Fringe Box



Opinion: Why I Am Pessimistic for Guildford

Published on: 9 Apr, 2015
Updated on: 15 Apr, 2015

High Street JS 250By Martin Giles

The other day I introduced a stranger to Guildford. I showed her along an ancient pedestrian route from Buryfields, down Porridge Pot Alley, over the River Wey, with its ducks and boats, on past the theatre and the old town mill, up Mill Lane by Guildford’s oldest building, the Saxon tower of St Mary’s, into Quarry Street and then, round the corner into the High Street with its granite setts and varied shop frontages.

Further up the hill, the gleaming town clock stretched out from the Guildhall over the lively street and the farmers’ market. To the west, the grassy hillside fields beyond The Mount provided their beautiful backdrop.

Opinion Logo 2The town looked at its best: natural settings and interesting historic buildings surrounding the social and commercial activity that make our successful town. The stranger’s eyes gleamed: “It’s wonderful,” she said, “there’s so much to see.” I could tell that she couldn’t wait to explore further so, other than advising that the Castle Grounds were worth a visit when she had time, I left her to it.

The spring sun had played a major part in showing off the town, but it only highlighted the beauty it still has at its core, a beauty many of us appreciate but, if you are like me, too often take for granted.

As I thought of the challenges our town and borough are facing any feel good factor, any residual warmth from the sunshine soon dissipated. I worry that the future is not looking good for our town.

My fear is based on a concern that what some want is maximum, or at least significant, growth: quantity not quality, success measured in financial turnover, rather than civic health.

Putting to one side the furore over the number of houses that should be built in the borough over the next 15 years, let us consider what is afoot in the town centre.

The emerging steel frame of a new Waitrose for Guildford. Viewed from York Road.

The emerging steel frame of a new Waitrose for Guildford. Viewed from York Road.

The steel frame of a new Waitrose has already been erected. As a facility it will be a welcome addition to the town but it could have been an architectural asset too. Instead it will be a nondescript contemporary design that would fit unnoticeably into Woking or Farnborough. As Julian Lyon, of the Guildford Society, asked of an artist’s impression, “Is it good, is it bad, or is it just okay because it’s Waitrose?”

Artist's impression of how the planned Waitrose store may look from The Bars.

Artist’s impression of how the planned Waitrose store may look from The Bars.

Of course the area on the north side of North Street, much vandalised by planners in the 1960s and 70s, is overdue redevelopment. Considering its proximity to some of the most valuable commercial real estate outside London it is surprising it has not happened already.

But what will we get? Will the buildings display stylistic congruity with the High Street? I doubt it, most architects seem to despise what they call “pastiche” and what the rest of us might call traditional. They thumb their noses at lessons learned by valued architects like Norman Shaw, well represented in parts of the town, who knew how to imply incremental development and mix traditional English style with state of the art building techniques.

Will their architectural merit cause people to come and see them, regardless of the retail offering, as some do with our High Street? I doubt it?

Will the scale of the buildings be compatible with a county town? I fear not. Those financing the scheme will be looking to squeeze every last pound of profit out, so the higher the rise the greater the retail floor space.

Ask yourself this, what buildings built within the last 50 years do you think will still be standing and cherished in 100 years time?

Then there is the railway station. The Solum proposal seems to have caused practically everyone that has looked at it to throw their hands up in horror.

How could this have happened? Even the council seem to have sensed the strength of feeling, not always their strong suit, and told the developers to go away and think again.

But as is normal at the beginning of any such project, Solum was briefed by the council’s planning department, so just what advice were they given? What attention was paid to the public consultation? I attended a couple of sessions. The proposal that has emerged has nothing in common with views I heard expressed by local residents.

Once again the motivation behind the scheme seems to be purely commercial. Nothing in the design, I am advised, would do anything to improve the operation of the railway.

An artist's impression on how Guildford railway station will look if current plans are passed.

An artist’s impression on how Guildford railway station will look if current plans are passed.

