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Council Leader Wins Over Critical Audience With His Vision For Guildford’s Future

Published on: 4 Jun, 2013
Updated on: 5 Jun, 2013
Stephen Mansbridge at Holy Trinity Hall explaining his vision for Guildford to The Guildford Society audience - Photo Mike Sleigh

Stephen Mansbridge, at Holy Trinity Hall, explaining his vision for Guildford to The Guildford Society audience – Photo Mike Sleigh

A clear vision for Guildford was described by council leader Stephen Mansbridge last night (May 30) at a meeting organised by The Guildford Society.

Despite a history of, at times, strained relations between the society and the council his speech appeared to resonate with the invited audience of around 60 people and it was met with approval and applause.

Cllr Mansbridge (Con, Ash South & Tongham) opened by saying he had found a recent walk around some of the town centre: “…quite depressing, to be honest. The structure of a lot of the buildings crumbling, some built in the 70s. It all looked, frankly, pretty grim. And that grates with the view people have of our wonderful town.”

He continued: “Is our town that wonderful today, is the question I ask? I think we have gone through a 30-year cycle of being asleep, sitting on our hands and feeling far, far too comfortable with the place our forefathers created.

Traffic is our biggest, worst and most ghastly issue

“But it has started to become tired and strangled by traffic. Traffic is our biggest, worst and most ghastly issue but you can’t stop it and you can’t change it quickly. So that is public enemy number one.

“Many say to me ‘there are too many people’, but you can’t stop the march of progress if you want to be an economic power-house. We put more into the GSP than anywhere outside London, so we are materially important. Sometimes I wish the prime minister would get that message.”

The audience listening closely as Cllr Mansbridge describes his vision

The audience listening closely.

Cllr Mansbridge then listed some of the town’s historic assets that are not being properly exploited and enjoyed and the problems preventing their development, and the development of the whole borough, including the villages and all the various suburbs of the town. But he said that there were no quick fixes to some of the deep-rooted problems which would need to be tackled over years.

The council leader continued by explaining that there were five pillars on which his strategy for the town rested: infrastructure, economy, development, sustainability, and creating a better society.

The A3 is a massive problem. Personally, I favour a tunnel

He said: “Infrastructure is like the bones of a skeleton. It is what you need on which to build. Without it you cannot have something that functions well. The A3 is a massive problem. Personally, I favour a tunnel because it would bring north and south Guildford together far better than a northern relief road. We do not have enough capacity to allow people to move freely, trains are full and you cannot get on a train to get to Heathrow Airport. How mad is it? We have got to produce a very strong voice of pressure. HS2 will cost £32 billion – sorting out the infrastructure in the whole of the South East will cost £8 billion.

…a number of the university’s faculties are heading towards being the top in the whole world

“Pillar 2 is about the economy. We are very fortunate that what we are doing here, in economic terms, is extremely successful. But our businesses are struggling. We do have a fantastic cluster of  professional educational facilities. We’ve got the university with its research park, a number of its faculties heading towards being the top in the whole world, particularly the one on sustainability.

“We’ve got a veterinary school that is about to be built, it will be only the eighth in the whole country. The university wants to build a medical school. We’ve got the Royal Surrey wanting to become a teaching hospital. We’ve got the law college. We’ve got Guildford College. That is the most amazing collection. This cluster, like the space technology cluster, needs to grow. How do we fuel them? What they need is space in every sense.

We forget our rural economy. 87% of the borough is rural.

“We forget our rural economy. 87% of the borough is rural. There are so many things going on, driving this big contribution to our GDP. Surrey in conjunction with BT is rolling out super-fast broadband. That allows more people to work from home, that then fuels the micro economies in the villages, bringing back the village shop, letting the pub become, in part, a shop and post office counters returning.

Newly appointed Chairman of the Guildford Society Bill Stokoe thanking Stephen mansbridge

Newly appointed Chairman of the Guildford Society Bill Stokoe thanking Stephen Mansbridge

“The third pillar is about development. Growth is sometimes seen as an ugly word, but if we want to be top of the class we have to have growth. In terms of housing the government is saying you will do that [build more houses].  So we have to decide how many houses are we going to build over the next 20 years.

“Having spoken to land owners so we know what is up for grabs. You will need to give your views. Do we expand villages? Do we build brand new villages? Lot’s of different ways of doing it. Our planning service does not have a great reputation and we are trying very hard to change that from being an organisation that says ‘no’ to being one that says ‘yes, but I would advise you to do it this way’.

We have to build more houses…

“We have to build more houses, market housing, affordable and social housing. We have 4,000 on our waiting list for social housing, 2,000 of whom are deemed ‘critical’ and we have so far only plans and land to build 200 homes.

“We have another big issue among the travelling community because we are being told by the government that we have to build more pitches. It’s a reality we have to face. The travelling community is our biggest ethnic community in Guildford.

“The Local Plan, when it comes, is going to be a once in a generation thing which is going to shape what the borough is going to look like not just in 10 years time but in 20 and 30 years’ time.

“On North Street the emergence of Prupim [the investors acquiring the Friary Centre] with deep, deep pockets, needs proper re-examination. We have to evaluate where it sits with the borough in terms of investment.They have already put £200 million into the borough. What can we do with them? That is what we are exploring now. We cannot afford to blunder into something and make a mistake. I hope we will have a clear decision in July.

