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Controversial Housing Development Needed for Cathedral ‘To Survive’ Says Dean

Published on: 19 Dec, 2022
Updated on: 19 Dec, 2022

Dean of Guildford Cathedral during the 2017 interview with The Dragon NEWS.

By Hugh Coakley

The survival of Guildford Cathedral depends on the approval of a controversial planning proposal to build houses on the surrounding slopes of Stag Hill.

The Dean of Guildford Cathedral has repeated the claim in a letter to the Guildford Borough Council’s planning department. She said the proposed development of 124 homes, made possible by sale of cathedral land to the developer, is the “minimum that is required to generate the required annual endowment” for the cathedral “to survive”.

Revised masterplan for the proposed 124 homes on the cathedral slopes.

The Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, hit national headlines in 2017 when he said the cathedral faced “probable closure” after the application for 134 homes was rejected by the council.

The Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson

At the time, many were skeptical about the claim and said other options for raising funds should be used such as charging an entrance fee for the estimated annual 90,000 visitors to the cathedral. It was reported at the time the application would have raised a £10 million endowment for the cathedral.

In a letter to Guildford Borough Council planning department, the Very RevdDianne Gwilliams (December 2, 2022) said the “proposed development will be of lasting significance to the cathedral and the local community by providing a sustainable building with an important role in the Diocese, the County, the town and beyond for decades to come”.

See: Dragon Interview (2017): Dean of Guildford Cathedral Dianna Gwilliams

But opponents say the development is “for money, not doing good for Guildford”.

Illustrations of proposed homes on the eastern slopes of Stag Hill showing some building height reduction.

The developer’s plans were amended “following feedback received during consultation with stakeholders and the wider community” says the developer, Vivid.

The new designs have reduced the height of some blocks from four to three storeys. It has also included heat pumps instead of gas boilers, improved bicycle facilities and offered £150 travel vouchers for new residents.

Illustrations of the proposed homes for the cathedral’s clergy.

Friends of Stag Hill (FoSH) group, who has opposed the cathedral’s housing ambitions, say its main issues, including traffic congestion, poor access to the new houses and turning the “green space of Stag Hill into an ugly mass of blocks of flats”, have not been addressed.

In a statement to The Dragon, the group said: “The cathedral takes the benefit. The community bears the harm.”

Local councillors have also voiced concern saying they were “disappointed”. Jon Askew (Lib Dem, Onslow) responding on behalf of the two other Lib Dem Onslow councillors (Will Salmon and David Goodwin), said: “While we welcome the updates to address sustainability and increase the amount of affordable homes, this still falls short of the required 40 per cent affordable as it leaves private homes earmarked for cathedral staff use out of the calculation total.

Cllr John Askew

“The changed scheme also still contains the overbearing four-storey blocks which are out of character for the area, still has a massive uplift on the allocated number of units [in the Local Plan] and will still damage the setting of the Grade II* listed cathedral, affecting views from all across Guildford.

“Ultimately many key problems remain unaddressed and we remain disappointed.”

The plan to use housing development on the prominent Stag Hill landmark site in order to secure the cathedral’s financial future has been dogged for years by controversy and a determined local opposition.

An application for 134 homes was rejected by Guildford Borough Council in 2017. At the time, the bishop was considered to have had his bluff called when he said the cathedral faced “probably closure” with much criticism of his statement on social media and in The Dragon.

Illustration of the proposed buildings, called “overbearing” by councillors, viewed from Scholars Walk and Ridgemount.

The 2021 designs were heavily criticised by Guildford’s MP, Angela Richardson, Historic England and the War Memorials Trust all calling for a rethink of the proposals.

Ms Richardson said there were “fundamental issues” with the “scale and quantum” of development being proposed which is out of proportion to the Local Plan allocation. She criticised the proposed access to the site saying it should be via the cathedral’s main drive.

Objectors believe the scheme would desecrate land donated to the cathedral by the former Canadian prime minister, Lord Bennett, to commemorate “the association between Canada and the Diocese of Guildford in two world wars”.

Matt O’Grady, chief operating officer at Guildford Cathedral, said the Charity Commission had “approved schemes allowing the cathedral to sell the relevant land”.

Memorial stone on the cathedral (see the War Memorials Trust website). FoSH says 1940s correspondance between the Bishop of Guildford and Viscount Bennett of Canada said: “The whole of the Hill on which the Cathedral stands will now be available for an open place”.

Opposition to the scheme does not appear to have had much impact on the developer’s thinking: the main issues of traffic congestion on local roads and access to the development are not addressed by the latest designs.

A spokesperson for Vivid said: “The application is for much-needed housing in a range of tenures, including 40 per cent affordable homes, in a sustainable, attractive new neighbourhood with improved connections with the town centre for all residents in the area. The site is allocated in Guildford’s adopted Local Plan.

“Following extensive consultation, 13 of the 124 homes will be owned by Guildford Cathedral and used by its key worker staff, replacing existing homes on the site which are currently used for this purpose.

“While this is a green space, it is not a green belt site. Existing open space will be improved, better maintained and made accessible for the community to enjoy. A net gain in biodiversity is supported by green roofs, tree planting, enriched meadows, woodland, under-storey planting, habitat features and careful management of existing vegetation; the landscape strategy retains and brings in new native species and has resulted in a 100% increase in hedgerow habitat.

