Fringe Box

Socialize

Twitter

Opinion: After Wednesday Can Guildford Really Afford the Lib Dems Any Longer?

Published on: 13 Jan, 2023
Updated on: 21 Jan, 2023

Cllr John Rigg

By John Rigg

The expensive choice made by Lib Dem councillors to reject Berkeley’s North Street planning application has severe financial consequences for the council and its taxpayers. 

That’s on top of the cruel blow to the town’s economy and the dashed aspirations of those who want to be part of a vibrant new sustainable quarter in the centre of town.

The Lib Dems have been quick to criticise and oppose but slow to offer sensible, rational alternatives.

How privileged are we in Guildford that we can keep turning away developer after developer, consistently over 30 years, for a derelict site in the centre of town using the same excuse “well it’s got to be right for Guildford”.

This is happening as both UK and our local economy slide into recession, major employers are leaving our town, with the inevitable impact on local jobs, growth prospects and ambitions.

We have a developer poised to deliver a scheme that meets with policies that councillors themselves put in place (including those in the Local Plan, by Conservatives in 2019). These policies state what the council want.

Maybe they include concepts some find hard to address and embrace: economic growth, regeneration, new investment, provision of town centre homes in a quality development?

But that is what was thrown away on Wednesday night. An expensive decision, with expensive consequences.

It is somewhat ironic that the Lib Dems, in their recent articles, actually claimed credit for bringing together the very development scheme they all turned down this week.

See: Lib Dem Claims on Working with North Street Developers Shows a Divided Party, Says R4GV

Aerial view of the North Street Regeneration site

Experienced council officers, knowing the sensitivity of the scheme, brought in extra expertise at so many levels to get their appraisal and the approval recommendation right.

Yet Lib Dem councillors chose to give little weight to the officers’ advice or external experts. How lucky are we to have councillors able to ignore expert advice, especially on affordable homes? The barristers quote from Wednesday evening which the Lib Dems ignored was as follows…

George Mackenzie, GBC Barrister: “My advice is this, that in an appeal context there is a very high likelihood that an inspector would award costs against the council for introducing a reason for refusal based on essentially an assertion that a policy non-compliant level of affordable housing would be delivered, the reason for that is there is no evidence to suggest the council’s own independent viability consultants assessment is incorrect and that the scheme could yield a higher quantum or type of affordable housing.”

Specialist advice on transportation addressed the SCC objections (from SCC’s transportation team) and the Lib Dem’s chose to disregard that advice which again will have expensive consequences, especially if the developer chooses to appeal.

The developer’s model of the proposal for the North Street.Regeneration, project “The Friary Quarter”.

There’s something wrong when councillors stay quiet and say little until the Planning Committee on a scheme of such magnitude of North Street, on which a developer and council officers have worked for nearly four years to bring forward a policy-compliant scheme, the size and content of which have been openly publicised during those years.

Councillors were offered four separate presentations at the council offices between 2020 and 2022, free to say what they wanted, what they didn’t like, what changes they must have and what essential changes they needed.

I, as R4GV and lead for Regeneration wanted consensus. But I especially needed progress on planning gain aspects – including wider pedestrianisation, public squares and spaces, refurbishment of the bus station and better space for our open market. However, I was also desperate to have a scheme which embraced views across the council and did everything within my gift to secure that end.

The developers starting point is always to listen to what councillors and planning officers say they want. But how can they do that if the criticism is only given at the final hurdle of the planning meeting resulting in four years of wasted time and perhaps a million pounds of costs?

I rather hoped councillors of all stripes would make their views known and help officers, along with the Design Panel South East and other agencies to shape the scheme – including height, mass and materials.

For four years l cannot recall one letter from the Lib Dems (or Tories) making any comment other than about affordable units where expert advice they disliked confirmed the law.

That is not until a week or so ago – curiously perhaps as we approach a local election.

The developer met the leader of the Lib Dems after she and her own Executive approved the land sale envisaging the current scheme. She offered no particular additional guidance. Then all her colleagues on the planning committee block voted against the support for the scheme she and her colleagues presented to the Executive previously. An expensive decision.