Freiburg, we are twinned with, is an exemplar in building with high technology. We want to learn from them.

“Pillar 4 is about sustainability. This comes from how we develop our economy. What has happened in the City of London is an example of what happens when you develop an unsustainable economy, everything crashes to the floor. It is also about the physical way in which we construct things. Freiburg, we are twinned with, is an exemplar in building with high technology. We want to learn from them.

“We need to think imaginatively in terms of what we want to build – they do not have to all look modern with lots of glass. It can look how we want it to look, but the way it functions has to be state of the art. We should become a national symbol for building the most sustainable buildings and houses.

“Creating a better society [the fifth pillar] is my passion. We have gone through the pain of the last five years. Maybe we have not personally suffered but I bet we know people who have. Here in Guildford you can see the cathedral giving out food parcels. How right is it that we have got here in Guildford people that need to go and get food parcels? It’s happening here on our doorstep.

Now I am not some sort of pinko crusader

“Now I am not some sort of pinko crusader who is going to go around trying to sort the world’s problems in a pair of sandals without socks. But I believe that through the economy we are trying to create we can move society forward. We need project after project of social enterprise like the Guildford Bike Project.

“We have ignored working with the business community and our tourism for too long. We have a plethora of attractions here in the borough. We have the river, six theatres, beautiful buildings, parks, but no art gallery. I have set the council the task of turning our £200 million of revenue into £400 million over the next six years.

“We are only 35 miles from London. Why aren’t we getting the best writers to our book festival, the music festival? The same why aren’t we making these things bigger than they are? I would like to see a major event every single month of the year.

The informed and invited audience listened carefully as Cllr Mansbridge explained his vision

The informed audience made up of Guildford Society members and invited guests – Photo Mike Sleigh

“We [the Executive] want to try and change the council which has very much done the same old thing for a long time, into something that starts to think about things in a deeper and more passionate way, that wants to do things not just sit there and starts to talk to people and understand what they think.”

There followed a question and answer session. Questions were raised on how could citizens help, utilising existing expertise, communications, the need for masterplanning, population and better cycle routes.

John Bannister of the Environmental Forum asked about public transport infrastructure and how it could be improved. He felt that any claim that the problems were unsolvable a cop out.

Stephen Mansbridge responded by stating that he was not saying that. He said traffic surveys were under way and there had been a lack communication between Surrey County Council and Guildford Borough Council, but things had already changed significantly. He had not been that impressed with the gyratory exhibition and the suggested improvements and said he had made his view clear to the leader of Surrey County Council.

Graham Hibbert, organiser of the umbrella Guildford Residents Association, asks his question

Graham Hibbert, organiser of the umbrella Guildford Residents’ Association, asks his question.

Graham Hibbert, the organiser of the umbrella Guildford Residents’ Association (GRA) asked how people could trust the council to take their views into account. He said the way the council seems to be working does not indicate that they are. Up to 80% of the people in Burpham, it was believed, did not to want an Aldi store, but planning officers still recommended approval of the application.

Cllr Mansbridge said that the council had wanted to see how the Burpham Neighbourhood Forum would take shape. If such forums were started for the wrong reasons, to prevent all development, he said, they won’t work. The planning committee did take its own view on that application and decided to refuse it, It remained to be seen what would happen on appeal.

Michael Jeffery recently retired Chairman of The Guildford Society giving the vote of thanks

Michael Jeffery recently retired Chairman of The Guildford Society giving the vote of thanks – Photo Mike Sleigh

Richard Jarvis asked about the limits to development. In reply, Stephen Mansbridge said that the rate of demographic growth was not clear, but growth in “our successful technology industries does need to grow”. Guildford, he said, “is one of the national epicentres of ‘don’t build on the greenbelt’,” but added that there are bits of that green belt that are not so lovely and could be used for development. He suggested pragmatism would be required. “The green belt should be eroded as little as possible without being regarded as sacrosanct.”

Michael Jeffery in his vote of thanks on behalf of he audience said: “We can’t claim that the Guildford Vision Group, an offshoot of the society, has influenced your thinking directly but the thinking is now running along similar lines and what Guildford Borough Council is doing now is so obviously what we have been looking for for years. We can only thank you very deeply.”

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Responses to Council Leader Wins Over Critical Audience With His Vision For Guildford’s Future

  1. Jim Allen Reply

    June 2, 2013 at 12:21 am

    Interesting that. The council leader is implying the Burpham Forum was started for the wrong reasons. Perhaps that’s because he knows that the people of Burpham have had more than their ‘share’ of housing and his area is destined to have some now over in Ash?

    Simply put you can’t put a litre into a pint pot. And Burpham is a pint pot! (The council planners are now working in metric.)

  2. Gordon Bridger Reply

    June 2, 2013 at 5:52 pm

    Congratulations to The Guildford Dragon NEWS for such a comprehensive report on what was an important and extremely well delivered talk by the Leader of the Council.

    It is the first time in many years that I have heard a senior councillor set out a broad strategy which looked beyond the aim, as set out by several recent leaders, of turning Guildford into a massive shopping centre together with all the traffic and financial problems it would raise.

    Well done.

  3. Pauline Surrey Reply

    June 9, 2013 at 7:14 pm

    We do indeed have an art gallery! Guildford House Gallery, been there since 1959 or so. May be small, but has some good exhibitions, and is much loved.

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