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Leaked Email Shows Tories Were Debating Building Height in 2018

Published on: 27 Apr, 2023
Updated on: 27 Apr, 2023

By Martin Giles

A leaked 2018 email has shown that at that time, as the Local Plan was being finalised, building height policy for Guildford was being discussed within GBC’s ruling Conservative group.

One councillor, Murray Grubb, espoused the belief that Guildford should have an iconic building much higher than the 8-10 storeys being discussed, but his view was not adopted.

Sent to the Guildford Dragon NEWS, the 2018 email from former Conservative councillor for Ash Wharf, Murray Grubb Jnr

The email debate followed questions raised by the planning inspector on a draft of the Local Plan. He had criticised the lack of a scheme for the town centre within the overall plan. GBC’s planning officers had to quickly fill the gap with some proposals so that the plan could stay on track for approval before the 2019 election.

One former Conservative councillor told The Dragon: “The Local Plan was a total balls up. There were some glaring omissions and it was not pushed through so quickly for the good of Guildford.”

Murray Grubb Jnr, former Conservative councillor

Asked about the email, Murray Grubb Jnr said. “[Building] height was always a bone of contention. Almost all of the councillors wanted no building at all, regardless of height.

“The idea of new resting beside old was too much for almost all of them and so my idea of a Guildford Shard-type building that could bring shared spaces, the new [bus] station and town centre living was not popular at all.”

Paul Spooner, the council leader and leader of the Conservative group at the time, said: “As I recall from five years ago there was a range of views but there was a group view that eight storeys (not across the whole site) would be acceptable.

“I believe I am quoted as saying that with good and interesting design then one nine-storey building may be acceptable, and I think that included a micro-brewery!

Paul Spooner

“We commissioned and delivered the heights and view SPD [Supplemetary Planning Document] as a priority. We then ran out of time!”

But the authority of an SPD is limited. They are only guidance and can be overridden. The North Street development is understood to be fully compliant with the GBC’s heights and views SPD referred to by Cllr Spooner. He continued: “We have been locked out of Executive decision-making for four years.

“We were not able to do anything after May 2019 but R4GV cherry-picked what they wanted to take forward and clearly that was not a focus on heights!”

Asked if the email discussion used private email addresses to avoid Freedom of Information disclosure, Grubb said: “I don’t recall. I had a email address which I used but wonder if I had read this on my phone and replied as it would default to my personal address. Not really much more I can add to that, unfortunately.

“On the FOI front, I don’t know others’ take on it or knowledge of what could be included or not. However I vaguely remember on a few occasions being told to be careful what was sent on email in case it was leaked.

“This was at a time when the internal fighting and political fallout on the Local Plan was hitting fever pitch so many people became incredibly guarded, which may also explain why private email and not Guildford emails were used.”

The Dragon asked GBC to state its policy on using private email addresses for council business at the time the above email was sent, whether email was in breach of the policy that was in force and whether councillors are routinely asked to search their private email accounts when FOI requests are made.

A spokesperson for GBC responded: “At the date on the email it was council policy that private email accounts should not be used for council business. This is still the same policy now. We cannot confirm the authenticity of the email as all the email addresses used are private.

“We cannot comment on whether the email, if genuine, was in breach of policy as this would require further investigation into the circumstances and whether it was directly related to, or for the purposes of, council business. If it was internal party correspondence, then this would not be covered by the council policies.

“We do not routinely ask councillors to search their private email accounts when Freedom of Information requests are made as they should not be used for council business.”

The Guildford Dragon has confirmed the authenticity of the email with its author Murray Grubb and three other recipients.

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) specifically allows the search of private email addresses if it was felt that information relating to government or council business could be contained in them. This is to deter the use of private email addresses being used to avoid FOI disclosure.

The following is an extract from guidance issued by the Information Commisioner’s Office: “Information held in non-work personal email accounts (e.g. Hotmail, Yahoo and Gmail) may be subject to FOIA if it relates to the official business of the public authority.