“Through a Section 106 agreement with the council, Vivid will make financial contributions towards local infrastructure and community services including early years, primary and secondary education, primary care as well as roads and protected green spaces – on-site or elsewhere.”

The Vivid spokesperson said MP Ms Richardson “has been invited to meet with the delivery partners and will be invited again in the New Year to discuss the proposals”.

The consultation period is open until January 13, 2023. Details of the application are on the GBC planning portal here.

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Responses to Controversial Housing Development Needed for Cathedral ‘To Survive’ Says Dean

  1. Graham Cole Reply

    December 19, 2022 at 2:03 pm

    Does this mean that if approval is not given for the planning proposal, Guildford Cathedral will cease to exist or go somewhere else? The consequences would be devastating, wouldn’t they?

    • Richard Vary Reply

      December 22, 2022 at 9:07 am

      The cathedral’s operating deficit is only the equivalent of one or two salaries. They could cut a couple of staff, probably from the marketing side rather than the clergy, or they could break even if each visitor paid £1, or the Church of England could support them. They said last time that if the Linden plan wasn’t granted they would close, but they didn’t.

      But better still would be to build two-storey houses with gardens, not “industrial architecture” blocks of flats. Plant beech hedges along the roads like the rest of Onslow Village, so it’s attractive for visitors walking up to the Cathedral. Allow the cars and lorries to access it through the cathedral driveway, not route o them through residential streets.

      Then they’d get permission, make the money, and provide nice housing for people to live in. Affordable housing doesn’t have to be brutalist ugly high-density flats.

  2. John Perkins Reply

    December 19, 2022 at 2:14 pm

    When that money runs out, will they need to sell more land?

  3. David Roberts Reply

    December 19, 2022 at 8:47 pm

    Why not just demolish the cathedral? It is ugly and unnecessary.

  4. Harry Elson Reply

    December 20, 2022 at 5:19 am

    Please look at the current value of the funds held by the Church of England £10.1 billion. What on earth can justify the destruction of another precious green space which was given to the people of Guildford in perpetuity?

    • S Callanan Reply

      December 20, 2022 at 12:46 pm

      I agree with Mr Elson.

      The Church of England is a very wealthy organisation but, rather like the National Trust, it’s always claiming poverty and holding out its hand for more. I think the involvement of the cathedral and the church with property developers will not end well.

      • Naomi Vary Reply

        December 22, 2022 at 10:30 pm

        During the 2015 Linden application the Archbishop of Canterbury indicated that the Church of England chooses not to support its churches or cathedrals because it wishes them to be independent. It seems instead the Cathedral seeks to raise money at the expense of the community.

        At the time, I suggested to the dean that this was equivalent to me choosing not to support my son financially, because I want him to be independent, but then asking all of my neighbours to contribute to his upkeep. The response I received indicated that the chapter did not see any problem with this approach.

        Is the cathedral supposed to serve the community or is it the other way around?

  5. Howard Moss Reply

    December 20, 2022 at 3:50 pm

    This application is based purely on financial gain for the cathedral, which is not a reason to grant planning consent. Since being conceived the development has never seemed financially viable. The church sold off land on the opposite side some years ago, but didn’t create an endowment, and in 2016 it raised £6.9 million for repairs.

    In 2017 they told us the building would probably close if they didn’t get the planning consent, as they ran at an £80,000 shortfall Well it hasn’t closed and, to be honest, £80,000 is small business shortfall territory; it doesn’t seem that much to make up. I believe they may own a number of houses in the borough, for example.

    If the cathedral is running at a loss then surely they should open up their accounts for scrutiny so the people and planners can actually have the truth.

    This aside, the proposal is too big, will force all traffic down a narrow street, and is taking away the views of the cathedral and valued open space.

  6. Alan Morris Reply

    December 20, 2022 at 6:23 pm

    Next the Church of England, despite its wealth, will be lobbying for the reintroduction of a tithe on all the residents of Guildford.

    As others have said, the issue at hand is one about planning, not the material wealth of the Church.

  7. Valerie Thompson Reply

    December 21, 2022 at 11:41 am

    I wrote to the Dean, some years ago, when this building project was first mooted, when most choirs, who had rented the cathedral for concerts refused to sing there any more because of the poor acoustics. I suggested plain padded canvas panels attached to the pillars facing the altar. They would not be visible to people entering the building from the rear doors, but would absorb some of the echoes, now prevalent. The Cathedral replied saying they would not compromise the integrity of the interior. By refusing to face the acoustic problems, they have lost an important source of revenue every year.

  8. Mark Stamp Reply

    December 21, 2022 at 12:47 pm

    Given the latest census data showing a consistent decline in Christian belief an organisation like the church needs to decrease its property portfolio. If that involves cathedrals and churches closing because they are no longer sustainable then so be it just like any other declining business may close branches. The answer is not to use this fact to try to blackmail a community into accepting an unsuitable development.

    Due to the more modern construction of Guildford Cathedral, I’d imagine this would be one of the most suitable buildings in the church’s portfolio to find an alternative use for.

    Also, let’s remember that when developers talk about affordable housing, they mean 80 per cent of market value which is still unaffordable for many.

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