So what will happen next? Will Solum get the message? Or, having offered something terrible, will it simply come back with something a bit less terrible; 10 floors, say, instead of 15. I fear so.

Then there is the existing problem of traffic congestion. There are times when it seems almost quicker to get from London to Paris on a train than across Guildford in a car. But despite all the complaints, all the hot air, all the traffic surveys, we seem no nearer a solution perhaps because there is not one.

Guildford is a gap town, we can’t widen the roads through the town without damaging it further and we can’t build a new ring road without destroying areas of outstanding natural beauty. It is a real problem.

But while the problem exists is it really a good idea to build thousands more houses in the borough, each with 1.5* cars? Surely not, but that is what some are proposing.

So is the town condemned? Is it’s future as bleak as I fear? Perhaps not, I certainly hope it isn’t.

On Easter Sunday I cycled over to Farnham with my wife. We normally end up in Lion & Lamb Yard, a renovated coaching inn yard. To me it is the kind of development that suits an older Surrey town. It is easy on the eye, uses traditional materials but appears to be commercially successful too.

Lion & Lamb Yard Farnham - shows what can be done. Further on is a discretely sized Waitrose.

Lion & Lamb Yard, Farnham – shows what can be done. Further on is a discretely sized Waitrose.

When you follow it through to the end Waitrose appears, unimposing, in a style which could be better but at least does not jar.

There is, I understand, a North Street redevelopment committee. I don’t think that their deliberations are made public. Shame. Anyway, they could do a lot worse than visit Lion & Lamb Yard for a bit of inspiration.

We should not be ashamed of looking to the past when building for the future, it is exactly what many of our best architects have successfully done throughout the ages.

GBC Map showing North Street development area in more detail (within blue outline)

GBC Map showing North Street development area in more detail (within blue outline)

The North Street site is big and it has huge potential. Let us hope my pessimism is misplaced and that the potential will be realised in a way that will be truly appreciated for many years to come, that the railway station will become a public building of quality, a suitable gateway, for our historic county town, let’s hope that people with imagination tackle effectively our traffic problems and that central government stops any pressure for relentless growth.

I still yearn for all these things to happen but I fear they will not, the evidence, my experience, the commercial and political pressures all say they won’t. I really hope I am wrong.

*The average number of cars per household according to the 2011 census.

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Responses to Opinion: Why I Am Pessimistic for Guildford

  1. Bernard Parke Reply

    April 9, 2015 at 9:38 pm

    Guildford has become merely a through route for traffic on their onward journeys.

  2. Lisa Wright Reply

    April 9, 2015 at 10:25 pm

    The future of Guildford all depends on who we vote for on May 7th.

    If we vote for the usual parties and councillors we can expect the usual responses.

    We need well educated and experienced people, from all fields, who can bring fresh ideas, financial prudence and strong local responsibility who will express the views of the public that vote for them.

    Lisa Wright is a candidate for the Guildford Greenbelt Group

  3. Bibhas Neogi Reply

    April 10, 2015 at 7:46 am

    It is widely acknowledged that Guildford’s traffic problem is extremely difficult to solve and Martin Giles is pessimistic about the implications of the scale of developments and their architectural style.

    Whilst the location of Waitrose is happily hidden from the High Street and North Street areas, Solum’s proposals for the railway station stand out as an eye sore against the distant view of the Cathedral.

    This development has nothing to do with the railway. This is an out and out property development that may well be suited to totally urban areas of Croydon or Reading but not Guildford, located, as it is, in a picturesque hilly area.

    The existing elevation of the railway station entrance is a pleasant one and I think it should be replicated in some way and incorporated in the enlargement. Other buildings could be sympathetically treated with combination of concrete frames but suitably lined with brick features and should be of a scale that blends in and not stand out as high rise ones.

    Solum’s initial scheme, I believe, explored the heights of the buildings in the surrounding areas and limited their development to six or seven stories. Which, if allowed, should be set back well from Walnut Tree Close.

