This article follows the debate about the future shape of Guildford. Starting with view of Gavin Morgan it summarises the debate
The town is spending millions on a Master Plan but the reality seems to be we have no control over the future of our town. Developers turn up wanting to build enormous tower blocks. First Guildford station (10 stories) then Debenhams (8 stories in a,conservation area) and then in North Street (13 stories). The impression I get is that the Council seems to feel it has to say “yes” because it will either be forced to through an appeal or end up with nothing.
Why is this a problem? Each developer that forces the town to allow taller buildings sets a precedent other developers want to follow. And because Guildford has no master plan for the entire town, no height restrictions and no strategy for where tall buildings might be appropriate the town is left unprotected.
What we really need is a proper public engagement exercise. It needs to be presented in a way that we all can all easily understand the issues and challenges. It’s needs to seek out what most people feel rather than be happy with a few comments from those who have time to volunteer.
Perhaps some of the money being spent on the master plan could be used. If not perhaps the community should run one via the Guildford Society. Or the perhaps our neglected museum could become a venue for exhibitions that explore what makes historic Guildford unique and how we can create a vibrant future without ruining what we have inherited.
It is about time Guildford took back control of its future rather than let developers decide.
Update April 2023
The issue of height has become a bit of an election issue. A video released by Robin Horsley called the Battle for Guildford, claims that there was poor consultation on North Street and blames R4GV. It contains factual errors but nevertheless has been picked up by the Guildford Dragon and the BBC. The Guildford Dragon ran a good article providing some context and pointing out that none of the parties have a good track record on protecting the town from tall buildings. The Guildford Society has also produced a good article worth reading
Update Jan 2023
Plans to transform the town took a turn on 11th January when the Guildford Borough Council planning committee turned down the North Street application. See North Street article The voting was along party lines (as always!) with the Lib Dems and Conservatives quashing the plans which were a joint scheme between the Council (part owner of the site) and the developer. There have been political arguments about parties ruining chances to improve the town, possibly setting the town back 20 years. Liz Hogger writing in the Guildford Dragon possibly has a point:
“There is a difference between the council’s aspirations for the North Street site (providing more homes including affordable homes, an improved bus station, and enhancing and protecting the character of our town, as well as bringing economic benefits) and the actual planning application brought forward by the developer (negligible affordable homes, a reduced bus station that the County Highways Authority objected to, and excessively high buildings which harmed the character of the town and the historic environment). I hope the council will now use its landholdings as leverage to encourage the developer to amend the planning application to remove these shortcomings, rather than going to appeal. This ought to be possible if there is goodwill on all sides.”
James Gross also wrote in the Guildford Dragon “The celebrated Danish architect and urbanist Jan Gehl is oft quoted as having stated that “buildings above six storeys no longer can be considered of human scale and instead contribute to the ‘skyscape’ rather than the street. [GBC did not do ] …the correct homework in assessing how many storeys would be needed to accommodate circa 500 homes on this site. Nor was the damaging impact on local townscape and character considered. The reality is that within the visual envelope of the established townscape and character of Guildford, developments of greater than six storeys cannot be readily accommodated without causing harm. He recommends the following report Living with beauty: report of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission)
Update November 2022
Three massive developments are set to transform the character of Guildford over the next decade. In February 2018, the government inspector approved the Solem development at Guildford station.
It will be the biggest development in the town’s history. Nicknamed locally, the “Great Wall of Guildford”, it will have 8 blocks ranging from six to ten stories with a car park, 438 homes, retail offices and a multi-storey car park.
It was rejected by Guildford Borough Council in June 2016 but the developer appealed. The Government Inspector rejected local arguments against the project. However, with no height or density restrictions, an out of date local plan and large areas of the town needing development, Guildford was not in a strong position to argue and just looked like a town resisting change.
In North Street, a proposed development includes tower blocks ranging from 8 to 14 stories, much higher than anything Guildford currently has been proposed.
The next major development is Debenhams. This is a 4 storey building in a conservation area and yet the developer Native Land wanted to build an two blocks of 8 and 9 storeys. There were fears that this would set a precedent in the town centre but Tuesday 22nd November the Guildford Borough Council Planning Committee passed an application from Native Land for an eight storey residential block with 185 homes. The development includes retail on the ground level and a pocket park overlooking the Yvonne Arnaud.
The town’s lack of enthusiasm for the scheme was apparent. It was passed by one vote (six votes to five) but only a minority of the committee were in favour due to two abstentions.
The Chair described it as a “bloody awful building”, The Guildford Society and Guildford Residents Association objected. Even Historic England objected saying “We recommend that the application is refused consent” due to the harm that would be caused to St Mary’s church (Grade I) and St Nicolas Church (Grade II*), as well as more broadly, the town centre conservation areas. (See Full Letter)
But the town is divided on this issue. I think Guildford Dragon neatly explained the probably reason why when Martin Giles wrote “clearly no one wanted an increasingly derelict building to decay slowly for decades as we have seen happen elsewhere in the town.” North Street has been an embarrassing wasteland for decades. Many letters to the Dragon have stressed the need to get on with something.
The problem with the “something is better than nothing” approach is we end up accepting whatever developers offer. And what they offer is what is in their interests – more height to yield more profit.
So what needs to be done? Well there is no point trying to push back the sea. As we saw at the station, the Government appeals process will support development in the town and will support tall buildings. There are housing quotas to be fulfilled, the town centre needs revitalising and residents want to protect the Green Belt by building on brown field sites.
Guildford needs a strategy. It must prevent developers dreaming up massive schemes and believing they can force the council’s hand by appealing to the Government Inspector. I believe Guildford can remove their “trump card” by showing the government that it is tackling the need for more housing and is open to developers for business. This can be achieved through a proper, well thought out plan than shows how these objectives can be met and what Guildford will allow. Developers will still come because there is profit to be made but their ambition for excessive profit will be curtailed because the likelihood of them being able to successfully appeal will be reduced.
Is such a plan possible? Guildford is investing 3 million in a Master Plan. There is clearly the money to get the right people on the job. The Guildford Society which has many experienced architects has explained what needs to be done
“The society believes it is imperative to show how major schemes will impact and interact with each other; and more importantly the rest of the town centre. This needs to cover both distant views and as experienced at ground level within the town. Large bulky buildings can make for very hostile street environments. The council have tools to enable this as a computer model (VU.City) and this should be made public so schemes can be made visible. The model covers 22sq km to 15CM of accuracy 102,672 Trees accurate to height and canopy and 31,362 Buildings.”