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Open Letter: North Street Decision – the Sorry Spectacle Has Damaged Guildford’s Reputation

Published on: 24 Jan, 2023
Updated on: 24 Jan, 2023

The GBC Planning Committee considering the North Street proposal

From: Howard Moss

chair of Residents for Guildford & Villages (R4GV)

An open letter sent to the chair of the Liberal Democrats in Guildford, Catherine Houston

I am very concerned that Liberal Democrat Councillors at Guildford Borough Council (GBC) do not understand the damage caused by the failure at Planning Committee of the North Street scheme.

I ask you [Catherine Houston] to step in and ensure there is a clear explanation to the residents of Guildford about what went wrong, and who is accountable for the damage caused to our Borough.

Given the scale of the damage, which is clearly the result of very significant differences of opinion between the Liberal Democrat Executive members of GBC and backbench Liberal Democrat councillors, residents deserve democratic accountability.

GBC owns part of the North Street development site, and for the past three years has been negotiating a series of priorities for the community benefits arising from the development.

These benefits include a new bus terminal, high-quality public realm facilities such as a pocket park, a Health Centre (which is very badly needed) and the pedestrianisation of North Street. The benefits were endorsed by the Liberal Democrat members of the Executive at numerous formal committee votes.

However, it was clear (given the strength of Liberal Democrat objections) at Planning Committee, that the scheme endorsed by your Executive Councillors was totally unacceptable to other members of your councillor team, and despite public endorsement of the scheme by your parliamentary candidate in campaigning literature distributed last October.

The decision to refuse the application has damaged the council’s finances, caused significant reputational risk, and inflicted professional embarrassment on a number of highly skilled officers.

Guildford Borough Council has spent £829,702 on the North Street scheme since May 2019, added to the £740,721 that previous administrations have spent since 2013. The council will have to spend even more should the developer appeal the determination. And this in a period when the council’s finances are severely constrained and difficult decisions on services for residents are having to be made.

The council has worked hard to protect services, but cuts could result from this Liberal Democrat infighting.

However, the money is not the most important issue. This sorry spectacle has damaged the reputation of our Borough in the eyes of investors, and in the eyes of businesses that Guildford needs to attract to ensure our local economy is strong.

The council has turned down a £200mn investment in our town in a time of economic uncertainty and with recession hovering. Guildford looks like an unreliable partner when other towns would be welcoming investment with open arms.

This decision also risks the council’s ability to attract and retain staff in the Development Management team. Recruiting skilled planners is already a problem for GBC as many residents will be aware, given the current lengthy timescales to process planning applications. The fact that a report with such clear recommendations – backed by factual evidence – was thrown back in their faces must be incredibly disheartening for a team already under enormous stress.

The Lead Member for Development Management is a Liberal Democrat [Cllr Tom Hunt]. I imagine he is horrified by his colleagues’ actions, and the effects on his officers. Indeed, as recently as September 2022 he publicly endorsed the very height policy that his fellow councillors rejected at Planning Committee.

Leadership of a local authority brings with it responsibility. Residents have a right to expect that the leadership of the council, which now rests with the Liberal Democrats, will act responsibly. Rejecting a scheme supported by the Liberal Democrat Executive – at the very last minute – is not the act of a responsible party. It is unfortunately the act of a group better suited to opposition than the responsibility and accountability of leadership.

A response from Catherine Houston (Lib Dem chair), Julia McShane (GBC leader and Lib Dem group leader) and Zoe Franklin (Lib Dem prospective parliamentary candidate) was invited.

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Responses to Open Letter: North Street Decision – the Sorry Spectacle Has Damaged Guildford’s Reputation

  1. Michel Harper Reply

    January 24, 2023 at 7:37 pm

    So well put. So true.

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