Fringe Box



Comment: The Battle of Eyre’s Tooth

Published on: 14 Jan, 2023
Updated on: 21 Jan, 2023

By Martin Giles

You might have heard of the War of Jenkins’ Ear.  Well we can now add to that the “Battle of Eyre’s Tooth”. The future of Guildford’s townscape could have been decided by the state of a councillor’s troublesome tooth on Wednesday (January 11).

It was the beginning of what was probably the most crucial planning meeting since the controversial adoption of the Local Plan in 2019. On the agenda was the contentious proposal for the regeneration of North Street.

Cllr Graham Eyre before the toothache struck.

An announcement was made that Cllr Graham Eyre (Con, South Ash & Tongham) had sent his apologies because he was suffering from toothache so badly it would have prevented him from speaking.

As it turned out his missing single vote could have been crucial.

To seasoned council observers, the way the five Lib Dems voted on the proposal was going to be the determining factor.

The first rule of politics is ensure you are able to count. The first rule of planning committees, when major applications are at stake, is don’t believe party politics do not play a part. “Groupthink” often tends to rule.

There are 15 members on the Planning Committee at GBC. Five each for the Lib Dems and R4GV, three Conservatives, one GGG and one Labour.

The GBC Planning Committee considering the North Street proposal. Photo LDRS.

It was fairly certain that all the R4GV members would support the application. After all, John Rigg, one of their leading lights, had worked incredibly hard to get it to the table. It was equally likely that the Conservatives would vote against, following their leader’s failed attempt to defer the application to a full council meeting.

But with Graham Eyre’s absence, the Tories were down to two. If the GGG and Labour members voted with R4GV, all five Lib Dems needed to vote against for the vote to be tied 7-7. But would they?

The developer’s model of the proposal for the North Street Regeneration, project “The Friary Quarter”. For some height, density and style was an issue. Others liked it or thought it a price worth paying for progress.

In the vote on the Debenhams application one Lib Dem, John Askew, had abstained; perhaps he would again. Perhaps it would be fellow Lib Dem Pauline Searle, who reminded the meeting that she was a Guildfordian by birth, who simply wanted the best for her town and admitted she faced a dilemma. Or could it be Angela Goodwin who remained silent?

Momentum seemed to be with R4. Surely one of the necessary votes would be cast in favour.

Guildford Greenbelt Group leader Ramsay Nagaty made his intentions to do so clear. GGG supporters in the villages would much rather see high-rise in Guildford than more green belt developed, even though the meeting was reminded the North Street scheme would not allow the return of green belt protection to sites such as Wisley.

Cllr George Potter criticising the viability study.

Cllr George Potter raised the black art known as the “viability assessment”. He was right to. It appears to be an irresistible and unfathomable developers’ charter to justify and insist on higher-rise buildings to increase their profit.

Cllr Marsha Moseley chairing a Planning Committee meeting in December 2019

Cllr Marsha Moseley astutely commented that “viability” had only become such an issue in recent years, going on to recall previous council misjudgements on building heights, so apparent to her now as she drove into Guildford from the Hog’s Back.

But a series of speakers spoke passionately in favour of the scheme, warning that Guildford would not get a second chance. It was this, with all its obvious advantages, or nothing.

For some, though, “nothing” remains better. The proposed scheme was an urban version not of Eyre’s tooth but of Ayers Rock, rising from nowhere, dominating all around it. It was the wrong style, the wrong scale, the wrong solution.

Cllr John Redpath

John Redpath criticised the objectors, mocking their desire to hang on to the character of a market town as sentimental nostalgia. They wanted, he said, a scene in which Farmer Giles wheeled his barrow of root vegetables into the market place.

It was the kind of cheap insult we have seen too much of in this debate from both those in favour of and against the proposal. Both sides have a perfect right to their equally subjective views and they should be respected. There is no monopoly on wisdom.

And as the descendent of farm workers from East Horsley and Clandon named Giles I can, personally only envy them their real “Farmer Giles” view of 19th century North Street. How have we managed to wreck it so thoroughly?

How the developers believed the Friary Quarter might have looked at ground level.

As for Cllr Eyre’s tooth, well I hope it is giving its owner less trouble now. The councillor is known to have no affection for The Dragon but tootache is miserable. His party colleague David Bilbe has assured us that planning votes, at least his, are not influenced by party loyalty. Obviously there’s just a lot of coincidence about.

Councillors voted seven in favour and seven against the officers’ recommendation to approve the plans – which meant the chair had the deciding vote, having already voted against the application.

Cllr Fiona White

Committee chair Fiona White (Lib Dem, Westborough) said: “This is the one thing I always hoped would never happen to me while I’m chairing this committee.” She voted against, of course.

At the end of the meeting, she was heard to say that she wished Cllr Eyre and his tooth had been present to relieve her of the necessity of making the casting vote. Perhaps, if he had been able to turn up he would have bucked the Tory trend and it would be a different story: 8 – 7 in favour of the scheme. But I doubt it.

So what next? Councils and councillors should look to build consensus in their communities, not drive through proposals that are certain to be divisive and then name-call objectors. 

Cllr John Rigg

Cllr Rigg made much play at the beginning of the North Street project that he would give the public the choice of architectural style. They chose traditional, but like thousands of the comments on the Local Plan it was not what the decision makers wanted to hear and was eventually ignored.

Fundamental to the flawed plan was the wrong-headed advice, given to councillors by council officers, and referred to on Wednesday evening by Cllrs Nagaty and Barrass, that Guildford does not need a building height policy. That decision should now be recognised as the folly it was.

Our town most certainly does need a height policy, and promptly, or its character will be damaged forever. Without one we are bound to replay this battle time and again.

A height policy is the only way to avoid such contentious applications, which only create public disunity and antagonism. They also bring the council which, thanks to national planning policy is hardly in full control of planning decisions, into yet more disrepute.

Share This Post

Responses to Comment: The Battle of Eyre’s Tooth

  1. Julian Cooper Reply

    January 16, 2023 at 11:51 am

    Decay is a terrible blight… be it tooth or urban.

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy. All comments are moderated and may take time to appear.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *