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Opinion: A Realistic Vision For the Rebirth of Guildford in the Age of the Internet

Published on: 11 Oct, 2020
Updated on: 17 Oct, 2020

Cllr John Redpath

By John Redpath

R4GV borough councillor for Holy Trinity and lead for the Economy on the Executive

Most of us realise Guildford is enduring major change, probably the biggest since the railway arrived in 1845, when this small, self-contained, rural market town was suddenly reborn a community then just an hour from bustling London, with all that entailed.

Today, movements already recognised as gradually under way in 2019, especially in our work practices and the retail sector, have been vastly accelerated by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The switch to online shopping has been rapid, so swift the town’s retail offerings have suffered casualties as they tried to compete.
Outcomes are uncertain but we can be sure life will be conspicuously different.

Most of us probably accept the town will never bounce back to what we have had over the past three decades and this we must accept so we can move forward and plan a new future.

Many blame high business rates and expensive rents

Many blame high business rates and expensive rents for the closed shops and, to some extent this is true, but urban evolution can also be restricted by planning and building regulations and conservation restrictions, among others.

During my time as lead councillor for the Economy, I want to help set up a forum with landlords or their agents, together with Experience Guildford, to look realistically at what residents really need and want in their town centre.

Among other ideas, I would like to re-invent the department store on a much smaller scale with maybe some of the larger empty shops divided into several independent units. To do this we need landlords to be far more flexible in their lease conditions and, as a council, we need to encourage such seedling enterprises.

We can have only so many clothes shops, shoe shops and estate agents in a town centre and by encouraging fringe independent retailers, Guildford would become a much more welcoming, interesting and vibrant shopping experience.

We should also consider other uses for empty retail units, for instance, in one case a drop-in centre for Guildford Action, CAB, Voluntary Action and GATE (a job club). This would create a one-stop shop for those seeking work or to involve themselves in other activities post-pandemic.

Such a change of use would require planning consent and, as a council, we must do all in our power to aid change if it’s good for the borough and our residents.

We’ll have far more people living in the town centre, shopping in the shops they need, enjoying nearby dining, entertainment and cultural centres and, with commuting reduced thanks to the Internet (which caused the change in the first place), we would end up with a truly sustainable town.

Previous generations did not worry much about the environmental impact of their policies but today we must, and some of the measures I have outlined can be part of a fantastic green initiative.

We must all help the town evolve over the next decade. That means your suggestions are welcomed and they can make a real difference.

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