“All such information which is held by someone who has a direct, formal connection with the public authority is potentially subject to FOIA regardless of whether it is held in an official or private email account.

“If the information held in a private account amounts to public authority business it is very likely to be held on behalf of the public authority in accordance with section 3(2)(b).”

However, there are certain FOI exemptions including the formulation of policy.

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Responses to Leaked Email Shows Tories Were Debating Building Height in 2018

  1. Paul Spooner Reply

    April 27, 2023 at 9:10 pm

    This is nothing more than The Dragon once again scraping the barrel. Martin Giles asked for an explanation and I advised that this was a political group meeting of the Conservative group at GBC and all members were advised that political meetings via email should be by private email.

    This is common practice across all parties. It is sad that The Dragon NEWS ignores my explanation and tries to sensationalise a leaked email [written] by a former councillor who is just expressing a personal view that was not taken forward as group policy.

    I am more worried about the breach of personal emails disclosed to The Dragon and then sent to me.

    Paul Spooner is the leader of the Conservative group at GBC.

    Editors note: the email addresses referred to were all already known to those to whom we sent the leaked email other than GBC. It accompanied a question whether such use of private email addresses conformed with their guidance.

  2. George Potter Reply

    April 27, 2023 at 10:35 pm

    It’s completely legitimate for The Dragon to write an article reporting on the Tory volte-face on building heights in Guildford, but why no similar coverage of R4GV’s volte-face of vociferously supporting 13-storey heights (and even standing as a candidate the owner of the company paid to promote the North Street scheme) at the same as claiming to want a height policy?

    Even at the Dragon Hustings, the Dragon’s editor was fastidious in asking every party spokesperson how many storeys they felt should be the limit in the town centre. Every spokesperson that is except for R4GV’s Joss Bigmore, who has been in charge of planning policy since 2021.

    Very curious.

    George Potter is a Lib Dem candidate for Burpham in the forhcoming GBC election.

    Editor’s response: The audio recording of the event shows that the first person the “How High is Too High” question went to was Joss Bigmore who in his answer specified what he felt were acceptable heights. As for the the reference to Nikki Ackerley, The Dragon is the only publication to have covered the report of her ownership of the PR company promoting the North Street scheme and the assurances she gave. (See: R4GV Leader Defends Colleague While Opponents Admit Meeting Campaigner

    • Paul Spooner Reply

      April 28, 2023 at 4:39 pm

      This does nothing more than confirm that members of the Conservative Group were discussing heights at North Street back in 2018, exactly what we have been saying.

      Perhaps Cllr Potter could explain where the ‘about face’ implied by The Dragon article and repeated by Cllr Potter actually is in the email by one former member of the Conservative group?

      Paul Spooner is the leader of the Conservative group at GBC.

      • Wayne Smith Reply

        April 30, 2023 at 8:19 am

        Important enough for Cllr Spooner and his group to discuss amongst themselves in 2018 but not concerned enough to discuss with the full council or incorporate any height restrictions in their awful Local Plan.

        Wasn’t the Heights and Views SPD only produced as a knee-jerk reaction to the Solum railway station development being approved on appeal?

    • Howard Moss Reply

      April 29, 2023 at 10:04 am

      More rubbish from Cllr Potter, what he fails to mention is that when questioned at the recent hustings as to what height he and the Lib Dems presumably as their de-facto spokesperson would accept for North Street, Cllr Potter said 11 stories then added in as long as it had 40 per cent affordable housing.

      So now we know what the Liberal Democrats would agree to. Incidentally in the weeks leading up to the planning committee meeting on North Street their own newsletter stated that “Liberal Democrats are delivering on a scheme to redevelop North Street”. Zoe Franklin stated, “this is excellent news for the community, for too long this area has been left looking tired and empty, it will produce much-needed housing in the town centre”.

      She did state the lack of affordable housing troubled her, but no mention of refusing the scheme at planning or a reduction in height. All things Cllr Potter now seems to have conveniently forgotten to mention.

      Howard Moss is a R4GV candidate for Onslow in the forthcoming GBC election.

