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Opinion: After the Disappointing Debenhams Plan Result, Here’s My Plan for Opening Up the Wey

Published on: 21 Dec, 2022
Updated on: 28 Dec, 2022

The buildings that will replace Guildford Debenhams

By Roger Hymas

It was a big disappointment for those of us who objected to the Debenhams redevelopment on the grounds of heritage and height, to lose, and gallingly, by a single vote.

We now have no option but to move on. But the Planning Committee’s last-minute introduction of a Section 106 order (under the 2004 Town and Country Planning Act) means that the Guildford Borough Council still has the opportunity to protect and even enhance the area around the site.

Those townspeople who were overwhelmingly in favour of the St Mary’s Wharf development were undoubtedly swayed by the promise of a riverside promenade and the chance to sunbathe on the slopes of the pocket park. However, this amenity could easily be overrun from the first sunny day. It really is very cramped.

The developer’s impression of how the riverside walk will look.

Architects and planning experts who have looked at the site, recognised that the true benefit of the pedestrian area is one of access, rather than destination, the chance to walk from the Town Bridge along the river to Shalford and Godalming.

The current gate to the side of the store will be re-opened as will a new entry and exit point around the rear of the building back adjacent to the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre.

But then, without the introduction of further bridges (at points 3 and 2 on the map below), you’ll be forced back on to the main road, Millbrook, and the river is inaccessible.

Getting back to it means trudging along the busy, polluted A281, past the Millbrook car park and the Weyside Inn, until you reach the entry to Shalford Park and the pathways which then open up on both sides of the Wey, going down to Godalming and beyond.

Currently, you can’t get onto the river by the navigation side because the Tumbling Bay Weir bridge remains broken and impassable as the National Trust and GBC dispute responsibility for its repair. This really shouldn’t be a big deal: it’s just a few metres, not much more than a hop, skip and jump.

People have already hinted at the potential of what could become a new Guildford amenity, offsetting some of the damage brought by the new leviathan of St Mary’s Wharf. We should call it the “Guildford Basin Park”.

The starting position is shown on the map which I’ve taken from the Guildford Masterplan. You can get details of its scope by going to the GBC website. Much of what I am suggesting is part of their plan. I’m just adding a few wrinkles.

Map taken from GBC’s “Shaping Guildford’s Future” presentation

One of the major selling points of the St Mary’s Wharf (SMW) project is building a bridge from the Debenhams walkway across to the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre.

Why not instead build the bridge, starting in the same place, but crossing over to the Millmead car park in front of The Britannia? Instead of the bridge to the Theatre, build a much less expensive deck or boardwalk from the Millbrook SMW exit and wrap it behind the Town Mill and turbine pumping station to connect to the Theatre café and provide an exit through the current bin store and onto the lock.

The whole area represents a wonderful piece of history which needs to be opened up. This potentially could also bring a lot more catering income for the Theatre Trust and a riverside access to the Town Mill might provide for some new creative space. This is a very big building after all. All of the site is owned by GBC.

One out-of-the box thought – why not move the Mill Studio into the cinema area of SMW creating a mixed presentation theatre there? And then relocate Guildford Museum into the old mill.

On the other side of the river, Millmead should be grassed over from just beyond the Hays building all the way to the council offices. Bonhams would make a great riverside café, The Britannia allowed to extend towards the river to get more afternoon sun and the potential public space of the Baptist Church optimised as they see fit.

Access to the properties at the bottom of Porridge Pot Alley could be provided from Bury Fields through a little reworking of the three substantial car parks along this street.

Crossing the lock bridge to the east, there is already a delightful grassy area between the river and canal, there’s even a riverside beach! Restoring the Tumbling Bay Weir Bridge would complete the walkway and be the finishing point of the new Basin Park.

So, shouldn’t the borough council be using its planning powers to reduce some of the damage done by passing the application. I’ve set out some potential mitigating steps which could be taken to offset the impact. I’m sure other Dragon readers could think of more. The Act says that s.106 can be used to improve adjacent public space at the developer’s expense. The lawyers can check this out.

Should Clan, the SMW owners, mind? They got a great result without the expense of an appeal. Certainly, the attractiveness of the area will be strengthened, possibly raising property prices and a few of us might feel slightly less aggrieved. And most importantly, Guildford would get a great amenity benefit.

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test 3 Responses to Opinion: After the Disappointing Debenhams Plan Result, Here’s My Plan for Opening Up the Wey

  1. Stephen Dunn Reply

    December 22, 2022 at 7:02 pm

    I love this idea! How about adding the prospect of a dock, so that river taxis can be used to ferry people into town and back out without needing to use their cars?

  2. Roger Carnegie Reply

    December 23, 2022 at 9:25 am

    All very good arguments and you paint a good picture of what could be.

    Closing the car park outside the Britannia pub, making that whole area parkland with seating, and then, if the Tumbling Bay weir ever gets repaired, we could have a very attractive riverside.

    Businesses would thrive with the increased number of people.

  3. Roger Main Reply

    December 30, 2022 at 5:36 pm

    For once I am in agreement with a comment made by Roger Hymas on this development.

    Having run and worked at Debenhams for many years I know how important the riverside was to the customers.

    I agree points 2 and 3 lend themselves to the continuation of the riverside walk and small bridges would enhance the the riverside walk experience.

    So I do hope the council will support this and discuss the funding with the developer.

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