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Opinion: Without Urban Renewal the Town Will Fail

Published on: 11 Dec, 2023
Updated on: 20 Dec, 2023

John Rigg

By John Rigg

Former R4GV lead councillor for regeneration at GBC

Now that the dust has settled on the North Street planning applications saga, is it time to reassess the efficacy and efficiency of our planning system, as it operates in Guildford?

Is our town well-served by the system as it operates here? Should planning in Guildford for schemes like North Street, Debenhams and Solum be so painful? There’s such an enormous cost to applicants, to the council and with North Street also to the Residents party who uniquely played with a straight bat and were voted out for their honesty.

Friary Quarter North Street

Isn’t it embarrassing for Guildford that after eight failed schemes for North Street, over three decades, some residents and national party politicians, including our current MP, worked to frustrate the ninth and Local Plan-compliant scheme on a site lying derelict for years?

Why, you might ask would you turn away inward investment and regeneration? Was it Nimbyism or election tactics?

For the main national political parties was there a fear that, with a local election imminent, approving the scheme would be seen as success for local resident party R4GV after decades of Lib Dem and Tory failure?

In fact, both parties to the R4GV/Lib Dem coalition supported the North Steet scheme over three years of negotiations but on the evening, with an election pending both Lib Dems and Tories block-voted to refuse while R4GV acknowledged the planning realities and voted to approve.

This was because the council planners had negotiated every aspect of the scheme to meet every planning policy councillors put in place in the infamous 2019 Local Plan and subsequent Development Management Policies, so the scheme would likely secure consent at appeal when it complied with the rules we set.

Given their votes to refuse, it is worth recording all 48 councillors, at the time, were offered presentations by the developer on four separate occasions over three years. No objections were tabled. Is this a proper way to conduct oneself as a political party and as a councillor?

Nonetheless, with the 2023 local election pending the Lib Dems and Tories rejection was a purely grandstanding performance, knowing it would almost certainly be approved in due course, probably by these same councillors.

They chose to snub the developer’s efforts to work with councillors over the period. They chose politics. They chose additional expense for the council and applicants, burdening both sides with massive planning and legal costs and the inevitable appeal. They chose not to be resolute and support the compliant application and explain to their voters it met the requisite criteria. In fact, they did the opposite.

Both Lib Dems and Tories then effectively endorsed the fake but very effective news in the “Battle for Guildford” video that gave the message, “Vote Lib Dem or Conservative to stop the scheme.”

…national political parties in Guildford are only interested in power”

As a consequence, many people didn’t vote for R4GV. Yet the same Lib Dems and Tories, re-elected in 2023, approved an almost identical North Street scheme with 471 instead of 473 units. But the revised scheme also lost us a town park, better pedestrianisation and a better bus station.

It is my view, sadly, that too many in Guildford were misled by Robin Horsley’s video, who used fake news to damage both democracy and Guildford. It cost Guildford R4GV, a radical reforming party that had turned around the council, exposing the millions wasted and the lack of any plan for Guildford strategic or otherwise.

It showed again that national political parties in Guildford are only interested in power. They are not interested in addressing the needs of the town or facing the real challenges. That’s why the North Street developers could not trust the council to deliver the crucial S106 agreement. They left the appeal in place until the relevant piece of paper was secured.

Giving sole power to a Lib Dem council is now a high price to pay after all the progress made in planning the town under the “Shaping Guildford’s Future” initiative launched by R4GV. It was producing the planning goods but now, it seems, is to be thrown onto the scrap heap. More wasted £millions.

Guildford needs to send out the signal to quality developers that we are open to dialogue and ready to embrace change, progress and inward investment”

If we are to survive in Guildford, we need a plan, we need a ‘‘Shaping Guildford’s Future’. We need local politicians who will see through difficult, sometimes unpopular, decisions.

This must also apply to the Conservative county council and its leadership, which objected to North Street pedestrianisation for spurious reasons while our Conservative MP encouraged the Secretary of State to call in the first application if approved before the election. All, in my view, politically motivated.

Guildford needs to send out the signal to quality developers that we are open to dialogue and ready to embrace change, progress and inward investment yet there is no sign our council has any appetite or ability to tackle our town centre problems.

The essence of the Local Plan will not easily improve as we lack strategic planning skills yet we still need to revitalise the town’s economy, tackle flooding, embrace new housing and pursue sustainability. We already have the brownfield sites, we can establish a height policy, we can prioritise eco-friendly infrastructure but we need action and leadership

We should not block, for apparent short-term political gain, applications that meet the planning policies that the same councillors put in place with costly and wasted planning refusals as at Howard of Effingham School, North Street, and Guildford Cathedral. Debenhams would have failed too, save for some councillors not turning up to the Planning Committee.

I am not saying I support all the schemes but the borough council spent 10 years in preparation, debate and consultation before putting planning policies in place. For councillors to then repeatedly reject major planning officer-negotiated applications merely for votes needs to be recognised by the electorate as cowardly,  hugely damaging and certainly as at North Street a frightening waste of resources.

It shows zero leadership and discourages investment in our great town. Without urban renewal, the town will fail and we will continue our current cycle of decline.

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Responses to Opinion: Without Urban Renewal the Town Will Fail

  1. jim allen Reply

    December 11, 2023 at 4:14 pm

    The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

    a few examples:

    In 2010 – I raised the question about the capacity of Moorefield’s Sewage treatment plant In 2023 exceeding demand capacity by 10% since 2017 and now 4,000 gallon tankers on the road emptying it!