    I have put my thoughts on how the Allies and Morrison idea of the town centre could be built by taking the traffic underground through Millbrook and Onslow Street rather than relocating the problems to the west of the railway tracks through Guildford Park Road.

    I have also suggested on my website how the gyratory could be redesigned and the bus station relocated and by making Walnut Tree Close partly one-way to facilitate safe and better connection to the railway station etc. And there are ideas about possible tunnels for the future.

    I hope Guildford Borough Council and Surrey County Council would explore these and then take up some of my ideas.

  4. Jules Cranwell Reply

    April 10, 2015 at 7:46 am

    As long as the Tories are in a majority in GBC, they will not be deterred from their growth for growth’s sake strategy.

    Why is growth the only option? We do not need any more growth in Guildford. We already contribute more to the exchequer than any other authority, apart from London.

    It’s time to say we’ve grown enough. We need growth in other parts of the country, not more concentration in the south-east.

    • James Gross Reply

      April 18, 2015 at 12:27 am

      Can anyone realistically identify a point in history where any town or city has declared, successfully that it has ‘grown enough’? Complete nonsense! Our towns and cities are organic places that always grow, and save for conservation areas and listed buildings, are not there to be set in aspic for a privileged few.

      I can cite numerous families living in the town with primary school children like myself who are desperate to either trade up or get out of rented accommodation in the town centre and find affordable family housing in the borough.

      I can only observe with horror the attitudes of those who wish to both restrict sensible higher density development around transport hubs such as the station, whilst at the same time seeking to quash the expansion of our town into those areas not Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) or of some higher environmental value but environmentally sterile farmland, where hard pressed families could be building new communities in the same way that all of Guildford grew in the days before planning and localism.

      Governments of previous eras gave us homes for heroes, but those of us now in the ‘squeezed middle’, helping to keep the British and local economy going, are rewarded with affordability ratios of up to 10x, even decent, salaries for two bedroom homes in the town centre (my own street is an example), with not a cat’s chance of moving up to something more comfortable or affordable as long as the political well doers persist in transmitting messages along the lines that ‘we’ve grown enough’.

      Let the silent majority in favour of decent homes for all have a voice.

      • Dominique Kelly Reply

        April 19, 2015 at 1:29 pm

        Growth proposed in the Draft Local Plan was for growth’s sake as a “growth hub”, expanding the borough by over 25% rather than for the needs Mr Gross describes.

        Many parties talk about affordability but this is going to be delivered through 40% of the housing being sold at 80% of the market value in the region; I don’t think this will solve the issue Mr Gross describes.

        The developers will maximise their profits and not think about Mr Gross; they will either not build until the prices have risen further or they will claim viability issues (not making their 20% return) and propose to get out of their affordable housing requirements as many are doing all over the country. Councils are agreeing, as they say it is better to get something built than nothing at all.

        The proposals will not materially affect the cost of housing in the borough; Guildford is too close to London with a good train line to Waterloo. It is between two of the worlds major airports and the university is expanding but not providing the accommodation it has promised, or needs, on campus putting pressure on residential housing stock etc.

        We are planning to line the pockets of the developers and deliver nothing the borough really needs. Guildford Borough Council is refusing to consider substantial residential development in the urban area such as around Walnut Tree Close, the the Guildford Vision Group has proposed their thoughts for the town centre and have proposed to increase the amount of retail space around the town.

        I think Mr Gross would agree that this proposal is neither needed (Guildford already is well served and there is rise in internet shopping) or desirable as it diverts land away from any potential residential developments.

        • Dominique Kelly Reply

          April 20, 2015 at 10:39 am

          Mr Gross should take a look at this classic example of viability argument by developers – “Fewer than 100 affordable or shared homes in 705 unit Tesco Tolworth plan“.

          Let’s plan for what we need not what off-shore Cayman Island hedge funds, shareholders, buy-to-let landlords or university dons want.

          Another example is, according to former MP Chris Mullin, 40 per cent of former council houses are now in hands of buy-to-let landlords. The planned housing association properties will go the same way. Thus affordability will be further reduced with high rents charged.

