Fringe Box



Opinion: A New Strategy Is Required for Guildford Planning

Published on: 5 Mar, 2023
Updated on: 7 Mar, 2023

By Richard Mills

chair of the Guildford Town Centre Conservatives but writing in a personal capacity

In recent weeks, The Dragon’s columns have echoed a widespread view that Planning in Guildford in the last few years has been little short of disastrous. One does not need to agree entirely with that to recognize that, at the least, some new strategic approaches are needed.

First, we need more effective regulatory instruments and political commitment to restrain building height to a level fitting the character of the town, as Guildford Conservatives have been urging for some time.

We must learn from the disasters flowing from over-development in Woking: the glut of unsold apartments, the potential bankruptcy of the council, and the clear evidence that a policy of unrestrained town centre development does nothing to reduce pressures on the surrounding green belt.

Recently there have been encouraging signs of other parties moving tentatively towards this position, but firm measures and continuing vigilance will be needed to avoid the town again facing the risk of spiralling building heights.

Second, protection of our historic environment had until recently been a planning department success story, and the redevelopment of Debenhams offered a wonderful opportunity to enhance it further.

In the event, the opportunity was squandered by deplorable failures of governance, most notably the carte blanche given to the developers by the failure to publish a Planning Brief of the kind normally required for important sites and the cavalier disregard for the strongly-worded representations of Historic England.

The buildings that will replace Guildford Debenhams despite objections from Historic England.

Other sensitive sites will come forward in the next few years. We must ensure this disaster is not repeated.

Third, the borough council must increase the priority and resourcing of development control – the determination of planning applications and enforcement of planning regulations.

It is the bedrock of the planning system but in the last four years the council’s performance has been lamentable, with the town repeatedly languishing at or near the bottom of the national league table for determining non-major applications within the specified time.

Enforcement action on breaches of planning regulations has been equally weak. This causes frustration and financial loss to residents and undermines confidence in the planning system and the council’s competence.

Finally, it is surely time to shed the current illusion that a Town Centre Master Plan will solve Guildford’s problems. The history of master-planning in Guildford is not encouraging.

In recent years, for example, the proposal by Guildford Vision Group was soon dead in the water due to the Solum decision and doubts over the financial realism of its view. The preceding Conservative document had already been undermined by new demographic and economic factors forecasts.

Indeed arguably the only core of a Master Plan to be successfully delivered was the gyratory system itself – hardly an encouraging precedent.

Of course, we need long-term goals which have broad and stable public support, not least to inform the current Local Plan and its periodic review.

Over the medium- and longer-term however, it is only opportunism, responsiveness and keeping alternative pathways open as long as possible that will allow them to be delivered – and the town to prosper in an era of increasingly rapid technological, economic and social change.

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Responses to Opinion: A New Strategy Is Required for Guildford Planning

  1. Jules Cranwell Reply

    March 6, 2023 at 4:10 am

    “ …unrestrained town centre development does nothing to reduce pressures on the surrounding green belt”, says Richard Mills.

    Of course not. The pressures on the green belt have entirely been caused by his Tories, when they removed 14 villages from green belt protection, with their ruinous Local Plan.

    It’s a bit rich for them now to try and shift blame onto the planning system. But hey ho, there is an election looming.

  2. Bibhas Neogi Reply

    March 9, 2023 at 9:08 am

    Mr Mills said: “Indeed arguably the only core of a Master Plan to be successfully delivered was the gyratory system itself – hardly an encouraging precedent.” It is the 1970’s plan that created the gyratory but there are ways to improve the network.

    Town Centre Master Plan cannot be a stand-alone plan. Developments within the centre have to have appropriate infrastructure capacities for roads, drainage (surface water and foul water), fresh water, electricity, internet and possibly gas. Out of these, foul water capacity and road capacity are the two difficult ones to upgrade.

    In order to create a pedestrian friendly town centre, it is necessary to deal with the traffic in the gyratory. The plan should look at ways of reducing gyratory traffic by creating alternative routes for vehicular traffic away from the centre and take a holistic approach in providing for pedestrians and cyclists within a redesigned network.

    It is true that Guildford Vision Group proposal was no longer attainable due to Solum decision to build the “Great Wall of Guildford” but the creation of a new east-west route crossing the river and the railway is still possible. This route could be located north of Solum’s site.

    Financial viability is also attainable by building affordable housing along both sides of this route that would be largely through sites containing light industrial buildings.

    In order to regenerate a pedestrian friendly riverside, Friary Bridge could be closed to traffic and Town Bridge re-opened as two-lane one-way leading to Portsmouth Road.

