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Opinion: There Has Not Been a More Comprehensive Consultation in the History of the Borough

Published on: 2 Jan, 2023
Updated on: 5 Jan, 2023

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

By John Rigg

Robin Horsley in his opinion piece suggests there has been “very, very limited consultation” on the North Street project and that he was shocked when he realised “only this week” there was already a scheme proposed and the council were expecting to make a decision in just two weeks.

Cllr John Rigg

The new Friary Quarter has been under negotiation since 2018, and under intensive negotiation since 2020.

Thank goodness, because after 30 years of dereliction there have been eight failed attempts to bring this site forward: it is time for progress.

The difficulties of developing in Guildford have so frustrated each party in turn that this prime town centre site has lain derelict for decades, in my view to the shame of our borough.

This is depressing when we desperately need town centre homes, homes from which people can walk to work or to the station, or to the High Street, without requiring cars which compound congestion, pollution and accidents.

From my experience as the portfolio holder for Regeneration at Guildford Borough Council, a founder member of Residents for Guildford and Villages and the Guildford Vision Group (of which I formerly chaired), I considered the consultation process in Guildford previously deeply flawed. It needed a different approach.

In fact, GVG successfully challenged the then Tory council on a new draft Planning Framework which Cllr Rooth brought forward in 2012, when he was council leader.

Two QCs advised in regard to the consultation that the proposed document was unlawful under UK law, EU law (which then applied) and even under the council’s own constitution. Cllr Rooth was, l gather, ousted by some of his Tory colleagues shortly afterwards, which Mr Horsley might find relevant.

Since being elected I have been absolutely committed to ensuring consultation exercises are real, practical and take into account respondents’ views where appropriate.

I am unaware of a more comprehensive consultation than North Street in the history of the borough.  The North Street scheme has been even more extensive than the recent St Mary’s Wharf project which was no small undertaking.

Illustrative view of how the refurbished bus station would look (looking south towards North Street).

Summary of consultation events

Below is an excerpt of the consultation exercise undertaken over this period. The planning application was submitted in July 2022. It can be found under reference 22/P/01336 on the council planning portal.

The landowners and developers, St Edward major consultation process has been spread over a period from project inception in 2018 to 2022. Each major iteration of the project has been put before the community.

Additionally, the developer has made presentations during the evolution of the scheme to all councillors that wished to attend the meetings.

There was been a mixture of online and in-person events, due to the logistical issues of the Covid-19 pandemic, however this has allowed the reach to extend to a wider audience.

Stage One: December 2020 online webinar

  • February 2021 Feedback video
  • Interim update video May 2021

 Stage Two: April 2022 online webinar

  • June 2022 Report back video

 Stage Three: July 22 online webinar & August site presence

  •  Briefing of the planning application and on-site presence for drop-in sessions for visitors and interested parties. 

 Stage Four: August to November 22 In-person events and presentations

  • Various events in the town including the North Street car-free day (200+ attendees) and presenting at the Fallen Angel Bar (60+ attendees)
  • Physical model produced, shown to the public and now left with council members at Millmead. 

The consultation website: www.northstreetregeneration.co.uk has had considerable information available for viewing over the evolution of the scheme including detailed drawings, plans, videos and other information.

Communication inviting interest by marketing the project has also been undertaken as below:

Summary of marketing/advertising:

  • 20,000 physical leaflets dropped within 0.5 miles of the site
  • Five major press releases to the industry, regional and local media providers
  • Advertised availability of the consultations on social media to reach over 124,000 people
  • Issued regular mailers to subscribers to the North Street mailing list totalling 600+ people
  • Issued three update videos between formal consultation events providing feedback and next steps with over 600 views

Summary of responses:

  • 3,296 clicks from a social media campaign
  • Over 116,000 clicks on the engagement website
  • 161 feedback forms completed
  • 58 comments of support (submitted to GBC’s planning portal)
  • 52 comments of objection (submitted to GBC’s planning portal)
  • Over 1,500 comments in total

Other developers, GBC or stakeholder engagement:

  • Three steering group meetings on bus station design (of which SCC attended)
  • Over 25 meetings with Surrey County Council regarding bus station and highways
  • Over 50  meetings with the Local Planning Authority
  • Over 70  meetings with the GBC Corporate team
  • Individual workshops and meetings held with key stakeholder groups such as the Guildford Society, the Guildford Residents Association (the umbrella organisation for Guildford resident associations) Guildford, Vision Group, and other groups.

