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Climate and Heritage Are Reasons to ‘Rescue Debenhams Building’ Says National Campaign Group

Published on: 9 Apr, 2022
Updated on: 9 Apr, 2022

By Hugh Coakley

Debenhams should be rescued from demolition. This is the message from historic buildings campaigners, SAVE Britain’s Heritage who are calling for department stores around the country, including the former Debenhams department store in Guildford.

Debenhams in 1968 (from the postcard collection of Eric Morgan).

The new report by SAVE says the 237 vacant department stores nationwide were “designed to impress and inspire. They are of great architectural merit, and stand as a monument to the historic prosperity of their town.”

They describe the languishing buildings as “cathedrals of commerce” adding: “At a time of climate emergency, it is also hard to justify the release of embodied carbon through the wrecking ball.”

Comparison between the heights of the existing Debenhams building and the proposed St Mary’s Wharf.

Save Britain’s Heritage has added its objection to the plan by the developer, Native Land, for two, up to nine-storeys high, mainly residential blocks on the Guildford riverside site. This follows objections from those of Historic England, Guildford Conservative Association, Holy Trinity Action Group and the Guildford Society, among others

Aerial view of the then Plummers store as it was called soon after it was opened in 1968. It became a Debenhams store in 1974.

But, as previously reported in The Dragon, opinion in the town is split on whether the controversial Debenhams emporium, opened in 1968 as Plummers Department store, should be knocked down or re-purposed with a mix of retail, social housing and recreation.

The current proposals for the 215 luxury homes has had a mixed reception with some saying the design was “out of keeping” with the conservation area but others welcoming the regeneration of the site and opening up of the riverside.

See Town Split Over St Mary’s Wharf As Historic England Accuses Developer Of Flawed Conclusions

Bill Stokoe, who chairs the Guildford Vision Group, said: “Personally, I don’t find the Debenhams building particularly attractive and I am happy to see it replaced by a more multi-purpose, regenerative development.

“The great gift the Debenhams site can bestow on Guildford is to open up the riverside for wider public use, linking through to the Yvonne Arnaud [Theatre] and beyond and to deliver much-needed sustainable town centre housing.”

Aerial view of the Debenhams site (photo from the St Mary’s Wharf website)

But the chair of the Guildford Society, Alistair Smith, disagrees. He said: “Many of our large retail buildings are of good design and building quality, and suitable for re-use. Repurposing the buildings can be a better option particularly when issues with embodied carbon are taken into account.”

Plans to knock down Marks & Spencer’s flagship building in Oxford Street London are being challenged on climate change reasons. Google Maps.

Smith cited approved plans to redevelop the Marks & Spencer flagship 1930s store in Oxford Street, London, with “up-front cost of 40,000 tonnes of embodied carbon”. These are now being revisited after a critical report said the plans were inconsistent with net-zero legislation and the Greater London Authority’s climate policies.

He continued: “Guildford has shown it can be done. 255 High Street, beside G Live, is a recent totally revamped building, using the old foundations and structure, meeting the highest environmental standards.”

255 Upper High Street, Guildford is said to have been revamped using the existing foundations and structure. Google Maps.

Acknowledging the difficulties in keeping the 1960s building, Gavin Morgan, speaking for the Guildford Heritage Forum, called the former Debenhams “a rather fine example of 1960s urban design” and criticised the developer’s proposals as dropping “a massive London warehouse into a county town”.

He summarised his view saying: “Unfortunately it is stuck between a developer wanting to maximise profits and a council desperate to avoid leaving the site vacant for years.”

He was supported by local historian and Dragon writer, David Rose, who said: “The Debenhams building should be saved and converted into homes. I love modern architecture and future generations will be glad as 1950s and 60s architecture will then be seen as innovative and beautiful.”

The residential-led application is for the “demolition of the existing building and the construction of two new buildings to provide 215 new homes, with flexible retail and commercial use, open space for the new residents and public realm” with public access to the riverside, a public square and a one storey pavilion to the north of the site.