    In 2014, I calculated that 47,500 people needing 110 litres of water per day, which did not match the rainfall for the catchment area. the South East is 7% short of drinking water to Rainfall. Complete Water failure in Guildford in 2023

    I commented on the planned reducing road capacity by SCC transport plan in 2021, when 47,500 ‘bums on seats’ needed transporting for the local plan. Totally Ignored by the very same councillor who instigated the high housing numbers at GBC, then over saw ‘road capacity reduction’ at SCC in the following years! Part of the ‘Burpham travel scheme’

    I highlighted that 12 buses running from 07:0 to 09:30 to get the 1500 residents out of the Weyside village to Guildford centre – not 1 80 seater bus every 20 minutes.

    It matters not how many projects fail on the drawing board if all they do is continue to fail to accept the reality, Guildford is now beyond its capacity to regenerate in the manner envisaged.

    In short it is time some sensible real rational planning people who can do simple maths… got involved with the reality of ‘regeneration’ and got control of the numbers behind irrational plans for they are very irrational and irresponsible.

  2. Alan Judge Reply

    December 11, 2023 at 5:22 pm

    Whenever someone tries to defend themselves by claiming something is ‘Fake News’, I immediately assume it’s not fake at all and they just don’t like it being mentioned.

  3. Helena Townsend Reply

    December 12, 2023 at 7:19 am

    Is it embarrassing eight schemes failed? Or is it fortunate – any historic scheme would have been predominantly vacant and likely empty in todays world.

    Also haven’t we heard this all before from the writer? I suggest Mr Rigg moves on.

  4. Lisa Wright Reply

    December 12, 2023 at 8:40 pm

    Oh I agree John, having had a brush with politics a few years ago when the Local Plan was being discussed I saw and heard a lot of noise from the major parties but it was all just nonsense, people wanting some sort of ego trip to a title and chair on a committee.
    Since then, I’ve watched from afar to see if the millions of pounds, hours of stress and campaigning that we all spent on getting a Local Plan actually came to fruition.
    In short, no, it has done nothing to enhance our town, provide the much needed housing we were promised for our kids (both mine live elsewhere now) or protect open countryside from incursion (think of Wanborough fields or the many ‘pop up’ mobile homes that never get moved on.
    I haven’t got the inclination or time to go through the whole housing allocation that was decided back in 2019 to see what was built and when but what I do know is that the majority of those allocations have never been built, not a single brick in the ground on many sites, especially the strategic sites which thankfully are still growing our food. However, I also know that houses were shoved in all sorts of nooks and crannies and open fields that were not allocated as part of the Local Plan, such as The Horsleys are now housing estates.
    Can we all agree that the Local Plan, spanning 6 years of work and At horrendous cost has been somewhat of a white elephant? Which councillors are brave enough to realise and admit it was a complete waste of time and money.
    I do hope the Local Plan review in 2024 is quick, functional and realistic and that includes getting some life back in the neglected town area which doesn’t really match up to our neighbouring facilities in Winchester, Woking, Dorking or Kingston.

  5. Howard Smith Reply

    December 14, 2023 at 1:36 pm

    I agree with much of what John Rigg says in this article, however I wish he would stop talking about the ‘national parties’ voting against the North Street development.

    The Labour Party, at both the refusal and the eventual approval voted in favour at the planning committee stage. I personally spoke at length at how vital it is for the revival of our town centre.

    Along with I am sure the majority in the town, we are glad to see this derelict site of 25 years go forward with new housing, public realm and a much needed new bus station.

    Howard Smith is a Labour borough councillor for Westborough

  6. Brian Creese Reply

    December 15, 2023 at 3:08 pm

    While I agree with much of what John Rigg says, I am bemused by his mention of “national parties”. I think he means Conservatives and Liberal Democrats both of which happen to be national. Labour supported the North Street development before and after the election. Labour never supported the Horsley video and always described it as misleading and malicious.

    The next government will be a “national party” and it will be a Labour Government while the Lib Dems are likely to remain the fourth largest party in the country. Locally and nationally Labour will continue to support good developments that will make towns like Guildford fit for the 21st Century and a place where young people can afford to live and work.

    Brian Creese is a former chair of the Guildford Labour Party

  7. David Roberts Reply

    December 15, 2023 at 5:30 pm

    What a lot of fuss over just 470 new dwellings, compared with the 2,000-plus banned for just one greenfield site, for instance, at Wisley. Surely this is an example of the urban bias of our decision-makers, neglecting the 50 per cent of the borough’s population that live outside the town.

    While I agree with Mr Rigg’s justified rant, therefore, it seems he still hasn’t grasped the fundamental obstacle to local urban renewal, which is that successive councils have failed to block developers from taking the cheaper option of concreting over Guildford’s villages and countryside. In office, R4GV were as guilty of this as the national parties still are.

  8. David Roberts Reply

    December 15, 2023 at 5:33 pm

    *planned* not *banned*. Sorry.

  9. Ben Paton Reply

    December 19, 2023 at 9:21 am

    The inescapable fact is that R4GV was elected to do something about the disastrous Tory Local Plan. That was the key issue that resulted in its electoral success.

    What did Mr Rigg do to address this fundamental election pledge? Anything?

  10. Keith Reeves Reply

    December 19, 2023 at 1:05 pm

    The assertion that R4GV’s sole role once elected was to wave a magic wand regarding the Local Plan is interesting. My recollection of their appeal and wider aims is somewhat different to Mr Paton’s. I also recognise that not having majority control makes achievement of any party’s aims a little harder.

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