All 48 councillors on behalf of residents have had full opportunity to attend a sequence of presentations from the developer over the last three years. Cllr Rooth has attended these meetings and was also invited on to the Bus Station Stakeholder Group.

Notwithstanding his knowledge of this possibly unprecedented consultation, he has had a sustained approach of noisily complaining that each of the major projects has not been consulted on properly.

Incidentally in our opinion, so invalid were his criticisms, shown consistently as a minority view (sometimes his alone, one councillor in 48), and comments in the press about his own party’s activities (supporting a mandate on which we were elected), meant his continued membership of our party was unsustainable.

Having taken more officer time and resources through his complaints than all other councillors and to questionable benefit, he had been invited to resign from R4GV for quite some time. Although aware he would probably rush to seek press coverage as he did, his recent inevitable decision to leave the group was a relief.

Consistently making noise and seeking press attention does not necessarily add value to anything although his actions appear welcome to those such as Mr Horsley who admits he only became aware of the scheme a week ago.

I would refer anyone wanting an informed view, balancing advantages and disadvantages identified in the North Street application to view the officer’s report to the Planning Committee. Possibly the most comprehensive report comprising 280 pages but convenient for us with an Executive Summary.

It is an in-depth study of every aspect of the project, bringing in countless external agencies and consultants to judge objectively the proposal. It should satisfy most (though not the unpersuadable) that the project has been properly scrutinised, delivers material benefits for the town and has received a thorough review by all those involved.

No project of course can please all the people all the time. However, this project is about delivering regeneration, 475 new homes, place-making, environmental improvements, health and safety improvements, and providing new investment in the bus station and in the town centre. This is to provide a better future for the town and of course, High Street as online retailing continues to erode viability.

The scheme has still to be considered by GBC’s Planning Committee and with a local election next May I hope a decision will be made based on planning policies rather than politics.

Whilst I myself am not on the planning committee I am satisfied that this is a great project, it is desperately needed for countless different reasons. I know it will not suit some because of its height or its architecture, but at some point in time, providing every aspect has been considered and consulted on in considerable detail with great transparency and balanced judgements made we need to take decisions and ideally take these rare opportunities to make things happen.

This is particularly so now with the inherent risks of the global, national and local economy.

We need to take a broader perspective. This includes building brownfield sustainable homes for future generations. We should not take the easy option of building principally on green belt with the consequent increase in traffic, congestion and pollution let alone loss of countryside.

I believe this project will be very positive for the future of our town. Having a new contemporary quarter without disturbing, the historical core is in my view, a good use for this backland site.

 

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test One Response to Opinion: There Has Not Been a More Comprehensive Consultation in the History of the Borough

  1. Mark Stamp Reply

    January 5, 2023 at 1:42 pm

    I agree with Cllr Rigg about the amount of consultation that has been done for this development and feel that it is adequate. We do after all live in a representative democracy where we elect councillors to take decisions on these matters.

    I do believe though that the council needs to seek wider engagement in the Shaping Guildford’s Future plan.

    Planning does not get the vast majority of residents excited and most attendees at the previous Shaping Guildford’s Future sessions were the same old (in both senses of the word) faces, many of whom are regulars here.

    In order to engage a more representative cross-section of the population for the next round, the council must consider creating a citizen’s assembly constituted with a cross-section of residents, who are asked to serve much like a jury, and compensating people and businesses for their time to allow people to take time out of work rather than letting it be a self-selecting audience.

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