On 26 January 2014, about 50 people gathered at Burgh House to discuss what was important to them about Hampstead, and their priorities for the village’s future. The purpose was to begin setting the mandate for the Hampstead Neighbourhood Forum, which is being established to develop a Neighbourhood Plan under the provisions of the Localism Act.
The meeting was held in a ‘World Café’ format, designed to stimulate conversation around small tables. Each table was given a question intended to provoke the expression of views. This report groups the ideas expressed into themes that could form the basis of the future activities of the Forum – and thus of the eventual plan. While these themes appeared to be important to all those present, a wide range of views – in some cases far from unanimous – were expressed.
A Living Village: Themes for Hampstead’s Future
Residents like to talk about Hampstead as a village. It is ‘an idea as much as a place’. It has an element of romance to it, of Bohemia: it is not seen as ‘suburban’. The lively High Street and historic buildings contribute, and the Heath is vital. But most of all Hampstead is a community of people. It is made up of residents of all ages, business people and providers of essential services.
A top priority for the Forum is to maintain this village atmosphere. But this does not mean just keeping it the same. All communities depend for their vitality on embracing change. For example, many residents think it is very important to encourage greater diversity among Hampstead’s shops and businesses. They say that businesses that are not part of national chains need to be given a fair chance to thrive.
What are the important elements of building upon a thriving village so as to make sure that it continues to reflect the aspirations of those who live and do business in it? Three central themes emerge from the discussions at Burgh House:
- enhancing and preserving a beautiful environment
- developing a sharing, caring community
- dealing sensibly with traffic and transport issues
Environment: intelligent planning
Hampstead is a beautiful place, and an important part of the Forum’s role must be to keep it that way. But good planning will have a role beyond that of preservation. It will help to foster a thriving, diverse community.
The fact that Hampstead is a Conservation Area, with the planning disciplines that this involves, means that our environment already has significant protection. Nevertheless, residents have a number of concerns.
The Burgh House meeting saw the Forum as a means for residents and those who work locally to unite constructively to deal with threats to the neighbourhood. If they were able to decide collectively what was most important, they could be more effective than was possible otherwise. They could obtain better strategic control of what kinds of development should or should not be permitted, and what kinds of development should be encouraged.
Some issues are already well rehearsed, particularly that of the addition of basements to properties. Rather than labouring this, however, residents spoke instead of keeping Hampstead buildings – and the village in general – on an appropriate scale. Good designs could be debated with developers.
Another issue that has been with Hampstead for more than a century has been that of encroachments onto the Heath. If there is any issue that has long been able to mobilise opposition to construction projects, it is this one. And the Forum will not take a different position: the Heath is widely seen as a vital and wonderful part of our neighbourhood.
More specifically, views were expressed on the following environmental issues:
* Trees. One group considered how to keep Hampstead leafy. They proposed that there should be a requirement to plant two or three trees for each one felled. Camden staff working in this area deserved more support and funding, and help in finding locations to plant new trees. Magistrates should issue heavier fines for breaching tree regulations. Requirements could be placed on developers to plant trees. Trees could be mapped and listed.
* Housing and Heritage. There is a good mix of housing in the neighbourhood, but a larger amount of affordable housing is needed, and what’s there needs to be protected. Use could be made of derelict Council properties, and better use could be made of spaces above shops. Affordable housing should be promoted when particular opportunities arise, such as the New End nurses building, the Queen Mary’s facility and the police station. Respecting and protecting the heritage of Hampstead was seen as crucial in protecting the area’s special character.
* Public spaces. Residents feel these could be better cared for. Unnecessary road signs could be removed as part of an effort to ‘de-clutter’. Estate agents’ signs are a familiar bugbear. Pavements should be renewed, and there should be closer attention to lighting, rubbish, water leaks – perhaps by ‘street wardens’. Some people would go further: they want to encourage more street life, with stalls and markets. They would like real ‘play streets’ for children. At any rate, keeping the High Street/Heath Street area and the South End Green area as lively hubs of commerce and employment is universally seen as very important.
* The Heath. The view was expressed that ‘it should never change’. The Heath and Hampstead Society is already well-established and influential in preserving it, and it has a benevolent overseer in the City of London Corporation – though this does not prevent issues arising such as the current argument over dams on the ponds and, more perennially, of cycling routes. Of particular concern were developments on the fringes of the Heath.
* Private spaces. Some thought there should be tighter controls on development of back gardens – both basements and constructions that obstructed light. With an eye to the current controversy over the White Bear, residents thought change-of-use decisions should rigorously promote diversity of businesses and residences. The view was expressed that building or paving over front gardens should be banned and new crossovers to make parking spaces should be prohibited. There were many conversations about trying to mitigate the negative impact of building works on neighbours and neighbourhoods.