Our local MP, desperate to curry favour with her target electorate, calls in a favour from her fellow Tory, Secretary of State Michael Gove. The same SoS who in November announced we now have to avoid developing the green belt and build housing in urban areas on brownfield sites at higher densities.

What does he do? He threatens to call in North Street, there’s an election pending, and he completely ignores that it’s a brownfield site right in the town centre, derelict for 30 years and an exemplar to support his November speech.

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

With tribal voting at work in rejecting this application, we turn down 473 homes, a healthier town centre, better retailing, new parks, squares, safer streets and a refurbished bus station.

It’s a very expensive rejection.

This is the price we pay for importing national politics and tribalism to a local level. Resident parties are growing across the South East and, my goodness, the sooner the better. We have to bring common sense to bear in planning our town.

We can’t afford the alternative of politically driven gamesmanship here, as well as in Westminster.

 

Share This Post

Responses to Opinion: After Wednesday Can Guildford Really Afford the Lib Dems Any Longer?

  1. Howard Smith Reply

    January 14, 2023 at 7:04 am

    If I may answer John Rigg’s question, no we can’t.

    I was at the planning meeting on Wednesday night and towards the end it was clear that the committee were not following planning rules as Liz Hogger claims in her letter. In fact, the Conservatives and Lib Dem colleagues wilfully ignored them (for what reason we can only speculate).

    But it was no surprise in the case of Cllr Hogger, she has been doing this for years, risking hundreds of thousands of pounds of council money in the process.

    She has indicated she will be retiring in May so we shouldn’t have to put up with this from her for very much longer.

    Howard Smith is the vice-chair of Guildford Labour.

    • Liz Hogger Reply

      January 16, 2023 at 10:09 am

      So it seems Mr Smith expected the Planning Committee to ignore planning policy H2 about affordable housing in Guildford’s Local Plan, even though there were significant concerns about the accuracy of the developer’s financial viability assessment. By “affordable housing” of course we mean the planning definition: social housing, affordable rent and shared-ownership often managed by housing associations. That would be a strange position for a Labour activist to take, if so.

      Add to that the formal objection from the County Highways Authority to the proposed refurbished bus station with fewer bus bays. Then add the significant concerns from Historic England and local residents and community groups about the height of the buildings.

      Putting all these together, it is clear that the Planning Committee was fully entitled to refuse the application based on planning policy.

      Liz Hogger is the Lib Dem borough councillor for Effingham

      • Maddy Redpath Reply

        January 17, 2023 at 6:38 am

        I think Howard Smith [vice chair Guildford Labour] expected the Liberal Democrats – who are actually in charge of the council, in case they have forgotten – to take some leadership and demand the developer delivers affordable housing in one of the many councillor presentations they gave.

        Clearly, it wasn’t that important to them, until Wednesday when the penny dropped that North Street would become an election issue. The Lib Dems claimed credit for the scheme only three months ago so they should take some accountability. Asking for more affordable units might have been achievable if requested two years ago, not at the planning committee.

        Now we still have no housing or affordable units on the site. We still have a disgusting bus station. And we still have an eyesore in the centre of the town which is doing more harm to our heritage and economy than a 13-storey building would. Congratulations to the Lib Dems for teaming up with the Conservative opposition and ensuring the site stays derelict.

        This is exactly why we need to remove national party politics at a local level. The Lib Dems did nothing to work on this scheme, yet claimed credit.

        Whether it’s R4GV, GGG or a new group, the national parties need to be held to account at the borough council election in May.

        Maddy Redpath is a R4GV borough councillor for Holy Trinity

        • Howard Smith Reply

          January 17, 2023 at 3:34 pm

          I’m glad of the supporting comment from Cllr Maddy Redpath, though the point she makes on national parties could be modified by saying let’s rid ourselves of parties that will sacrifice Guildford in the cause of their perceived election prospects.

          We recall the wild promises from Liberal Democrats in 2019 about delivering 300 council houses every year. Where are they?

          Guildford Labour will always put Guildford first and work constructively with those of a like mind. Sadly it cannot be said that putting Guildford first is a priority of the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives.

