Fringe Box



Letter: We Need a Wide Debate in Guildford on How We Should Plan Our Town

Published on: 8 Sep, 2022
Updated on: 8 Sep, 2022

From: Alistair Smith

chair of the Guildford Society

In response to: Local Parties Asked, ‘Should We Have A Building Height Policy in Guildford?’

The Dragon is to be commended for getting the subject of the scale of buildings, height and mass, discussed by most of the major political parties in Guildford. The Guildford Society is pleased that a debate has been started.

Schemes are being proposed for North Street, Stag Hill, Debenhams and Guildford Park Road together with Station (Solum) and “The Plaza” site on Portsmouth Road (the old CEGB HQ site next to The Cannon pub) being built at present.

The GBC Executive is also scheduled to review the Shaping Guildford Master Plan in the next few weeks, this will be proposing how the town develops in areas such as Millmead, Millbrook Car Park, the Police Station, North End of Walnut Tree close, and in the centre of the town, Portsmouth Road Car Park/Friary Street area.

Guildford is going to be subject to a major change in its urban landscape, equivalent to the rapid changes experienced in the Victorian era.

We note that the inspector at the Local Plan examination in 2018/2019 commented that significant issues of urban decay exist once you leave the historic core of Guildford. We agree with this and are happy to see appropriate development.

Other towns and cities are redeveloping areas in an appropriate manner using a variety of modern building styles. Guildford should be able to enhance the town and embrace the future.

Building height policy

The society believes we do need a height policy for three reasons:

  • to preserve Guildford as a unique location in the South East with its views out of the town to surrounding Hills. We should be preserving the ambience and feel of the town. This also makes economic sense as many come to Guildford as it is an attractive environment for shopping and entertainment. We hope this can be extended via the proposed pedestrianisation of North Street.
  • to manage developers’ expectations on the value of the land. The developers of Debenhams will have had an indication on size (although not in the public domain) that could be considered acceptable for the site before investing £20 million buying the site, for example.
  • to simplify the planning process. Developers would know what was acceptable and work within parameters rather than having a position where height is proposed and then argued back at various meetings and enquiries.

What would a height policy look like?

We believe an SPD can be produced zoning the town by desired heights, the height policy also needs to be accompanied by some view on density. This would also take into account the Town Centre views SPD which is also a valuable component to manage development of the town.

Many towns and cities have a zoning system also taking in views across and within the town – Oxford and Brighton for example. Many towns have produced detailed SPD’s to guide development on selected areas of the town.

Why the opportunity was missed to develop this as part of the recently submitted Development Management polices in the Local Plan Part 2 is a mystery.

Where do we feel public opinion is on the subject?

The public are rightly concerned about lack of housing etc in the town and many see the advantages of the blocks of 200 to 400 apartments as a way to solve our housing needs. The decades-long situation during which North Street with a large block of land was left empty has not improved the town. But there is also the issue of providing for families, which seems to be overlooked: the housing stock being proposed is, in the main, being 1 or 2-bedroom flats.

It is very difficult for people to imagine the impact of new developments on the town. The visibility of the Woking Towers from the A3, Guildford Station, and Wisley Airfield Site was not widely appreciated nor the view of the Solum”s station development from Madrid Road.

GBC needs to do more to improve how developers engage with the public but St Edward at North Street is to be commended, as being the only major developer, to show a model of the proposed scheme.

GBC now has an electronic model of the town centre and this should be used to provide a clear view of how the various developments relate to each other and provide a view on how the town will look from both afar and as a pedestrian in the street.

Is public opinion on the subject important?

It is important that planning needs to be an open process in which the public feel involved. We need a debate on the subject of height and mass, with options. We have a unique opportunity to shape Guildford for the rest of the 21st century and this must involve the public.

Currently, we have no real understanding of how the town will look and function in 10 years’ time. Will it be a historic core surrounded by a ring of 14-storey buildings, or a historic core complemented by a properly open riverside with buildings respecting the river space, or maybe a totally new area with a 20-30 storey tower of high quality to act as a marker for Guildford and also keep open space? A discussion is needed?

Quality of public engagement

Guildford citizens lead busy lives and, in many cases, have work commitments and economic issues that prevent effective engagement with Guildford developments. Developer questionnaires can be very simplistic, and webinars can be limited depending on how they are conducted (some are more a PR exercise).

Groups such as The Guildford Society do provide a mechanism for engagement, but we are very conscious we only represent a small section of the population.

Political parties have a role as well. They need to state clearly their commitment and aspirations for Guildford. Cllrs Joss Bigmore and John Rigg are to be admired for talking about development over the past 12 months and giving their views. The Society has major issues with some of their views but let’s have the debate. It is good that most of the other political groups have contributed their views to The Dragon for readers to see.

A ‘Shaping Guildford’ Week?

The Society believes that GBC should facilitate holding a “Shaping Guildford” week where the various plans and models for sites in the town centre can be displayed in one venue for the public to look at how the town might evolve over the next 10 years.

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Responses to Letter: We Need a Wide Debate in Guildford on How We Should Plan Our Town

  1. Jim Allen Reply

    September 8, 2022 at 9:25 pm

    When, back in 2011, we in Burpham took up the challenge of drawing up a Neighbourhood Plan, and forged the future of Burpham, those in the town centre had the same opportunity. Sadly none took the high road and left Guildford town centre to sink into the quicksand of the undemocratic borough planners.

    Wrong decisions taken over a decade ago have led to this discussion today.

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