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Opinion: North Street’s Development and the Dilemma Facing Our Politicians

Published on: 14 Aug, 2023
Updated on: 29 Aug, 2023

A CGI of how Friary Quarter in North Street would look from developer St Edward.

By Martin Giles

Anyone who imagined that voting Lib Dem or Conservative in May would stop the proposed North Street development should now realise that was a forlorn hope.

Both parties were happy to sit back and allow voters to be persuaded that votes for their parties could really make a significant difference to the North Street proposal. Some Conservative candidates privately admit they were delighted with the effect of the Battle for Guildford video with its nasty innuendos. Some even promoted it. It was shameful.

The slick webinar by St Edward, the consortium formed by M&G (owners) and Berkeley Homes (developers), issued a month ago, made it very clear: they are submitting a new, slightly modified, application and if that is refused they will rely on an appeal, now lodged, of the original application.

See: North Street: Approve ‘Smaller, Higher Quality Scheme’ and We Will Withdraw Appeal Says Developer

Given what must be the strong likelihood of the appeal’s success the message to those on the Planning Committee will be crystal clear: approve the new application or risk the refused application, with its higher buildings and even fewer affordable units, succeeding.

Of course, using our money to fight an expensive appeal, while warning that the council is at risk of effective bankruptcy, making cuts to popular public services necessary, would be difficult to justify.

A model of the North Street development exhibited by the developers and refused by GBC’s Planning Committee. It is now subject to appeal.

In the unlikely event that the councillors do refuse the new application and the appeal is unsuccessful, St Edward has said it is likely to walk away leaving the GBC Planning Committee members to be seen as responsible for keeping the North Street site an unattractive blot on the landscape as it has been for years.

No pressure then!

The fact is that higher-rise buildings in Guildford were inevitable from the time the council failed to include a height limit policy in the Local Plan in 2019.

See: Second Leaked Tory Email Shows Some Were Very Concerned About Building Height

As we know from leaked emails, there was a belated realisation among the ruling Conservative councillors, in the wake of the unpopular appeal decision to allow Solum’s ten-storey blocks at the station site, that Guildford had an inadequate defence against high-rise proposals and that the planning officers’ advice that such a policy was unnecessary or undesirable was wrong.

Most Conservative councillors were themselves worried about more high-rise development. But there was no time to redraft the Local Plan and get it adopted before the 2019 election.

They rushed in a supplementary planning document (SPD), which it was hoped would limit building heights by protecting specified views, but the North Street development has clearly shown how weak and ineffectual it is.

Why they felt it so necessary to have their Local Plan adopted before the 2019 election remains a moot point. They say it was to protect the borough from uncontrolled development but residents in some parts of the borough, Ash and the eastern wards, might find this risible.

Others say it was connected with the desire of some councillors to be seen to comply with government or party policy. Whichever was the truth, it appears that delay might have been preferable. It would certainly have been more democratic.

Fast forward to today, how will the different party’s view the new application?

The claim that all councillors vote without party interests will be repeated but the evidence is clear from the pattern of voting that party influence does play a part and it would surprising if it changes now.

The Lib Dems were largely responsible for the refusal of the first application but is there sincere concern about building height among a majority of its councillors? Their bigger concern seems to be the percentage of affordable housing.

The target figure in the Local Plan is 40 per cent but developers simply argue that is not viable and the signs are that the amount of “affordables” in the new scheme are still expected to be very low.

The Lib Dems might claim that shaving of a couple of floors from the 13-storey building is a significant change (even though they will be able to be added in later years under “permitted development”) but few of those opposed to the scheme are likely to be persuaded. For those who the scale, mass and bulk of the scheme is anathema, it remains the same.

The Conservatives face a trickier choice. The North Street scheme is being considered under planning policies and a Local Plan that their party has overseen. But at the Planning Committee in the last borough election they aligned themselves with those who were against the scheme.

The Tories might gamble on the fact the electors’ memories are often short and the understanding of who is responsible for what, especially when it comes to planning policy, is not widespread.