          Interesting to see that, according to a Guardian report, Charlie Gow, son of Tory housing minister who introduced right-to-buy, owns at least 40 former council properties.

        • James Gross Reply

          April 20, 2015 at 11:51 pm

          I read the brief for the recently tendered Borough Council Masterplan for the town centre and it makes specific reference to including significant residential development without the Town Centre, so aside from possible political sensitivities around supporting the ambitious mixed use redevelopment of the railway station by Solum, of which I am in favour, or the decision to let the Bellerby Theatre site to go for retail (Waitrose) plus residential, of which I am also in favour, despite certain technical/aesthetic reservations, where is this supposed resistance to residential development in the town centre coming from?

          I do not believe that, as a town, we will get the necessary mix of new homes if we set our sights on growth too low. I note the comments and am familiar with the viability arguments often stated in seeking to reduce affordable housing commitments, but if we are to get anywhere close to to meeting demand we need a big push on growth.

          My main thrust is that this is about creating truly affordable housing for families. This is not the same thing as “affordable housing”. If we restrict growth developers will understandably seek to maximise the best returns which often, means the highest value developments which my family for once would not be able to afford.

          Going for greater growth offers opportunity for a better spread of units plus comprehensive capture of development funds into strategic infrastructure, so it’s arguably the lower growth model that maintains the affordability gap and not the other way round.

          I understand prices will remain high, but they will climb higher still if we don’t address the overriding issue of supply.

  5. Paul Spooner Reply

    April 10, 2015 at 7:50 am

    Bernard Parke’s comment is nonsense.

    Whilst I do not share Martin Giles’ pessimism for Guildford I think he makes some very valid points.

    Unfortunately your comment makes absolutely no sense to anyone who actually goes out in Guildford. Yesterday evening the town centre pubs were full and the centre of town has a very vibrant daytime and nightime economy. “Just passing through…” ridiculous!

    • Paul David Reply

      April 10, 2015 at 11:09 am

      Vibrant? Which Guildford are you talking about?

      I have lived and worked in the town for 16 years and find the fact that shops are closing down and the streets are deserted during the week to be a sign that things are far from ‘vibrant’.

      The problem is that this type of comment sums up perfectly the attitude that seems to prevail locally (especially it would seem within the council)….a refusal to acknowledge reality.

      Bernard Parke’s comment is spot on…people pass through Guildford on their way elsewhere. The cost of parking is ridiculous and puts people off shopping in the town.

      Guildford needs to be made more appealing but I agree with the article that it shouldn’t be at the expense of many of the things we all love about the town.

  6. Jim Allen Reply

    April 10, 2015 at 9:08 am

    Sadly and with the utmost respect for Mr Parke, we simply don’t know if Guildford is a “through route for onward traffic”. The recent study of the traffic patterns using rubber tubes stretched across roads only tells us the number of cars using a particular street or road.

    The national annual and daily averages (available on the web) also only tell us the number of vehicles on the road. Neither tell us where the traffic is coming from or where it is going to, we can only suppose.

    The solution is simple – a week of ANPR (automatic number plate recognition) survey on all our roads would solve that lack of information do they go through or do a ‘U’ and exit same way.

    As to the use and design of our town centre – what do you replace 1960’s with? Retro 1800’s timber frame or modern plastic mediocrity?

    Perhaps a competition for our schools and colleges would be cheaper than employing ‘experts’. They might come up with a suitable historic based, modern design which would last another 1000 years. After all, the layout of Guildford has worked for over 500 years, why change it for something which will be demolished in 50 years?

  7. Bernard Parke Reply

    April 10, 2015 at 9:54 am

    Many of us now think twice about going into the town at night these days for obvious reasons!

    Regarding “just passing through “, the through traffic not only adds to the congestion that plagues us these days It also adds, considerably, to both noise and air pollution as we who live in the town area are only too aware.