    • Wayne Smith Reply

      April 29, 2023 at 12:09 pm

      As our late Queen said “Recollections may vary!”

      Cllr Potter owes an apology to The Dragon NEWS editor and Cllr Bigmore.

  3. Jules Cranwell Reply

    April 28, 2023 at 9:05 am

    Well done The Dragon for uncovering this.

    Typical squirming from Mr Spooner, when caught out.

    Good to see that even Tory councillors knew the Local Plan was a “total balls-up”. So why was it pushed through so precipitously?

  4. Keith Francis Reply

    April 28, 2023 at 1:25 pm

    This is just like No 10 and the government using private email addresses, etc, to hide the content from us before getting found out.

  5. John Rigg Reply

    April 29, 2023 at 5:39 pm

    AMENDED see editor’s comment in square brackets below.

    The reality is that with the draft Local Plan, as it was in 2018, the developer and landowner recognised the allocation was equivalent to 700/850 homes or more and would mean 4 to 10 storeys.

    This was discussed with the developer, the Conservative leader Paul Spooner and colleagues. As a result, the developer met with the planning officers but the developer proposals were still, all of them, including 750 homes, in 4 to 12 storeys.

    After the election, developer discussions (to which I was not party) continued with the new Lib Dem council and planning officers in July 2019. A similar quantum was proposed, 735 homes and 4 to 12 storeys.

    Both Conservatives and Lib Dem discussions recognised that the Local Plan allocation was the key document in setting the size and height and remains so today. This is equivalent to about 1,000,000 sq ft.

    After the Lib Dem/R4GV coalition was formed R4GV progressed a scheme of half the size with real planning gain and benefits for the community.

    The Lib Dem leader, the Lib Dem lead councillor for planning and the other Lib Dem Executive members supported the reduction.

    All councillors were consulted and had no strong objections.

    The vote of Lib Dems and Tories in January to turn down the application, one assumes, was in full knowledge of their own previous discussions and recognised the consensus that R4GV had sought for the smaller scheme in the hope of a positive outcome for Guildford after four years negotiation.

    Cllr Spooner is a member of the GBC Planning Committee but did not turn up to vote on North Street [Cllr Spooner gave his apologies and was away on a business trip]. He also abstained on Debenhams. So I’m not sure his voting record indicates great concern about height or size. Perhaps it is just electioneering?

    The scheme size whilst rejected, was defined by a Local Plan allowing overdevelopment on North Street, in the green belt and in the villages.

    Paul Spooner and Matt Furniss should at least accept that they are responsible for the consequences of their Local Plan decisions.

    John Rigg is the lead councillor for Regeneration and a candidate for Castle ward in the forthcoming GBC election.

    • Paul Spooner Reply

      May 1, 2023 at 7:41 am

      It is unfortunate that Cllr Rigg, who was not a member of the Guildford Borough Council prior to May 2019, continues to try and reinvent history and present his fiction as fact.

      There have been several reiterations of Cllr Riggs’s attempts to shift blame to other parties when he has been solely responsible for the past few years, at least at a council level.

      He is now espousing 800 homes were allocated for North Street. What next, 1,000, 2,000 or 5,000 as a secret Conservative and/or Lib Dem plot?

      The reality is there was pressure from a developer to maximise the value or profit from the development but GBC had significant influence with land ownership [because it owned a plot within the overall site].

      Prior to May 2019, this was viewed as an opportunity to constrain development including height and density, and after May 2019 this appears to have changed to a simple land sale under Cllr Rigg’s leadership. R4GV can keep trying to deflect blame on other parties but the reality is simple, Cllr Rigg had absolute control of relationships with the developer for three years prior to the application being brought before Planning Committee.

      In my opinion, R4GV failed to constrain and rolled over to get a scheme approved prior to May 2023 elections to demonstrate they had achieved something over their term.

      Paul Spooner is the leader of the Conservative Group at GBC and a Conservative candidate for Westborough in the forthcoming GBC election.

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