Residents for Guildford & Villages are also in a cleft stick. More than any other party they promoted the scheme. They thought it would be an election winner, instead it proved divisive and under the first past the post system it cost them votes and seats they could ill afford.

Some in their party remain convinced the development is the right thing and to U-turn now would look hypocritical. But their former supporters, who hate the plans, might find it impossible to forgive them let alone vote for them again.

The Guildford Greenbelt Group’s sole representative on the Planning Committee in January was its former leader, Ramsay Nagaty. His replacement, Pat Oven, will probably follow suit and vote in favour of the new application.

The sentiment of people in the villages that form GGG’s heartland is the more houses are developed in Guildford the lower the demand for green belt development, not that will reduce those scheduled on the strategic sites at Wisley, Gosden Hill and Blackwell Farm.

It is a similar situation in the Labour Party where the new Labour member Howard Smith is likely to vote for the new application, more because he is in favour of the development rather than a hope to protect the green belt.

One thing all the parties seemed united on in the local election campaigns was that a zoned height policy was needed.

St Edward’s revised southern and eastern elevations of “Block E” in the new planning application.

In May, a response from an anonymous “Lib Dem spokesperson” told The Dragon: “We are in favour of a heights policy, and will look to implement one as soon as practicable, potentially as part of a SPD in advance of the Local Plan Review.” But there appears to have been little progress on that now that campaigning has stopped for another four years.

And for those who feel that more high buildings will damage further the character of the town the future looks bleak. The fact is the battle on building height was lost some years ago without most of us even realising it.

For those who welcome the scheme it seems almost certain it will go ahead, hardly changed. Not only that, given the ratchet effect, more higher-rise buildings can be expected. There will be no going back.

See the North Street planning application here.



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Responses to Opinion: North Street’s Development and the Dilemma Facing Our Politicians

  1. Robin Horsley Reply

    August 14, 2023 at 5:22 pm

    I am sorry that the editor feels it shameful to generate public awareness of this issue. And to suggest innuendo – is just innuendo in itself. That really is shameful.

    I am afraid his presumption that the developers appeal, if it does indeed go through the full process, would be won is not reflected in the advice I have had from many industry people – architects, developers, construction industry people and others who have contacted me.

    The general view is that the outcome is very uncertain and the developer would need to spend a very considerable sum to have any chance of overcoming all the planning policy contraventions that the scheme represents – over 35 policy points on the council’s decision notice. Even one of the R4GV people yesterday conceded the point that it would be very costly for the developer.

    The developer is trying to avoid an appeal as they have demonstrated by trying to persuade the council to accept the revised new scheme instead but it is not substantially different so it seems unlikely.

    It seems the editor is unaware of the circumstances if the scheme fails to be approved – the council then has the opportunity to own the entire site and then can either work alone or with a funder or development partner to build something much better.

    It’s odd that The Dragon is so ill-informed about this. The Lib Dems have made it very clear what the contractual situation is on the land.

    I would just urge the editor to rethink the way in which he disparages others, particularly those who put their own time and effort into matters of considerable public concern be they individuals (like me) or local councillors. His reputation is severely damaged by it and prevents people from wanting to engage with him.

    I guess this may be why he is so uninformed about the true situation. The Dragon could serve a much more valuable purpose with just some basic balance and a bit of fairness and decency. But there seems to be a desire to control the agenda and the narrative rather than report.

    I will wait and see if this comment is deleted or edited as others have been in the past when I have not been given the opportunity to reply to allegations made by this site.

    Editor’s response: The Dragon is not social media and is not obliged to publish any comment or letter submitted, as is clearly stated in our published policy. As far as can be recalled, there was only one comment submitted by Mr Horsley that was not published as it was explained to him the issues he raised were to be discussed in a forthcoming interview with him. Comments are edited in line with our policy and not to change their meaning.

