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Letter: We Have Objected to ‘St Mary’s Wharf’ Development Proposal

Published on: 3 Jan, 2022
Updated on: 3 Jan, 2022

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

From: John Harrison

Member of the GRA Coordination Group

See related articles here.

Guildford Residents Association (GRA) has submitted its formal objection to the Debenham’s or “St Mary’s Wharf” redevelopment. The Association says this plum site offers a fantastic opportunity for a creative design that sensitively links the town to the river and reflects Guildford’s unique character, scale and situation.

The proposal is gross over-development that denies the opportunity forever, and sets a bad precedent for the other riverside sites.

Key concerns are related to the proposed building height of eight and nine storeys, totally out of keeping with Guildford’s character. This extends across virtually the entire site, so it:

  • is intimidating to pedestrians;
  • overshadows existing buildings;
  • overshadows the riverside and closes it off to the town and;
  • appears as a huge alien block viewed from many points within and around the town.

The last thing GRA wants is yet another town centre site sitting derelict for 20 years, but the answer is not to ram through something that would do long-term damage, just for the sake of getting something done. This scheme appears to be based on others plans the architects have drawn up, and been rejected, for London and other large cities. We want to see a scheme that truly reflects the scale and character of Guildford and makes the most of this fantastic opportunity; something that is beautiful.

It is interesting to see the broad range of objectors who share common concerns. For example, Extinction Rebellion understandably focuses on environmental and sustainable issues and the GRA specifically asked if there had been sufficient consideration of repurposing the existing structure.

The Guildford Conservative Association objected on height and also the lack of affordable housing. The GRA letter outlines the root cause of this lack of social housing which I believe requires legislative change. Michael Gove has a reputation for innovation and seeking to effect change. Let’s hope the Guildford experience is a spur to positive action.”

GRA is also critical of the lack of affordable housing. John explained that this was now a national problem because any contribution towards affordable housing is dependent upon a so-called viability study. “Many people talk as though the study produces a definitive figure. However, the developer’s submission estimates total revenue of £132.7 million and cost of £125 million giving a difference of £7.7 million and perhaps therefore little room for affordable housing.

“But if sales revenue was 10% more (£146m) and costs 10% less (£112.5m) the difference would be £33.5m more than four times as much and an extra £25.8m for community benefits. People really need to appreciate just how fluid this viability concept is, and how much depends upon negotiation with the council” he said.

Our objection sets out further criticism of the proposals supported by detailed arguments having canvassed members’ views from across the borough, including:

  • the river walkway is narrow. The design appears intended to address a requirement rather than provide an attractive place for residents to linger and it may well not be truly dedicated to public use;
  • the gap promoted to provide views of St Mary’s church is too narrow to do this and looks as though it is there more to provide emergency access and allow more windows, and therefore more flats;
  • the buildings would be overbearing on the street scene.

GRA urges those interested to stand outside Wagamama’s in the High Street, for instance, and ask themselves whether a building that towers well above the top of the existing flagpole would be acceptable, or to walk along Millbrook and visualise a new building in the same position more than twice as high.

And GRA criticises the public consultation. It says the crucial issue of the buildings’ height was only revealed when it was almost over and suggest that comments submitted without that information be disregarded. The proposed Civic Square is no bigger than the existing space which is mainly triangular and dominated by traffic. The proposed pavilion serves no purpose and would reduce views of the river contrary to a key point in the council’s master plan

The full text of the original GRA letter is available on the council’s planning website, application ref 21/P/02232. Although the date for formal objections has now passed, readers may still send comments to the planning department or their local councillor.


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Responses to Letter: We Have Objected to ‘St Mary’s Wharf’ Development Proposal

  1. Annelize Kidd Reply

    January 3, 2022 at 2:49 pm

    I wholly agree. It would be great to have riverside access for Guildfordians in the heart of Guildford. The River Wey runs through the town, let’s celebrate it.

  2. Mary Older Reply

    January 3, 2022 at 3:39 pm

    I totally agree with John Harrison’s letter in relation to “St Mary’s Wharf”. I would also like to thank the Guildford Residents Association Co-Ordination Group for supporting all of us who have lived in Guildford all our lives and are witnessing a total disrespect for what used to be a beautiful town with great charm, be it structural or scenic. There are wonderful views from the top of High Street, The Castle Grounds, Merrow Downs, The Mount, the River Wey, Stoke Park, St Martha’s, St. Catherine’s etc.

    Any new buildings should respect this. “St Mary’s Wharf” definitely does not, by any stretch of the imagination. I will go as far as to say it will whichever way you look at it from top to bottom or bottom to top of the town ruin the charming views, plus make the traffic along Millbrook much worse than it is now.

    People are at present enjoying the river and surroundings from Millmead. It will be much better when the ongoing Tumbling Bay Weir repairs are completed. Please can all those concerned get this resolved by the spring so it will be accessible in summer? (Guildford Borough Council, Surrey Council, National Trust, Water Authority etc).

  3. Janet Moorhouse Reply

    January 4, 2022 at 5:14 pm

    I agree with all the foregoing points of view. A “listed” grading on the present building (as an example of the 1960s architectural style) would have stopped the present argy-bargy regarding a new building which will spoil the riverside and give nothing to the residents of Guildford. Indeed it will reduce their enjoyment of the riverside.

  4. Bibhas Neogi Reply

    January 5, 2022 at 10:02 pm

    It is understandable that Residents’ Associations and similar groups generally do not want developments on greenfield sites nor do they want anything higher than four-storey buildings in the town centre; yet they all expect developers to provide “affordable housing”.

    We need to be pragmatic and there is no point in demanding developments that could not be delivered. So, if not outwards nor upwards, the only possibility left is downwards in basements. But that is not really the answer. It needs a balanced approach.

    Town centre sites are pricey. Would we expect to find affordable housing in Mayfair for example? Of course not. The same maybe the case for the former Debenhams site and sites in the North Street regeneration scheme.

    If Guildford wants affordable housing reasonably close to the town centre then Ladymead Retail Park site should be considered for redevelopment. This is a large enough area that could accommodate stores on the ground level, underground parking and affordable housing in multi-storey developments above. The same is true for the areas of timber yards and DIY and trade stores off Woodbridge Road. I have no idea who owns these sites but it might be worthwhile opening a dialogue with them.

    Opposing developments to maintain historic looks at any cost would eventually drive businesses out of Guildford and cause it to decline further. Derelict sites would remain undeveloped for a long time as we have already experienced. Surely no one wants a similar fate for the former Debenhams site.

    Personally, I like the architecture of the proposed development. It has an “old world” look of brick walls and tall windows and I like the horizontal banding that reduces the impact of height. If it is possible, maybe the height of the northern block could be lowered by a couple of floors to reduce its impact, as it is so close to the Town Bridge. Proposed development of the riverside is within the Guildford Economic Regeneration Programme (GERP) as described in:

    The riverside areas would be opened up together with a proposed route on the east bank through this site and a footbridge to the theatre. I think it would create a much better environment within the town.

    When other improvements to the network are carried out, Friary Bridge could be closed to traffic and a better pedestrian route created to connect the riversides with the railway station. SCC/GBC need to explore the possibilities of such improvements without which the gyratory could not be removed. Road network improvements are necessary in order to create safer pedestrian and cycle routes.

    I would like to draw attention to John Rigg’s letter:

    Let’s see what the GERP process reveals.

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