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Former Council Chief Executive Speaks Out On Town Planning

Published on: 22 Oct, 2012
Updated on: 24 Oct, 2012

David Watts, former council Chief Executive and honorary Freeman of Guildford with Guildford Society chairman Michael Jeffery at the Design Awards ceremony – Photo Mike Sleigh

David Watts the former Chief Executive at Guildford Borough Council spoke out on town planning at the Guildford Society Design Awards on Thursday (18 Oct).

An Honorary Freeman of Guildford, Mr Watts, clearly alluding to the disapproval some feel about Honorary Freemen and Aldermen speaking publicly on current issues, said: “I know not everyone is going to approve of what I say but planning has always been central to the Guildford Society and over the years it has assumed its ethos of applying much rigour to planning matters with much success.

“What they have done has almost always been what they have advocated and what has been right. What’s more is that they have reflected the opinions of the wider Guildford. It is essential, I think, in a democracy, to have organisations like the Guildford Society, voluntary, unpaid, passionate about their locality; particularly where planning is in a bit of a mess, a mess that filters down to those who have to implement the policies.

“It is not fair to just blame the local authorities because they have to work with he tools they are given. Planning today is much too complicated, much too time consuming. Indeed, so complicated is it, the man in the street often does not understand it.

“Even the most modest planning application will probably require advice from architects, lawyers and planners. There are so many hurdles to be jumped and boxes to be ticked it seems to me that it is not only complicated and time consuming, it is also unnecessary.

Illustrating his point David Watts read out a long list of planning documents with which all planning applications have to be comply.

“This makes the whole process cumbersome and expensive,” he said, and continued:”I don’t think that the current process is better than it was 50 years ago when it was much simpler and certainly as good as today.”

Referring to a government initiative to rationalise the list of planning documents he had mentioned, Mr Watts said that he hoped they were doing it to improve the process and not just to allow more development.

Turning to the situation in Guildford, he said: “There is much debate about the future planning policies for Guildford Town Centre. The [Guildford] Society, as I understand it, has been central to the Guildford Vision Group which is looking at the Masterplan proposals. That type of almost forensic evaluation is absolutely vital for this historic town. No plan, no policy will work properly, and it certainly won’t last, if it doesn’t command widespread public support.

“Guildford town centre has always been difficult for planners because it is a gap town with traffic forced through a narrow river valley in the centre of the town. Add to that Guildford’s long history, it’s many listed buildings and its topography and you really have a difficult planning policy problem to solve. If it was not like that we would have solved it years ago.

“But we do need a plan that encourages things like town squares, long views, enhancement of the river, a robust policy on traffic.” This is made difficult, he said, because the planning authority is not the highways authority.

After a plea for all the major bodies in Guildford, including the University, the Cathedral, the public, the local authority and the Guildford Society to pull together to produce an acceptable policy, he said that he approved of the ability, under the Localism Act, for Neighbourhood Plans, which had the force of law, to be adopted.

He concluded: “They could be just what is needed for Guildford town centre which is one of the jewels in the South East.”

Click here to read about the awards.

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Responses to Former Council Chief Executive Speaks Out On Town Planning

  1. Patricia Gibson

    October 22, 2012 at 8:17 pm

    Way to go!

  2. Jim Allen

    October 23, 2012 at 9:27 am

    To talk or not to talk? The answer is ‘as plain as a pike staff’. It’s as obvious as a white dot on a black background. Anyone who has sensible ideas to ensure the problems of past planning ‘mishaps’ are cured has to speak up and be listened to. Far too often the voice of reason is overridden by policy and political themes. We should be looking to our elders to moderate the stupidity of the recently graduated letting things through which are detrimental to our community, simply because of policy and lack of experience of the world. When will the decision makers realise the folly of their ways?