Fringe Box



Letter: The History of the North Street Planning Application

Published on: 19 Jun, 2023
Updated on: 19 Jun, 2023

Model of the North Street development exhibited by the developers and refused by GBC’s Planning Committee

From: Julian Lyon

In response to: North Street Developer Confirms Appeal ‘Imminent’, New Proposals to be Unveiled

Cllr Brooker, the new Conservative group leader at GBC and his party colleagues “suggest that a scheme more in keeping with the last Conservative administration’s proposal would be more appropriate” for North Street.

Let’s see if I can piece together something of the truth in this matter, rather than the fake news promulgated by Cllr Brooker’s colleague Cllr Keith Witham in his “Worplesdon Newsletter”, from which Conservative candidates tacitly benefited on the doorsteps during the election – not to mention the scandalous lies in the Congestion Charge leaflet (but see this ironic Surrey County Conservatives Facebook post: Cross party condemnation of Liberal Democrat misinformation).

In the case of North Street, Geoff Davis (Conservative lead for North Street in the run up to the 2019 elections, and newly elected Conservative councillor for Castle Ward), in a letter to The Dragon (I Felt for Cllr Rigg As I Watched the North Street Planning Decision, sent in January after planning was refused on the St Edward proposal, that “We had made the engagement with Berkeley through M&G [North Street site owners], and it was good to have the unique Tony Pidgley (Berkeleys’ director) in the council offices, working up a scheme once the decision not to double the size of The Friary retail offering had been made.”

He continued: “Many did not realise that the scheme considered… was considerably smaller than the allocation in the 2019 plan – the “bulk and scale” would have been much more.”

From my letter on the planning hierarchy, we know that the Local Plan sets the basic rule (on North Street this was with an allocation of around 10 rugby pitches worth of development – on a site the size of around 1.5 rugby pitches – a rugby pitch is circa 1 hectare or 10,000 sqm). This would have been the equivalent of about six-storeys across the whole site without any streets or spaces between buildings.

Using a 76 per cent site cover for a residential scheme (with the same amount of public streets and spaces as in St Edward’s scheme) would give an average of nine storeys across a notional plan-compliant development – around 750 to 850 homes for the North Street site.

That is the amount of development allocated in the Local Plan Strategic Sites (LPSS) Development Plan Document (DPD)) by Mr Brooker’s Conservative colleagues in a ridiculous rush just seven days before the 2019 Local Election.

Everything since then has seen the council having to be on the back foot in the context of outrageously foolish allocations in the Local Plan.

Consider the Heights and Views Supplementary Planning Document (SPD). That document does carry some weight but, if an applicant wishes to rely on the hierarchy of planning documents, it is perfectly reasonable and rational to point to the LPSS DPD allocation which carries significantly greater weight than the views SPD.

Where there is a conflict between a DPD policy and an SPD, the DPD would win because it is not possible for an SPD to overwrite a DPD.

One might draw a conclusion, therefore, that the Lead Planning Policy Officer for Guildford Borough Council dropped the ball or made something of an error of judgement which was allowed to stand in the adopted Local Plan – unless that was the original intention. In any event, the allocation felt wrong at the time (and many of us questioned it in consultation responses); and it feels wrong now, especially in the context of events.

The North Street allocation was a legacy of the consultation draft Local Plans (at Regulation 18 and 19 consultations) having no town centre strategy. There was a rushed town centre policy put in place at the eleventh hour during the Examination in Public without having been part of any of the statutory consultation processes.

There were plenty of opportunities to comment on the LPSS during its many stages from 2013 to 2019, but (as many of the contributors to The Dragon have said over many years) there is not much evidence of any of the representations making any difference to the final DPD – much to the annoyance of so many people who took the time to read most if not all of the documents.

Looking at the North Street site itself (and here I have relied on conversations with some of those involved as well as information in the public domain), its history goes back many centuries but the Friary Centre was developed around 1980, and, with much of the North Street site in the same ownership as the Friary Centre, the proposed regeneration of this site has been worked on since the Friary Centre opened.

The first consented scheme was a planning permission in 1998 to extend the Friary Centre. That consent lapsed due to non-viability – there had been a lot of pre-conditions required by a legal planning agreement (known as a Section 106 agreement).

Several iterations later, in 2012, there was a North Street Development Brief prepared as a draft SPD; it was challenged as it did not comply with the (2003) Local Plan and, as Guildford Vision Group demonstrated at the time through a Counsel’s Opinion, an SPD could not overturn the DPD (hence the importance of the document hierarchy).

