Fringe Box



Opinion: High Street Trouble Gives Guildford An Opportunity

Published on: 13 Aug, 2018
Updated on: 16 Aug, 2018

John Rigg.

John Rigg, chairman of the Guildford Vision Group (GVG) gives his opinion of the current situation on Guildford’s High Street and town centre planning…

Storing up trouble
Department stores are in trouble. In Guildford, we have two where their owners are struggling for survival. Together they represent around 50,000 m² (about half a million sq ft) of selling space in our town. This situation arrives on top of increasing shop vacancies across the town and retailers failing nationally.

Out of trouble comes opportunity
So what to do if we lose one or other of these major department stores? Out of trouble comes opportunity. In theory, the Guildford Borough Council’s (GBC) role as a major town centre landowner in both North Street and across the town should mean an engaged and active local authority looking at exciting options.

In practice, while seemingly efficient in many areas, the council appears confused in its approach to the major challenges facing the town and unsure, even timid, on solutions. Any large store closure will have a considerable impact, not least on plans for North Street.

North Street – the litmus test of the council’s development skills
North Street and its future will be a key litmus test of the council’s leadership. I welcome Cllr Davis’s recognition at last that a radical rethink on North Street is necessary. GVG has advocated a rethink for some time. A North Street review will test the council’s understanding of the retail scene, its willingness to consider new ideas and its capacity to shape the future of our town. Is it equipped to take on this challenge? Does the council leadership know what it is doing when it comes to major urban development projects like the North Street scheme?

The North Street regeneration area.

Why has North Street development struggled?
The history of North Street is not a happy tale and goes back 30 years. There have been eight attempts so far, by proven development experts working with local councillors, to bring change to Guildford. There’s been no development of this key site so far other than the council’s failed “Pop up Village”. Why is that so? What’s holding it back? Even the planning inspector, examining our new Local Plan (itself much delayed), posed the very same question.

North Street – the sorry story so far
A look at the developer story so far surely tells us something about the council’s ability to conclude a deal:

  • 1997 MEPC who owned The Friary, and adjoining land jointly with Hermes, a pension fund, proposed an extension of 18,580 m²  – rejected;
  • 2000 Westfield replaced MEPC and tried again, with a redesigned 24,155 m² – failed;
  • 2002 Westfield tried again with the 26,250 m² Friary Extension Scheme   – rejected;
  • 2004 Westfield tried yet again. This time it successfully secured planning consent for its 24,923 m² Friary Extension 2 scheme. John Lewis then became interested in taking a presence in the town and various schemes were developed incorporating John Lewis with a mix of other retail, catering and parking in versions of a 5-600,000 sq ft schemes. But these failed to find favour with GBC.
  • By 2011 Westfield had had enough and exited the town after carrying out a refurbishment of the existing Friary Centre, selling its share to Hermes.

Hermes was enthusiastic and tried to take over the development baton but was rejected by the council for unknown reasons. The council then held a beauty parade of leading developers and shortlisted three companies,  excluding Hermes.

It picked and announced one developer, Lendlease, of Bluewater fame. However, it then changed its mind and picked another – Land Securities. Land Securities started again with a new project team, albeit with a much larger scheme, but couldn’t reach agreement so withdrew.

Hermes had also had enough so it exited in June 2013, selling both the Friary Centre and adjoining North Street site to M&G.

M&G’s most recent design for 42,000 m², plus 7.000 m² of food and beverage on the North Street site, is the biggest scheme so far.

These are all serious developers. Why have they struggled to achieve a deal?

Is the council’s plan for a 40% uplift in retail space realistic?
In 2018, despite the recent years of High Street decline and national upheaval, huge retail expansion – an uplift of 40% – is still being advocated for North Street in the GBC’s Local Plan currently under examination. We have warned care is needed. We certainly don’t want to kill off the High Street.

Phillip Hammond, the Chancellor, certainly recognises that town centres will have to adapt: “…Indeed, Britain has the biggest percentage of online shopping of any major developed economy. The nature of the offer on the high street is going to change over time. There’s going to be less retail, more leisure, bars, community facilities.”

The Centre for Retail Research reckons that, by the end of 2018, 18% of stores will have closed in the six-year period from 2012. At the same time, it estimates online retail by the end of 2018 will account for 18% of total retail sales. For Guildford, this is also at a time when a number of neighbouring towns, who have built new shopping centres on past forecasts of demand, are now bringing the new space on tap.

Now housing is in the mix
The Council also has a new desperate town centre priority. It has to deliver new homes, thanks to the Local Plan and the housing target, despite having no comprehensive plan for the centre. So what to do?

Ad hoc planning, with knee-jerk reactions, can never hope to deliver a beautiful town nor offer the community any choice. It’s no good just plonking a 400-unit housing estate on top of the current North St 42,000 m² plan, as tabled by M&G in consultation with the council.

If you want a beautiful town you have to look at its wider needs. The council owns several key sites, and has CPO (compulsory purchase order) powers, but seems to lack the motivation or appetite to address the town’s real issues.

Convert aspirations into an adopted masterplan
I suggest, in today’s world, this means the town centre’s future must be secured by creating a proper, legally-adopted masterplan addressing infrastructure, housing and the environment. The current “aspirational” plan, approved but not formally adopted by the council, just won’t cut the mustard. It has no planning status and can be easily challenged, if not ignored.

The council’s reluctance to masterplan comprehensively will be for many reasons, including incurring some substantial infrastructure costs. Neither GBC nor Surrey County Council seemingly has enough money or appetite to address the real issues or even to listen to possible solutions. Have all avenues been properly explored?

A development corporation?
There must be some way of distancing the politics from the practicalities of development. This is perhaps why the government is reviving the idea of development corporations at local level. Even they will need a credible legally adopted Masterplan to implement. Business and residents will also want infrastructure solutions that focus on more than the 3% who might use bikes.

Since 2011 GVG has called for a masterplan
Masterplanning the town centre is something GVG has been calling for since 2011. Guildford should use the decline in retail to prompt a real review. Now that the council sees the need for a rethink, let’s use the opportunity to start again and design a quality, mixed-use, residential-focused town centre fit for the 21st-century. It has to re-energise the centre, make it sustainable and create an attractive, people-centred experience.

We don’t want a shopping centre extension with residential blocks stuck on the top, ȧ la 1980’s. To make a real difference North Street and our town need a sensible, serious infrastructure spend.

One of our best architects, Sir Terry Farrell, in a 2012 BBC Radio 4 lecture Four Thought, said good planning is about planning the spaces and then the buildings around. In a more recent lecture, he correctly states “You can’t talk about the bits (ie individual sites), you have to talk big picture.” He recognises this is challenging for those without the training or track record.

Enlightened leadership required
There are answers to our situation. There are wonderful opportunities to improve our lovely town through positive planning, good design and great development. We even have a riverside to rediscover.

We hope M&G will stay and bring forward an interesting solution, presenting a type of development it may never have designed before. It needs as much or even more architectural focus on residential, on community and on townscape, as hitherto focused just on growing retail floor space.

The world really has changed. Guildford needs to be a centre for the people of today and tomorrow, especially young families.

It is a time for important debate, not a time for heads in the sand. It calls for enlightened leadership and real vision.

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