padlocked gate facing on to Rowley Lane. Fencing and a barrier on the footpath warn: “Private property, no trespassing”.
Men working on the site have already cleared much of the site of small trees and undergrowth and started excavating and digging test pits. They say the owner intends to build a house on the plot.
Before the access was blocked, a group of protestors, led by Arkley resident Mel Garfield (left) challenged the man who was leading the work.
He said that his brother intended to build a house on the site and had already been given permission by Barnet Council to fence off the land, clear undergrowth, and store materials on the site.
Ms Garfield said she was frustrated and disappointed with the council’s response so far. Residents needed clear guidance on whether development had been authorised as there was no evidence of a planning application.
Frances Wilson who leads for the Barnet Society on the marking and protection of public footpaths pointed to one of the clearly marked rights of way across the woods.
At her request, Libby Martin, Ramblers footpath secretary for the London Boroughs of Barnet and Enfield, has promised to visit the Arkley woodland to advise on which footpaths are already protected rights of way and those where rights of way could be applied for if walkers were prepared to testify that they had been in use for 20 years or more.
Ms Martin said she was aware that there had been illegal dumping and demolition. She had taken this up with the council as she feared there was likely to be an attempt to build houses on the land.
What caused particular concern among nearby residents and walkers was evidence of markers along the paths indicating the boundaries of the various plots and where fencing was likely to be erected.
Robin Bishop, who leads for the Barnet Society on planning, said local experience had shown that planning enforcement was a lengthy business. The legal process was complicated, and Barnet had a small enforcement team.
He explained that it had taken years to get a hectare of Green Belt land in Hendon Wood Lane cleared of building materials and skips. A field close to Dollis Brook had been turned into an eyesore in complete contravention of planning law.
Within a day of the Barnet Society visiting the woods and photographing Frances Wilson (see above) the stile and sign that she was pointing to has disappeared completely. Hayley Lehmann -- photographed here on the same spot on 21 August -- said the removal of signs indicating a public right of way was a matter of considerable public concern.
Holes in the ground where the stile was had been filled with earth. Additional barriers had been placed across one of the approved footpaths.
But the protests of nearby residents have produced one immediate result. Barnet Council has issued a new tree preservation order to "protect all the trees growing in Rowley Lodge field".
The designation of the order protects existing trees and any new trees. In addition the designation of the land as a site of interest for nature conservation has been updated to reflect the current character of the land which is "wooded with open glades of grass or scrub". The land is also within an area designated as Green Belt and these designations are "significant policy restraints" for anyone considering the development of the land.