          Howard Smith is the vice-chair of Guildford Labour

        • Jan Messinger Reply

          January 17, 2023 at 7:42 pm

          Cllr Maddy Redpath is quite right. Some of us keep saying national politics has no place in local issues especially when local elections are only a few months away on May 4.

          We went through exactly the same four years ago with the Local Plan. For goodness sake voters take note of what’s going on. Write to your MP about your unhappiness about this because, after all, they also want your vote. And make sure you use your local vote wisely.

          I want someone to tell me exactly what they are going to do for this borough to get my vote, not tell me what any other party has or has not done.

          Sadly national politics does have a bearing on local election results. All I can say is voters are not all stupid we know the games being played. Soon nothing will get done in this borough mainly, I fear, due to politics.

  2. RWL Davies Reply

    January 14, 2023 at 9:46 am

    An excellent summary of a situation which would be a farce if it weren’t so important and an example of local government at its worse.

    “A brownfield site right in the town centre derelict for thirty years” and still nothing. You couldn’t make it up.

  3. Bibhas Neogi Reply

    January 14, 2023 at 11:25 pm

    Reactions to refusal have been mostly negative but they need not be. There are always ways to move forward.

    A cardinal rule for the council should be that the Planning Committee’s decision is accepted by all parties even when the decision maybe against their judgement and views.

    They should respect each other’s views but once a decision has been taken no criticism should be aired based on political stances. Councillors have the same aim and that is to work for the betterment of the borough.

    All should strive to co-operate and contribute in a positive manner with the applicant as best as they can.

    The application has been refused but this does not mean it is the end. The developer can appeal or review their application by addressing the reasons for refusal.

    They will no doubt assess the probability of winning the appeal or explore the mitigation and alterations to the design in consultation with the council and other main objectors – Surrey Highways and the bus operators.

    Viability assessment is based on several assumptions of price movements, interest rates and future demands etc. That there will be great demand for this development is in no doubt because of its location, so there is next to nothing risk on that account. These units would fetch higher than their equivalent elsewhere because of their prime location.

    Height and density could be adjusted and reduced profit due to reduced number of units may still be attractive to the developer for the percentage return against the investment.

    As for the bus station issues, these were aired almost a year ago. Please see https://guildford-dragon.com/further-step-towards-north-street-regeneration-reveals-disagreement-on-bus-station-proposal/#comments

    So what happened to consultation?

    Did the developer simply ignore the concerns? No, they engaged a traffic consultant who concluded that there would be no detrimental effect of the altered routes in and out of the bus station. GBC Corporate arm also engaged not one but two consultants who apparently came to the same conclusion but Surrey Highways and the bus operators were not convinced.

    I have lived in Guildford area since 1970 and I have endured daily congestion while coming through Woodbridge Road on to Onslow Street on my way to Godalming. The stretch opposite the bus station was dreadful and it would be even worse now with increased traffic.

    Buses are likely to get stuck in Leapale Road (when made two-way) in the queue of traffic waiting to exit on to Onslow Street. It baffles me that three consultants did not find any problems here or with buses having to negotiate York Road roundabout and possibly blocking all three lanes if their exit were not clear.

    I had raised these before with the developer via emails, at consultation events and through the local media. However, I believe these could be solved. I have suggested how these could be addressed but it is up to the developer to explore the ideas if they are looking to review their application.

    My correspondence of December 28 2022 in the Application Portal describes these.

    • Martin Elliott Reply

      January 15, 2023 at 4:36 pm

      Yes, apart from the height of buildings, there are other significant comments which the council officers dismissed.
      Not lease, that Surrey County Council lodged two objections on the reduction of the bus station and the reduction in movements and roads to the bus station.

      It’s all very well imposing an impossible dogma for “modal shift” (nothing has actually been achieved in a decade) but good bus communications are meant to be part of the way to achieve it.

  4. Dave Fielding Reply

    January 18, 2023 at 6:56 am

    Whenever I read about planning applications and any Guildford Council decision, I’m always surprised that the railways got to this town or that the Wey was made navigable.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *