Fringe Box



Opinion: Why Has the Council Not Ensured Everyone Was Aware of This Controversial Plan?

Published on: 31 Dec, 2022
Updated on: 1 Jan, 2023

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

By Robin Horsley

The biggest planning decision for decades on Guildford town centre will be made by the borough council in less than a fortnight’s time, on January 11.

But the decision will be made despite grave doubts about the level of public consultation for such a controversial proposal. One councillor has even resigned over the issue.

I was shocked when, just over a week ago, I became aware of this extensive and major scheme. It will transform the town for generations. So over the last week I conducted an analysis of the comments submitted to GBC from local residents. It has yielded some interesting results.

As at December 31, there were 58 expressions of support on Guildford Borough Council’s planning application portal and they outnumber 52 objections. But 47 of the expressions of support are what is often referred to as “block” comments”; essentially just a “copy and paste” job of blocks of text prepared by others.

“Block comments” on planning applications are nothing new. Recently, objectors to the proposal to develop the former Wisley Airfield complained of their use. And although several were removed by GBC it was because the student authors could not provide a permanent UK address not because the comments had been copied.

See also: ‘Block’ Support Comments for Wisley ‘New Town’ Proposal Removed By GBC).

But I haven’t detected any such approach being used by those objecting to the scheme.

They appear to be individually composed communications where people have taken the time and trouble, sometimes at great length, to express their objections on many different grounds – such as the multiple blocks of 13-storey high-rise flats in the middle of the town, the associated traffic consequences and the very significant parking issues threatened being the most prevalent of these objections.’

Tomorrow: Dragon editor Martin Giles interviews Robin Horsley. Please check back.

Nonetheless, surely there is a question of judgement if not ethics.  How should they be compared against individually composed submissions and what are the motives of those who have encouraged those to submit them? Shouldn’t we know?

If these low-effort, easy submissions were facilitated by those with only a mercenary interest, who do not live or work in Guildford then how should they be valued?

Only six of the supporting comments appear to be individually composed. One, in part, supports the proposal because it will improve capacity for buses when in fact the proposal is to reduce the size of the bus station. Another one of the six says the author is in support but the proposal requires revisions. Obviously, that wouldn’t be an option if the proposal were voted through by councillors on January 11.

Of three expressions of support from local businesses – two were from entertainment venues which welcomed the prospect of nearly 1,000 new residents, potentially additional customers.

The submission from GBC subsidised G Live also thanks the developer for visiting them to promote the project and for their offer of some free advertising: “I appreciate the thought you have given to champion G Live as part of the development, such as free advertising opportunities…”. One can only admire the honesty of the author but some might see the offer as an inducement. It’s a bit odd.

One might expect lots of local businesses such as shops, restaurants, cafes and other retailers to be making enthusiastic submissions in support of this scheme but there are just three submissions that appear to be from local businesses. Only three? Why?

Are they concerned about the reduction in town centre car park space or the reduction in bus station capacity?

Is it concern about increased competition from the additional retail units included in the scheme? Or perhaps worries that the flats will be occupied by commuters who would not be around as week-day customers?

Borough councillors have a responsibility to represent all their constituents and to uphold the pledges set-out in their published “Customer Charter”. It promises to ‘consult you and use your feedback’ an essential component of public service and sound decision making.

But Cllr Tony Rooth, one of the founders of the Residents for Guildford and Villages Political group, who share power with the Liberal Democrats, recently resigned from the group stating deep concerns about the lack of public consultation that has taken place over such a large scheme, and others in progress in the town centre, that will impact up to 150,000 residents of the borough as well as many others from outside the borough who use the town for leisure, shopping, business and entertainment.

See: R4GV Councillor Quits Party Saying More Public Consultation on Plans is Needed

I share Cllr Rooth’s concern and I am actively investigating it now. It does seem that there has been very, very limited consultation and the council has relied on the developers making representations to people rather than getting the council to make a concerted effort to engage people.

It’s so important that our town is not ruined by a lack of consultation, consideration and long-term thinking. And it’s very concerning that only a hundred comments have been submitted  either in opposition or support. It confirms a very low-level of awareness and engagement.

The council has voted to spend £5 million of our money on engaging independent consultants on these projects. But how much have they spent on consulting the people it would actually affect? I am seeking answers to that question and I am concerned it may be a tiny fraction of that amount or perhaps even nothing at all.

Everyone is likely to be affected in some way by this major scheme and should be encouraged to communicate their perspectives. This is the absolute cornerstone of local democracy. If you propose to build a house on a plot of land, the council will write to all your surrounding neighbours who might be affected.

Guildford Borough Council are proposing to fundamentally change the nature, look and functions of our historic county town yet, as far as I can gather so far, they don’t even seem to have contacted people. Haven’t we had enough of unpopular, incongruous developments?

But I don’t get the impression that people are against redevelopment in principle.

Of the 50 objections on the council’s website. Quite a large proportion of people say that they want the town to be revitalised. That is a view that is shared by practically everyone but it does not mean that anything should go and there seem to be few people who are fully aware of the ramifications of this scheme.

The listed comments objecting to and supporting the London Road planning application on the GBC portal

Borough Councillors appear to have been seduced by the headline numbers of comments on this application ie 58 support vs 52 objections and have concluded there is majority support.

There seemed to be no awareness that in fact the majority of these expressions of support were “block comments” perhaps prompted rather than the result of individuals having the self-motivation to be making the effort to express their different perspectives and individual different reasons for supporting the scheme.

I only became aware of the proposal this week when speaking to a borough councillor I asked if there was any scheme in prospect.

Robin Horsley

I have seen nothing in my social media feeds, I have not received any emails or letters on the subject. I knew the site was up for development at some point and was expecting to hear about proposals in the future and finding out what was proposed at the earliest stage of it’s long progress through the process.

I was shocked when I realised that there was already a scheme proposed and the council were expecting to make a decision in just two weeks.

I support the redevelopment of Guildford, I just hope that good sense will prevail and proper consideration and consultation will result. As it stands, this scheme fails to make the minimum provision for parking and affordable housing, surely the standard expectation for large schemes like this.

So I just hope that the Liberal Democrat leader and the Residents for Guildford and Villages group who drove this scheme forward in the first place will not attempt to force it through. The result could only be electoral disaster for them when voters find out what is in store, as they surely will if it goes ahead now, without that proper consultation.

But infinitely more importantly, the town could be ruined for generations.

Many objectors cited Woking’s skyscrapers as being in some ways akin to this proposal. I share their deep concerns.

To follow my investigations please visit the brand new Guildford Examiner site and I will keep you up to date with all the investigations as they unfold. I can promise you a fascinating insight into the issues and implications that will affect you, older and younger members of your family, your friends, the businesses in the town and future generations.

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Responses to Opinion: Why Has the Council Not Ensured Everyone Was Aware of This Controversial Plan?

  1. Jane Hepburn Reply

    January 2, 2023 at 10:29 am

    Thank you to Robin Horsley for taking the trouble to dig deeper and discover the truth about the consultation results.

    In any case, to make such a profound change to Guildford’s landscape on the basis of a majority of six comments would seem to be an error of great magnitude when planning such ruthless changes to our North Street landscape.

    52 to 58 is hardly overwhelming support.

  2. S Collins Reply

    January 2, 2023 at 1:23 pm

    Guildford Dragon from August for anyone that wants to start catching up.

  3. R Hodgson Reply

    January 2, 2023 at 1:33 pm

    Absolute rubbish. Where has Robin Horsley been? There has been much consultation. I have watched several video presentations; attended a public meeting and display of the project; and I am subscribed to the developer’s newsletter which keeps me updated on the project.

    North Street is in a desperate state and has been ever since I moved here in 1962. It will therefore enhance the town and hopefully, attract more visitors to our historic High Street, which in my view, will be untouched by this project.

    Finally, we do not need more parking, especially in town, where inhabitants can walk everywhere. An improved bus station should encourage more people to use public transport.

    Finally for those who complain about carrying heavy shopping doesn’t everybody shop online nowadays? The number of empty shops certainly suggests this is the case.

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