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Letter: Woking Is Ahead in Redevelopment and the Outlook for Guildford is Gloomy

Published on: 26 Aug, 2021
Updated on: 26 Aug, 2021

From Bob Benjafield

Sad to say, J Rendon (see comment on Debenhams Redevelopment Proposal Misses A Huge Opportunity) is right about Woking being ahead of Guildford when it comes to development and progress. You only have to go back to the Woking at the start of the 1970s to find an unenterprising town stuck between a railway line and a defunct canal.

There was no town centre as such. No big retail outlets would go there, the only big store, Robinsons, being owned by a town councillor who could be seen sweating visibly when another councillor even mentioned the name M&S.

But Woking, at its second attempt, did eventually reinvent itself, and successfully.

Meanwhile, Guildford spent the 1960s putting up the worst array of so-called architecture, from the acoustically dead Civic Hall at the top of the town to the mass of Weller-inspired bricks and mortar at the lower part of the town centre that effectively buried for ever the idea (if it was ever even in anybody’s mind) of a town centred around its river.

This was the decade in which architects – both council and private – effectively wrecked our town. I’m not even sure if the developers even bothered to use an architect on the “design” of St Margarets, London Road, opposite Stoke Park, where I live.

So let’s cut to the chase in the Debenhams debate. The latest round of consultation from its proposed developer has revealed that – surprise, surprise – the developer’s only hope of making a high profit is by building a high building. Of course it was going to happen.

Stop all this idealistic rot that the new breed of independent councillors will prove so very different from the last lot in dealing with something the scale of Debenhams. I’ve spoken to two of them about local issues and find that they’ve learned bureaucratic jargon pretty fast.

What will happen to Debenhams will be decided between the company which owns the site and, on appeal, by a system that decided only a couple of years ago that the other major site at the foot of the town, the station car park, was a great place to build multi-storey offices, car park and flats.

Let’s face it, the council itself hardly covered itself in anything sweet-smelling when, in the 1960s, it gave itself permission to build nine-storey flats at the lower part of Portsmouth Road. One planning officer told me that it had been called Guildford’s twin towers.

The new riverside flats will be tall, they will have a token amount of public space and we will be granted from the river a wee glance of St Mary’s Church in the generous gap between the Guildford’s new twin towers.

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