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Letter: We Can’t Give Up on Controlling Building Heights in Guildford

Published on: 27 Jan, 2022
Updated on: 27 Jan, 2022

Artists impression of St Mary’s Wharf viewed from Millmead.

From: Nic Allen

Guildford Society member

In response to: Dragon Interview – Council Leader

I was interested to hear the comments of Joss Bigmore in the Dragon interview, about Debenhams/”St Mary’s Wharf” and want to challenge some of them.

He suggests that “the ship has sailed” in respect of building heights in Guildford just because Solum was approved by a planning inspector.

The “ship has sailed” is a dangerous statement as it signals to property owners across Guildford that heights similar to Solum are acceptable, with developers adjusting site values with resulting ratcheting of viability calculations producing higher buildings. This is a recipe for a long and expensive war of attrition with the development community. We need a firmer and more sophisticated approach.

Surely the council need to look at “zones” in the town. As an example, sites such as Debenhams and others on the town centre riverside are completely different to Solum and are integral to the key elements that make Guildford so special including the riverside itself, the historic town centre with its amazing richness of buildings stepping down to the river and the views from many of these areas to the hills that surround our gap town.

The centre of Guildford with its townscape and heritage is a significant economic benefit to the town and thus “harm” of inappropriate development is not just architectural. Other “zones” in Guildford may have differing characteristics as regards height.

Developing these valuable (not solely in terms of money) sites sensitively and intelligently will make or break Guildford’s future. The Solum development is undoubtedly inappropriate because of its sheer mass, length and height but it is not located in one of these valuable “sweet-spot” sites.

If buildings of large bulk, mass and excessive height are located on the riverside sites, such as Debenhams and those identified in the new GBC Town Centre Masterplan, they are likely to form a massive wall cutting through the town and actually separating the town from the riverside both physically and visually.

Interestingly Joss Bigmore’s own GBC Shaping Guildford’s Future Masterplan shows building heights for potential new developments along the Town and Millbrook riverside that are maximum 4-6 storeys and more respectful to their locations and surroundings. This seems to be totally at odds and contradictory to the Debenham’s proposals.

Cllr Bigmore reiterates other GBC views about heights policies and suggests these are of little value. I agree that building heights alone do not form sensible or realistic policies but I suggest that towns and cities similar to Guildford have successfully introduced policies that intelligently bring building heights into their consideration of new developments.

Three examples are Oxford, Winchester and Brighton and Hove. These policies overcome topographical issues often cited in Guildford for not having policies that consider height. Each has taken a slightly different approach but these councils seem to be on the front foot considering the all-round benefits and impact of new developments.

The Guildford Society has gathered information on these policies on its website. In addition, some towns develop SPD’s for small areas of land an example being the AMEX site in Brighton. Guildford needs to learn from other towns.

A number of councils have recently rejected projects in sensitive planning environments because of reasons including their height, detrimental effect on local heritage, design quality, and environmental impact. These include Brighton Marina, a Tower in Paddington West flats in Waterloo, Mortlake all in London, all projects designed by the same architects as St Mary’s Wharf.

I believe Guildford planners and planning committee should follow the lead of these other councils and reject the Debenhams/St Mary’s Wharf proposals which are poorly designed, too large in mass and height and will damage the heritage of the Town and River Wey itself.

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Responses to Letter: We Can’t Give Up on Controlling Building Heights in Guildford

  1. Mike Forster Reply

    January 27, 2022 at 7:25 pm

    This seems a totally reasonable suggestion otherwise Guildford will just become a concrete jungle which is of no benefit to anyone.

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