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Letter: Demolition of Debenhams Would Be a Polluting Waste of Resources

Published on: 30 Jan, 2022
Updated on: 30 Jan, 2022

The Debenhams building, now empty.

From: Bibhas Neogi

In response to: Wider Implications of the St Mary’s Wharf Proposal

Conservation areas in Guildford were designated following their introduction, nationally, in 1967, after the Debenhams building (originally “Plummers”) was constructed. The building is within the Millmead and Portsmouth Road Conservation Area and not the Guildford Historic Area, mentioned in error by some.

The borough council has recently issued the document Local Plan Part 2 – Development Management Policies for consultation. This document also sets out conditions for new buildings, demolition and alterations to buildings within the conservation area.

The question now arises whether this building should be preserved. The proposal put forward by Native Land is to demolish and rebuild it mainly for apartments with retail on the ground floor plus public access to the riverside leading to the theatre,

The Guildford Society has put forward some ideas with retail and facilities for public use such as a library, gymnasium and cinemas etc, on the existing floors together with new apartments on top. I have mentioned before here in The Dragon NEWS whether the building could be re-purposed by creating an atrium in the middle.

The building is too deep for re-configuring into apartments, so an atrium would help to bring in daylight and good size apartments on either side of it could be designed. Leaving the ground floor for retail and the first floor for other uses as suggested by the Guildford Society – a couple of new floors on top for apartments would probably make an affordable project for the developer.

Demolition is a waste of resources already used for this building. The ensuing dust polluting the environment and removal of debris and bringing in material for the new construction through an already congested road network should be avoided if at all possible.

Maybe some serious rethinking is necessary for this site as to what would benefit Guildford best. I wonder what GBC’s Planning Department has to say about this?

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test 9 Responses to Letter: Demolition of Debenhams Would Be a Polluting Waste of Resources

  1. Linda Peacock Reply

    January 30, 2022 at 2:37 pm

    Repurposing the building would be the best use. Don’t pull down a building that is sound. Find creative ways of using it with minimal changes and damage to the surrounding area.

  2. Roger Main Reply

    January 31, 2022 at 11:09 am

    I ran this store for over 15 years, so I think I can comment with some knowledge of the building. Back in 2000, Debenhams wanted to change the building and we came up against the same objections from the same sort of people and societies. So we went to appeal at great expense and lost.

    The suggestion that you can put an atrium in the middle, a cinema, library etc, are all just ideas and in this day and age just not viable or cost effective.

    Now there is a developer who has done a lot of work on this site. I believe they have done a good job. Let them develop the site, working as they are with the council, and develop it.

    As for listing it, again that would be nonsense.

    If the objections carry on, my experience tells me the developer will leave the site as it is, for some time.

    Is that what people want? I think not.

  3. Janet Moorhouse Reply

    January 31, 2022 at 12:09 pm

    The Debenhams building should not be pulled down as it is an example of 1960s architecture, whether anyone likes it or not.

    Flats on the upper floors and really useful shops on the ground floor would bring the lower part of the High Street back to life. It is dead at the moment.

  4. Bibhas Neogi Reply

    February 1, 2022 at 10:12 am

    Mr Main hadn’t mentioned anything about the sort of changes for the building he sought in 2000.

    “The suggestion that you can put an atrium in the middle, a cinema, library etc, are all just ideas and in this day and age just not viable or cost-effective” – says Mr Main. Just ideas – really? Atriums open up spaces to daylight and make the areas outside of them slimmer and better suited for use for smaller shops or apartments.

    In my suggestion for creating an atrium in this existing building, only small sections of the roof slab need to be cut away to allow light for the apartments on this floor and also create communal space. New floors on top could be built with setbacks forming terraces.

    The statement that spaces for public use are no longer viable or cost-effective needs to be substantiated by findings of market research. Guildford lacks public spaces and the provision of amenities. If these were made available together with retail on the ground floor and opening up the river by removing the rear walls, people would be attracted to this dead area that it has become after the closure of Debenhams.

    Demolishing a building of this type and size is a complex and expensive job, unlike demolishing brick buildings. The structure has steel frame and concrete floors. The site is also close to a very busy road. Traffic flow has to be maintained, as there is no viable alternative route. Health and safety issues have to be complied with and without knowing the risk assessments, I can only assume the developer’s architects have explored the logistics before proposing their replacement design.