  2. Jan Messinger Reply

    August 14, 2023 at 6:05 pm

    I have said it before and will say it again. Take the politics out of the borough council and then the residents of the borough might actually get sensible people doing the best for the villages and town in this borough.

    I personally think its time for a change of system get rid of parish, borough and county council’s and start something new. Decide on a geographical area then appoint a new “one tier of council” delegate monies and spend accordingly for that area anything and everything for that area. I’m sure we would save a lot of money and the right things would be done in that area. Every area is unique and requires different levels of expenditure.

    Shame people believed the social media attack. More fool them. Don’t worry it starts again with the next election for Parliament.

  3. Julian Lyon Reply

    August 14, 2023 at 6:17 pm

    On the whole this is a well-written and helpful description of where we are.

    May I take issue with a couple of points:

    “Residents for Guildford & Villages… thought it would be an election winner, instead it proved divisive…” – No that is patently not the case. R4GV councillors voted for the scheme based on detailed analysis, the officers’ recommendations and counsel’s opinion. This was not a party-led decision and the R4GV members of the Planning Committee voted based on the facts as presented, the Local Plan that was in place and the professional advice they and everyone received in the planning meeting. R4GV knew that a frivolous approach to the planning would put extra pressure on the council’s finances when the developer appealed a decision taken against the recommendations and advice. They did the responsible thing under the circumstances.

    Lib Dems say they “will look to implement [a heights policy] as soon as practicable, potentially as part of a SPD in advance of the Local Plan Review.” An SPD would not help on a site like North Street where the Local Plan allocation would take precedence over an SPD, and where the quantum of development under the Local Plan would far exceed anyone’s sense of where a heights policy ought to be.

    The blame for this might well be levelled at the Conservatives who adopted the plan in 2019, but it must surely be the fault of the lead council officer for Strategic Planning, who allowed (nay, drove through) his Local Plan despite its self-evident weaknesses and flaws. He only introduced a set of town centre policies (without any height restrictions) at the eleventh hour, during the examination in public when it became clear the planning inspector would find the Local Plan unsound without it.

    North Street, the whole of Guildford, and R4GV candidates (of whom I was one) were and are all casualties of this dreadfully poor Local Plan.

    Three extra floors on One Onslow Street seemed to slip through the back door whilst everyone was apparently watching vitriolic videos before the election, and it is that planning consent for an upwards extension that at best weakens any protective height argument on the North Street site.

    Strategic Planning – the clue is in the name – seems to have bypassed Guildford for another generation. Whoever is at fault, we are where we are and this needs to be fixed for the future so that everyone (residents, planners, developers and our politicians) knows where they stand. I hate to think of the amount of money that has been wasted by developers and the council whilst the policy framework is about as effective as nailing jelly to a wall!

    Julian Lyon stood as is a R4GV candidate in May’s borough council election.

  4. Adrian Oliver Reply

    August 17, 2023 at 1:00 pm

    Shade and wind.

    These high buildings cast enormous shadows and the wind is funnelled through the gaps between them.

    It’ll be a miserable place to visit when built.

  5. Peta Malthouse Reply

    August 22, 2023 at 8:08 pm

    Thank you Martin Giles and Julian Lyons for setting out the situation the problems Councillors have to wrestle with since the adoption of the Local Plan. Please everyone ignore what Robin Horsley says..a former member of the Local tory party his somewhat right wing views can easily be discovered from his social media. His comments are misleading ill informed and for political gain. I was intimately involved in preparing my villages response to the Local Plan and furious when the then majority Tory Council pushed it through a few weeks before the election. They knew it was unpopular and they would lose seats. Height limits for Guildford are missing but in the Green Belt, developments they allowed have resulted in far more homes than proposed in the Plan when refused by the Council have gone through on appeal .This is
    because despite promises made to me personally, no statement dealing with design or density were ever included for those villages now ‘inset’ . The effect is infilling and the creation of islands of suburbia in our villages. A very poor Local Plam for which we will pay handsomely in the coming years

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