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North Street Plan Rejection – How the Council Meeting Played Out

Published on: 12 Jan, 2023
Updated on: 15 Jan, 2023

The GBC Planning Committee considering the North Street proposal. Image LDRS

By Emily Coady Stemp

local democracy reporter

Rejected plans for the regeneration of Guildford’s North Street area could have transformed an area that has been a “disgrace” in the town for more than 30 years, a council meeting heard.

A proposed development of more than 450 homes as well as shops, cafes, pedestrianised streets and upgrades to the bus station was heard by the borough council’s planning committee on Wednesday (January 11) but rejected after a tied vote.

A developer’s impression of how the scheme might have looked. Image St Edwards.

Reasons for refusal put forward by councillors, and to be confirmed by Guildford Borough Council in full, included concerns put forward by the county council on the bus station, the number of affordable homes in the plans, and the size and layout of the buildings.

But even if councillors had approved the plans, Michael Gove, the Housing Secretary and MP for nearby Surrey Heath, had sent a letter to the council making clear he wanted to have a final say on plans if they were granted permission.

Michael Gove MP and the holding direction which prevented GBC approving the application unprovisionally.

Public speakers at the meeting included five borough councillors who do not sit on the planning committee but were given a chance to speak on the application.

What happened in the meeting

Cllr John Rigg told the council the scheme was exciting, a game changer and long overdue but could not convince a majority of the committee.

Cllr John Rigg (Residents for Guildford and Villages, Holy Trinity), the borough council’s portfolio holder for regeneration, raised concerns that local opposition could be a “fear of change or of the unknown”.

He said the planned development would be a contemporary quarter, which would bring economic benefits to the town as well as much-needed housing, and said it was an “exciting” plan.

Cllr Rigg added: “Would I prefer an iconic design here? The Sydney Opera House, perhaps? Absolutely.

“That really isn’t going to happen.”

One member of the public, said the planned buildings were “overly tall” and would spoil Guildford’s character, claiming the style and density was being “borrowed from London schemes”.

John Harrison, a member of the Guildford Residents Association told the meeting: “Guildford deserves better.”

Groans were heard from members of the public when a mock up was shown of the view towards St Saviour’s church in the town, with the largest of the tower blocks visible.

But the site, which is a triangle shape, includes derelict sites and car parks and stretches from North Street to Dominion House where Leapale Road, Commercial Road and Woodbridge Road meet, was described as a long-term disgrace by another public speaker, Bill Stokoe.

Guildford Vision Group chairman, Bill Stokoe

The chair of Guildford Vision Group, but speaking in a personal capacity, said he thought the highest building had the potential to be a “striking addition to the Guildford skyline”.

He added that the town’s historic buildings were “damaged” by being alongside such a “rundown abandoned area”.

The 13-storey building that was proposed at the northern end of the four-acre North Street Regeneration site. Image St Edward’s.

And deputy council leader Joss Bigmore (Residents for Guildford and Villages, Christchurch), who has spoken before of his support for this regeneration, called comparisons with London and Woking “nonsense”.

He said Woking’s tallest towers were more than twice the height of the tallest in the scheme, which had been reduced from 14 to 13 floors.

Cllr Bigmore added: “In the future, we have to live more densely in sustainable locations.

“This application delivers that appropriately in an undistinguished part of town, desperate for regeneration.”

Committee split down the middle

Council officers had recommended approval of the scheme whey they considered had balanced the harms against the benefits for the town. But ultimately the committee was split with seven votes in favour and seven against the application.

Much of the debate focused on the limited affordable housing in the scheme, with just 20 of the 473 flats being offered as shared ownership after the viability of the scheme was brought into doubt.

While a viability report carried out by the council did not concur with the final deficit of the scheme, calculated by the developers as more than £50 million, documents show that it was agreed that the scheme in its current form was not viable.

As such, the council’s requirement for 40 per cent affordable housing could be reduced, with the 20 shared-ownership homes plus a possible further 28 subject to funding being labelled the “best and final offer”.

Cllr George Potter criticising the way the viability argument was used in the application

Cllr George Potter (Lib Dem, Burpham) spoke as a public speaker, and questioned the data used to indicate the value of retail units, saying the process would be “disgraceful” from any applicant.

He added: “It is not by any means convincing that this is the only scheme and that any other scheme could would have the same viability problems.

“If you proposed building out entirely out of a solid gold you’d have a very expensive scheme.

“That does not mean that a scheme with more normal materials might not be more viable than a solid gold scheme.”

The developer has said increased construction costs, inflation rates and the current recession all played a part in the uncertainty surrounding the viability of the scheme.

While Mr Gove’s letter to the council meant councillors could not approve the scheme without his authorisation, the rejection by the planning committee could still be appealed by the applicants.

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