    The site hasn’t got much room for locating cranes, plants and access routes. The location of these and safe entry and exit routes to the site by lorries carrying materials are factors that the designers have to plan carefully and the councils have to take these into account while traffic management schemes are assessed for their safety and viability.

  5. Roger Main Reply

    March 4, 2022 at 1:57 pm

    Bibhas Neogi just does not understand or comprehend the current retail environment.

    Developers who invest, like their shareholders, need a return on their investment.

    The changes I sought were to enhance the building by putting a new entrance and bridging the road plus a total refurbishment of the interior. As previously mentioned, this was opposed by various groups who are now opposing the current scheme for one reason or another.

    The Atrium is not a viable idea. Yes, it lets in light in but takes away selling space which returns pounds per sq foot, ie profit.

    No one currently is building retail space, in fact, buildings are being converted to flats. As to a communal space does anyone really think the council will fund such a project, as suggested? No.

    The answer is to demolish the building. This can and will be done in a controlled way. Yes, there will be disruption, as in all developments, but this building lends itself to redevelopment.

    Roger Main is a former manager of the Guildford Debenhams store.

    • Bibhas Neogi Reply

      August 28, 2022 at 12:18 pm

      I am waiting to be convinced of the safety during the demolition of this building next to a busy road and the safe movement of lorries entering the site and carting away the debris through this junction with a busy pedestrian crossing very close to the site.

      Room for the location of plant and cranes is limited and the only available space is the northern end, close to Town Bridge.

      Similarly bringing in materials for construction during the several years of construction and traffic restrictions and delays that are likely to be suffered during this prolonged period are also of concern.

      I would like to say to Mr Roger Mains, who has often commented on this subject in favour of the demolition and redevelopment, that as a Chartered Engineer having worked in the Department for Transport and the Highways Agency for 37 years and having been involved with the building of some of the motorways in South East England and later responsible for maintaining some 5,000 structures in the network, I have a fair idea of the issues of demolition and construction as well as in traffic management.

      I strongly maintain the view that this building should be reused especially now that the cost of energy and materials are going to be a lot higher than originally accounted for.

  6. Roger Main Reply

    August 29, 2022 at 3:54 pm

    Mr Neogi says he has considerable experience in highways but no experience in building or running department stores. Motorways are relatively easy.

    I had over thirty years in the business, building and refurbishing various stores throughout the UK.

    As I have said before, I am totally in favour of the current project for the Debenhams site. The developer has bent over backwards to accommodate the objections from numerous sources in the town. I often wonder if the objectors have any business acumen.

    The site can be demolished within all the current guidelines safely, as are highways built. It can be done safely.

    Of course, there will be disruption within the area, as with any building which I am sure Mr Neogi has experienced in his distinguished career building highways, with the consequent disruption, dust, diversions etc.

    I do hope a decision is made soon on the site and people would stop finding fault with redevelopment which will benefit the town.

    Debenhams has had its day. Move on.

    Roger Main is a former manager of Debenhams in Guildford.

  7. Bibhas Neogi Reply

    August 30, 2022 at 11:28 am

    I am a civil engineer and I specialised as a structural engineer, so my basic training was on all manners of structures, including buildings.

    No, I have no experience in running department stores nor on how to arrange the clothing rails or perfume counters in a most effective way. I suspect though, from experience, that the aim is to make the path as tortuous as possible so that customers do not find an easy and straight way out of the display areas. I have no idea how many years of training are required to achieve that intricate knowledge.

    With the cost of energy and inflation rising fast, I wonder whether Native Land would pause for a rethink on whether to pull down the building and rebuild or extend upwards with a couple of floors.

    With interest rates rising, house prices could take a tumble. I am no economist but the balance on profitability has changed a great deal.

  8. Roger Main Reply

    September 13, 2022 at 9:11 pm

    I have left various comments on this project over the years, and one not published.

    What I will finally say is based on my experience (not tortuous in any way).

    The people who are objecting need to move on into 2022 plus. You can’t live in the past, as some objectors are.

    Guildford needs regeneration into a new way of thinking and planning. Developers have moved on with new ideas and materials and ways of building, as I am sure happens in highways and other constructions.

    Everyone will benefit from this development: the council in revenue, the town with revenue and employment, but not on the scale that it did from Debenhams.

    So planners and objectors should move on.

    It’s a great development. Give it planning consent!

    Roger Main is a former manager of the Debenhams store in Guildford.

    Editor’s response: the one unpublished comment included criticism, personal and unjustified, in our view.

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