Community: share and care
‘Connectedness’ is important to Hampstead’s future in several ways. The word implies being linked through digital networks, but it also means ordinary human contact. People living in Hampstead may have known for years their greengrocer, their optician, their pharmacist, or the person on the till at Tesco; and these people know them. This is just as much a part of village life as knowing neighbours, or recognising each other on the bus or Tube. Building more connections within the community will help people to look out for each other, to build better services for each other, and to know each other better as customers and providers.
For example, in some streets residents have grouped into email networks that help them to communicate if neighbours are ill or in need of help. This kind of outreach could be developed further: several ideas were put forward. These included knowing and caring for neighbours, being aware of their absences and illnesses, telling them in advance about parties, looking after pets and houses. (Though not every resident would necessarily welcome such an approach.)
Networks can have other functions. For example, they could be used to rally views and support when issues arise that are important to the community. A further example is the recent creation of smart-phone apps that enable local people to exchange information and opinions. Another suggestion was the exchange of infants’ clothes and pushchairs for parents with young children. It was also suggested that information about rubbish, poor lighting and damaged pavements could be exchanged through networks with a view to mobilising remedies (though there are good avenues for reporting such problems to Camden Council).
One section of the community that needs particular attention is the elderly, especially those who live alone. The view was expressed that there needs to be better care for those with Alzheimers/dementia, and that NHS services could be better monitored and reviewed by residents.
Business is a vital element of the local community. As mentioned above, residents strongly want to see a greater variety of shops and businesses. To help this happen, it is necessary to consider what would help them to flourish. Lower rents and taxes would be an important element, but not the only one: they also have to be able to take delivery of their goods, and customers and staff have to be able to reach them easily.
There are many service providers who are part of the community: doctors, dentists, solicitors, cafes, restaurants, pubs, estate agents, banks, the Post Office, Transport for London, Camden Council staff – to name just some. The Royal Free Hospital, though outside the Forum’s area, is an essential and large part of Hampstead. There are many schools, to which many residents send their children.
It was suggested that schools – both state and private – could play their role in the Forum project. A youth committee was one idea, made up of school students. Schools could be involved in projects about Hampstead’s history and life, with their work to be displayed in shop windows. One project idea: what makes a village?
Also mentioned was the need to improve cooperation between private and state schools, to improve special needs education, and local facilities for the young.
Cultural events are a further essential element of the community, with theatre, music and literary events all frequent. Keats Community Library has been much discussed. There are also local walks highlighting historical points and, for example, for birdwatchers. Information about these could be exchanged more actively.
More broadly, the area needs to ensure that it contains centres of excellence that provide services for all, such as Camden Age UK’s Henderson Court resource centre. Another important element of community life is a sense of security, and this requires confidence in the presence and accessibility of the police. The closure of Hampstead police station – something that the community fought for many years – has highlighted the fact that this issue remains unresolved.
Overall, the spirit of all these ideas is one of sharing of practical activities, talents and skills. It is of outreach among those who live and work locally, so as to build a stronger community.
Transport and traffic: a smart approach
Hampstead exists as part of one of the world’s biggest, most visited and most cosmopolitan cities. It is a distinct neighbourhood and village, but it is not isolated from the rest of London – and nor should it be. Public and private transport, as well as commercial traffic, are essential lifelines.
This issue provokes strong and diverse opinions. Some people would like to see roads pedestrianised, or reserved for residents. Some would like to see enforced sharing of vehicles. Others tend to see transport as a normal part of life – and of a neighbourhood’s vitality.
Leaving aside more extreme views, there were two issues on which there was general concern. These were heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), and the school run.
HGVs were seen as damaging streets and trees, and unsuitable for Hampstead’s small roads. Deliveries to local businesses should be made in smaller vehicles. One specific question was whether the high speed rail project HS2 would lead to a flow of heavy construction vehicles through Hampstead.
Meanwhile, the school run was seen as contributing an inordinate amount of traffic to Hampstead, though few remedies were suggested.
A further concern is the speed of traffic, in spite of the recent imposition of a blanket 20mph limit. There has been a long-standing debate about whether further restrictions, such as speed bumps, are effective or desirable.
Residents generally see Hampstead as quite accessible by trains and buses. One concern was the linkage between the High Street area and the South End Green area, which perhaps could be improved by changes to bus routes, or the addition of a shuttle bus.
Cyclists would like to see more cycle lanes, and more and better bicycle racks. The need for charging points for electric-powered vehicles was also mentioned.
Surprisingly, the issues that aroused concern at the Burgh House meeting did not include parking – perhaps indicating that residents feel Camden’s parking restrictions strike roughly the right balance. However, again the views of businesses will need in future to be balanced against those of residents.
In the same spirit, a smart approach to transport and traffic will seek to meet pressing concerns expressed by both residents and businesses in a manner that will permit the development of a vibrant community in which both can flourish to mutual benefit.
The Hampstead Neighbourhood Forum will hold its first Annual General Meeting at 7pm on Thursday 6th March, at Hampstead Community Centre, 78 Hampstead High Street. The meeting will be an important step towards application to Camden Council to be designated as a neighbourhood forum under the Localism Act.