Fringe Box



Opinion: Let’s Not Throw Away Guildford’s Future

Published on: 28 Jul, 2023
Updated on: 29 Jul, 2023

John Rigg

By John Rigg

former R4GV lead councillor for Regeneration at GBC

Guildford needs a deliverable plan for the future. Our community now know that Guildford has suffered a catalogue of financial accounting failures to follow the project mismanagement by council officers which R4GV identified shortly after they were elected. Sadly, the consequences of both will have an adverse impact on Guildford. 

After decades of failure to make any plan for the town what must not be sacrificed is the recently commissioned forward plan for Guildford’s future because of short-term, knee-jerk cost-cutting.

The press release by the new chief executive officer and the current section 151 finance officer (chief finance officer), with their list of reasons for the council’s financial problems, is a carefully crafted list of reasons under the heading ‘Not our Fault‘.

The excuses include increased demand for services, the state of the UK economy, high inflation and interest rates and a succession of government funding reductions over many years.

We can agree they are not the fault of our new officers who deserve credit for their report but the detailed report suggests other mistakes and that nearly all those failures were avoidable had there been effective financial accounting and auditing by appropriately experienced officers at the time.

Just over two years ago R4GV brought councillors with professional and financial backgrounds into the council Executive. They revealed enormous waste in projects. R4GV cancelled many projects and put in place improved scrutiny of projects where they could not be cancelled.

Millions of pounds had been wasted by GBC on these random projects yet our town centre, the heart of our borough has suffered steady deterioration and inaction. No investment in the centre has been made for the future, and none was planned.

Guildford remains vulnerable to flooding yet, since the previous serious floods in 1968 and 2014, no firm commitment has been made to address flooding in the town. We have been on borrowed time even before the extreme climate change now forecast by the Environment Agency and visible everywhere.

Until R4GV arrived, little had been done to create a deliverable town centre masterplan. In fact, progress was blocked by the council on the only “deliverable” masterplan which was created and proposed by Guildford Vision Group (GVG) in 2016.

Now the one deliverable masterplan underway to address some of the serious issues and plan a vision for our future is the GBC project called “Shaping Guildford‘s Future” (SGF). The external consultants have in contrast made outstanding progress, both in identifying the hidden potential of our town and, importantly, with the Environment Agency regarding flooding.

Ingrained officer resistance to having any proper strategic plan for the regeneration of Guildford is a factor and the main reason why there has been no substantial progress with regeneration for decades. My expectation is that SGF may well be cancelled for political reasons whilst publicly citing cost grounds but the reasons are not all visible and some are a long-term issue.

The blocking of strategic planning was most evident at the Planning Inquiry into the adequacy of the 2019 Local Plan. The planning inspector acknowledged his surprise at the total absence of any policies or plans for the town centre. He instructed the borough strategic planning team to come up with a policy for the town centre.

The inspector, who had seen the 110-page GVG plan, required the strategic planning officers to involve GVG in the formulation of the policy. Sad to say, no such interaction took place and no vision for Guildford appeared or seemed to be of any interest to those tasked with the strategic planning of our town.

You would think the flood risk would be a motivation for strategic planning – see the progress made under SGF:

And there are other important wins from a good plan, including setting building heights (resisted by the same borough strategic planners), the opening up of the riverside and also wider pedestrianisation.

All these remain inadequately covered by local planning policies and therefore at risk to opportunistic blocking development. The plan can also avoid the massive over-allocation of space on sites such as at North Street which R4GV inherited but successfully fought to reduce to one half of the size which the same strategic planning team had allocated on the site.

Additionally, our town centre congestion and pollution are already among the worst in the UK. Positive planning to open the riverside and deliver sensible regeneration requires forward-looking strategic planning of a quality wholly absent in Guildford.

Conversely, the work to date by GBC’s leading external consultants on SGF has been both considerable and excellent. However, if SGF is to have any meaning, the work has to conclude with its incorporation in the updating of the Local Plan, especially regarding flooding.

An updated Local Plan can deliver on masterplan objectives including the riverside walks, homes and workspace we need to compete with other centres like Reading and Bracknell. In the meantime, these towns are enticing our businesses and employment opportunities away from us year after year contributing to our now highly visible decline.

I expect the new council, in its eagerness to take the easy way out, will use the financial crisis to abandon these plans for Guildford’s future even though the cost to conclude the work is modest, especially compared to the waste seen elsewhere and the cost of the SGF planning work already completed.

What waste, you ask? Guildford Park Road – over £5 million, Walnut Bridge – over £6million and Ash Road Bridge (ARB) at £40 million, immediately spring to mind. R4GV managed to mitigate ARB costs by reapplying for a government grant and securing £23.7 million and separately  £5 million from SCC – again, unsung initiatives of R4GV which are now mitigating the current crisis.

Both bridges are infrastructure projects, and should never have been undertaken by Guildford ratepayers. Infrastructure is the responsibility of Surrey County Council, who with the police get 91p in the pound of our rates leaving just 9p for Guildford Council to cover such costs.

However, the really big risk is Weyside Urban village (WUV), at over £400 million. In so many respects this is a worthy housing project but requires a relocation of the old sewage works for Thames Water, with those costs falling on GBC.

This relocation cost  at £110 million, should also never have been entertained by the council. The new sewerage works cost is now at £130 million. The WUV project alone could easily have further overruns of £50 million or even £100 million but the council cannot cancel this project due to legal commitments given to Thames Water and due to infrastructure costs imposed by SCC.

With the considerable reserves of Guildford, I suspect the financial situation is resolvable. However potential planning project cost overruns might well run into tens of millions of pounds in the case of WUV with less risk on ARB. So, to shelve SGF – the one scheme that should continue – to save £3-4 million will be a short-term option with long-term adverse consequences for a town worth billions.

Progress requires the borough strategic planning team to approve the latest SGF scheme for inclusion in the Local Plan update. Once this is done, and the process followed to adoption by the council, the private sector can take forward the regeneration opportunities and carry the risk, as they have at North Street and this time any regeneration plan can incorporate height and other strategic planning controls rebuffed to date.

Unless Guildford has a viable masterplan, it will struggle. The payback for the town from the SGF masterplan is a healthier, more exciting, more prosperous Guildford. To pull this expenditure (which is already approved) will leave us with a deteriorating town that can be washed away at any time.

The SGF plan has real benefits for our town. It can also enhance the land values of council-owned assets. It can deliver attractive, healthier,  economy-boosting, problem-solving regeneration.

Let’s stay with it – Guildford needs a future!

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