By 2018 (twenty years after that previous consent), M&G, the owners of the Friary Centre and much of the land forming the North Street site, brought in Berkeley Homes through their Joint Venture, St Edward. There were a few discussions with the Conservatives in the run up to the 2019 election, including a pre-pre-application consultation.

After the election in 2019, Berkeley Homes met with Caroline Reeves and Jan Harwood (both Lib Dem lead councillors) to pick up where the Conservatives had left off.

The council officers (the head and deputy head of asset management) at Guildford Borough Council were leading the discussions with the developer St Edward. In late 2019, much to the shock of most councillors, including John Rigg (R4GV), who had only had his first meeting with the developers the preceding day with Cllrs Reeves and Harwood, St Edward submitted an environmental impact assessment screening application for a Local Plan-compliant quantum of development – 850 homes and up to 15 storeys in order to accommodate it (altogether around 1 million sq ft).

So had the developer submitted a planning application on North Street that complied with the full quantum of allocation in the Local Plan Strategic Sites DPD, irrespective of the heights and views SPD, the application would have been hard to turn down and defend the decision at appeal, given the Local Plan allocation (all other things being equal).

There was a North Street Project Group formed – managed by the lead officers for Asset Management – to agree the basis of a deal with St Edward, and an Executive Committee meeting in February 2020 received a recommendation from the officers that Caroline Reeves (council leader) and James Whiteman (MD) be allowed to negotiate a deal with St Edward for 735 units on 4 to 12 storeys.

Ultimately, the Asset Management lead officers (supported by John Rigg as the Regeneration lead) negotiated a deal which involved a much smaller development of 473 units which has itself received a mixed and highly-charged emotional response – albeit the “marker” building proposed was 13 storeys on the lowest-lying part of the site.

One of the consequences of reducing the scheme so much was the loss of affordable housing units (all the other development benefits remaining constant), and the Asset Management officers and John Rigg quite rightly had nothing to do with the processing of the planning application (the lead councillor for Planning was Cllr Tom Hunt (Lib Dem)  who ensured there was clear separation between the planning officers and the asset management officers and their respective councillors.

So why was the allocation in the Local Plan for North Street allowed to be adopted with barely a whimper? The point here, however, is not to look for people or organisations to blame retrospectively. It is to recognise that it is only by re-opening the Local Plan (ie the LPSS) and testing those allocations – building in site-based heights and views policies as well as zonal or other policy frameworks as are seen fit – that suitable policies can be introduced at the right level of the planning policy hierarchy to be predictable and defensible.

All of the allocations should have been tested by the Planning Policy team – in an updating of the Local Plan, the bulk and massing should be modelled in Vu.City (Guildford’s planners now have access to this development visualisation system) and exposed to consultation under Regulations 18 and 19 before the updates Local Plan is presented to a Planning Inspector for Examination in Public.

This is a very important topic, not only to protect the views and skyline in our historic market town, but also because the lack of clarity (anecdotally at least) enabled the developers of the Debenhams site substantially outbid Guildford Borough Council precisely because, in the absence of a comprehensive heights policy in a DPD, they could feel confident that the Local Plan supported greater height and mass in the town centre.

They were replacing circa 260,000 sqft of retail plus car parking and storage with a broadly similar (310,000 sq ft) footprint of residential uses, this put strain on the building massing and on the affordable housing provision.

In the meantime, for anyone interested in keeping abreast of both development proposals coming forward and in the development of planning policies, I would suggest you monitor The Dragon and register with Guildford Borough Council to be kept informed.

If St Edward win consent on appeal, would this be, as some have suggested, the end of the world? Probably not. It should not, however, have come to this – falling back on a LPSS allocation, rather than trying to avoid having to accommodate the erroneous LPSS allocation of 850 homes, which almost certainly would have been the thin end of a tall wedge.

Incidentally, in the letter to The Guildford Dragon NEWS referred to above, Geoff Davis added: “Personally, I was in favour of the current [North Street] scheme, a view not shared, apparently, by most of my Conservative colleagues… I actually liked the tall tower on the Dominion House site, viewed down Woodbridge Road, as a statement.”

Now, back to Cllr Brooker’s comments. Either (A) the Conservatives had an alternative much smaller scheme before the 2019 election (in which case, why did they adopt the Local Plan seven days before that election with a million square feet of development on it and why did the Conservatives not put that forward before the planning application was submitted in 2022 when they were consulted multiple times on St Edward Homes’s scheme); or (B) this is another inappropriate falsehood from a thoroughly discredited national political party.

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