    Living almost on the A31 (Farnham Road) I can hardly believe that the large lorries and other heavy plant using the road really wish to be going through the town centre at all.

  8. Jules Cranwell Reply

    April 10, 2015 at 9:41 pm

    Mr Spooner obviously still does not understand the impact of his Tory cabal’s plans to concrete over the green belt. That will not help to attract visitors.

  9. Ray Briggs Reply

    April 11, 2015 at 12:30 pm

    I agree with everything Martin Giles has said here. The march to growth is alarming and not in my view in Guildford’s best long term interests.

    The North Street development has, if done well, the potential to repair some of the damage done to the town. It is an opportunity that I hope the council will embrace, but I fear that the growth agenda will overtake all other considerations.

    On May 7th the electorate has a clear choice between the almost certain massive growth espoused by the main parties, or a plan sympathetic to Guildford.

    I trust the electorate to vote intelligently and not traditionally, in the coming local election, and save us all from what may be a really grim future.

  10. Caroline Reeves Reply

    April 12, 2015 at 1:13 pm

    Ray Briggs may be surprised that I agree with his comment on the North Street development.

    I would like to add that the involvement of the various consultants and their depth of experience and practical knowledge combined with the detailed input of very local, interested and diverse stakeholders is designed specifically to ensure that we have a solution to the problems that will benefit the town – visitors, businesses and residents alike, and is sympathetic to Guildford.

    Caroline Reeves is the Lib Dem borough councillor for Friary & St Nicolas ward.

  11. Bibhas Neogi Reply

    April 13, 2015 at 7:17 am

    Figures from the May 2014 ANPR survey would be the most relevant ones on which to base any improvement work.

    Page 11 of a previous council report shows a figure of only 11% being through traffic. The basis of the figure is explained in the report.

  12. Bernard Parke Reply

    April 13, 2015 at 12:27 pm

    Surely even 11 per cent, if this figure is correct, is still 11 per cent we could well do without, especially those of us who actually have to live with this problem every day in Guildford.

    Statistics can prove anything.

  13. Bibhas Neogi Reply

    April 13, 2015 at 6:41 pm

    The Automated Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) survey is real live data not statistics. Let us wait and see what the May 2014 survey report says. I can appreciate Mr Parke’s views on the inconvenience of through traffic but any action to improve matters must be justified on economic grounds as all schemes compete for funding.

    A bypass on the south-west sector connecting the A281, the A3100 with the A31 and the A3 would reduce through traffic but it would have to be cost-effective and would have to rank high enough to get funding.

    The A31 (Farnham Road) occasionally does get heavier than normal traffic when there is an accident on the A3 that blocks the A31 on-slip. The scheme for widening and junction improvements of the A3 through Guildford has been resurrected as recently announced under the central government funding.

    Hopefully the problem of the very sub-standard A3/A31 junction will be resolved and matters will improve for Farnham Road.

  14. Bernard Parke Reply

    April 14, 2015 at 5:10 pm

    I was interested to learn from Bibhas of the automated number plate recognition (ANPR).

    Perhaps this could be put to use in connection with a congestion charge programme to discourage through traffic and make greater use of the park and ride system. Especially the underused Onslow service.

    It would no doubt raise revenue which could be put to use in repairing the many pot holes in our roads.

    Before we get a deluge of disapproving comments I am confident that this will not happen. It is too logical to be accepted.

  15. Harry Eve Reply

    April 14, 2015 at 10:56 pm

    I wish to thank Jim Allen for the suggestions regarding use of APNR (Automatic number plate recognition) and involving youngsters in the design process – both good ideas in my opinion. I also Thank Bibhas Neogi for drawing attention to the May 2014 survey report which I assume has not yet been published. Will it appear as an information release on the GBC website?

    I have some issues with the current approach to traffic forecasting – and especially with the evidence presented in two recent planning applications (I commented on these to GBC).

    The use of APNR could be illuminating in a number of situations around Guildford where it would be interesting to gain a better understanding of traffic streams.

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