    In addition to the new east-west route on a viaduct, three new footbridges and a road bridge are needed to create new as well as improved pedestrian routes and cycle lanes accessing the town centre. Cycle lanes could be designed to join up with the planned Sustainable Movement Corridor coming into Walnut Tree Close through Yorkie’s Bridge.

    Above ideas are explained in more detail with sketches showing the outline designs in a document that can be found by searching for ‘keepandshare new solutions to Gfd traffic revised 13 June’

    I have no idea of how foul water drainage network would cope with the increased demand. Relocated Slyfield treatment plant would probably have increased capacity but upgrading of the existing network, if required, would be a different challenge altogether.

  3. Name Witheld Reply

    March 9, 2023 at 2:24 pm

    As someone involved in the West Surrey property sector for the past decade, I would like to extend an alternative theory for GBC’s planning failures.

    It is that highly-educated, articulate and overly-entitled residents have realised that Planning is an area of local government where a vocal minority can have a big impact (no one seems to get quite so riled up about Adult Social Care or Waste Removal).

    The pressure brought by the vocal minority has led to the council’s planning officers being regularly undermined by lobbied councillors, with their recommendations for approvals being overturned. They are then bizarrely asked to make up reasons for refusal and defend indefensible decisions at Planning Appeals! This has led to an attrition of staff and demotivation amongst those who remain.

    My proposed solution is therefore greater empowerment of the council’s planning department in their mission to apply policy, and an acceptance amongst borough residents that planning applications are not a vote on whether you like the proposal or not, but rather a decision on whether the submission is policy compliant.

    The author’s name has been withheld by agreement with the editor.

    • Bibhas Neogi Reply

      March 12, 2023 at 11:13 am

      GBC’s Planning Committee do not hear all applications at its meetings: many are dealt with by the planning services manager under the council’s scheme of delegation. These decisions are reported to the Planning Committee, which has the responsibility to determine all other applications. Occasionally proposals can be referred to the full council, which monitors planning policy.

      Extract from ‘House of Commons Library on BRIEFING PAPER
      Number 01030, 30 August 2019 Must planning committees
      follow officers’ advice in reaching decisions?’

      It says: “The largest and most contentious applications, though, will be considered by the planning committee.

      “Do officers have to make a recommendation?
      Local authorities will have rules on the roles of councillors and officers, which should conform to the good practice on planning decision-making laid down in the guide to probity in planning for councillors and officers, published by the Local Government Association (LGA) and the Planning Advisory Service (PAS). That guide says (amongst other things) that the officer reports to committee should recommend the decision to be made.

      “Overturning the advice of officers –
      In cases where councillors overturn the advice of officers, reasons have to be given. The LGA/PAS guide to probity in planning for councillors and officers suggests that councillors should be ready to explain why they have not accepted the officer’s recommendation and that officers should be given an opportunity to explain such a decision’s implications, including those for any appeal and award of costs.

      “Rejection of applications by councillors –
      In this scenario, the disappointed applicant has the right of administrative appeal to a planning inspector.”

      My understanding is that Planning Committee members should not and do not vote based on their likes and dislikes but vote based on the planning policies and the NPPF.

      The major North Street redevelopment application was refused on the basis of six issues. The issue of height is the only one that has no policy guidance at present. So I find the West Surrey Property developer’s comments somewhat dismissive of the Planning Committee’s propriety.

    • Jim Allen Reply

      March 13, 2023 at 9:09 pm

      Ah yes, more power to planning officials so they can ignore the residents genuine concerns and educated comments.

      A number of 80,000 ignored comments (on the Local Plan) comes to mind. Could the writer be a developer?

      But by far more important is the failure of officers to realise the danger to the community of grander plans. When they were asked in 2012 “what about the capacity of the sewage treatment works to absord the additional houses” there was no response.

      In 2022 I was told backing up the sewers was the answer to the shortfall of treatment capacity.

      Well for those who wonder why eight, 3,000-gallon tankers queued at Sainsbury’s and two on the A3 northbound carrigeway nearby, it was because of a broken pressure sewer main for 5,500 homes. The Burpham gravity foul main is already backed up so there is no space to increase capacity.

      It’s not because of the “over entitled residents” objecting to planning applications and asking questions, but planning officers pushing the Weyside Urban Village in the full knowledge there was a serious shortfall of capacity. They just plowed their furrow regardless.

      In the next six weeks, we will discover the full facts about how much was the responsibility of Guildford planning and major project officers, the councillors and Thames Water. But this was raised as a problem with planning pre-2010 and ignored by the SARP planning officers.

      We need the checks and balances of scrutineers in the community or else every tree and blade of grass would vanish, our aquifers run dry, and our powerlines powerless.

      A planning officer once said to me you can’t say Burpham is full up. Well I can, and now I say Guildford is truly full up. Time to accept it!

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