We contacted Guildford Borough Council’s lead for regeneration, John Rigg (R4GV, Holy Trinity), for a comment.

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Responses to Climate and Heritage Are Reasons to ‘Rescue Debenhams Building’ Says National Campaign Group

  1. Bibhas Neogi Reply

    April 9, 2022 at 7:40 pm

    Debenhams building is within the conservation area, so the general approach should be retention unless it is structurally unsafe. I believe the recently published document out for consultation has guidelines on modification to buildings within a conservation area.

    I would support SAVE Britain Heritage and re-purposing of the building with alterations I suggested in

    As I have replied to the comments on my above-mentioned letter, re-purposing the building with the creation of an atrium and a couple of additional floors with setback terraces would probably be a better proposal provided the developer can get a reasonable return for his investment.

    Bearing in mind demolition is a tricky and expensive job, especially within the constraints of the site. There is barely room to put up a crane on the northern open space! A busy road is next to it and a safe distance, therefore, will have to be maintained in addition to providing access routes for haulage lorries going in and out of the site so close to the pedestrian crossing!

    Mr Roger Main, a former manager of Debenhams, commented on my letter saying: “The Atrium is not a viable idea. Yes, it lets in light but takes away selling space which returns pounds per sq foot, ie profit.

    “No one currently is building retail space, in fact, buildings are being converted to flats. As to a communal space does anyone really think the council will fund such a project, as suggested? No.”

    As far as I am aware, Native Land is proposing to keep the ground floor for retail and if the building is re-purposed, this could be the same. By removing the rear walls, a covered walkway next to the river could be provided. It would be in front of display windows of the retail outlets and lead to the proposed bridge to the Theatre.

    The use of the first floor, by library, museum, gymnasium, theatre, conference rooms and cinemas etc, would be possible and for GBC sharing the space with commercial outlets. The second floor and the new floors above would be for apartments.

    The proposed V-shape on the plan of the bigger of the two buildings in essence is creating the effect of an atrium. Are the developers being naive in losing out on the square footage by creating this open space between the two wings that form the V-shape? I think not. I guess a crane will be erected in that space for the construction of the buildings.

    The main driver is the profit margin, so whether it is a total demolition and then rebuilding, or re-purposing with alterations and additional floors on top, is for the developer to decide. Saving on demolition costs should be a big incentive.

  2. Nikki Gibbon Reply

    April 11, 2022 at 6:41 pm

    I fully support Native Land’s scheme for the former Debenhams site.

    While they say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I believe this brutalist building is an eyesore. It blocks views, enjoyment and use of the river. There are no reasons how repurposing it offers any visual or enhanced community benefits like those being offered in the Native Land’s scheme which provides retail as well as leisure/restaurant/cafe uses at ground floor level and opening onto the riverside.

    With residential above, it encourages people to live within the town centre which brings wider economic benefits to the rest of the town.

    Guildford has been stagnant for so long, change is necessary if the town is to survive and maintain its status in the south-east.

    Let’s not be resistant to change, let’s embrace the opportunities being presented. The concept of their scheme is sound and has my full support.

  3. Valerie Thompson Reply

    April 12, 2022 at 9:36 am

    It’s a pity that the Debenham building doesn’t have access to the riverside all along its back facade. I can’t see how this could be achieved.

    Otherwise, I agree that the graceless building should be repurposed as it is, rather than demolished, followed by the erection of an even higher, even uglier monstrosity.

  4. Ros Calow Reply

    April 12, 2022 at 6:19 pm

    My German friend visiting from Freiburg was clear that the Debenhams building is iconic 60’s and should be kept in preference to a modern box.

  5. Pete Knight Reply

    April 13, 2022 at 6:01 pm

    Given the chaos in GBC’s Planning Department and the lack of any leadership or order, I wouldn’t worry about any decision being made any time soon on this.

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