Fringe Box



The Dragon Says: Guildford’s Isolated Cathedral Made a Major Misjudgement

Published on: 12 Apr, 2023
Updated on: 13 Apr, 2023

Go to the evensong service in the Guildford Cathedral if you can.

It takes a sense of purpose to make your way there, given its separation from the town, but it is a wonderful, ethereal and free spectacle in a special location with a professional choir and organist.

The only trouble is the lack of a congregation. Only a handful of fellow attendees are likely to be keeping you company.

But large congregations or not, costs at the cathedral keep coming.  They more or less break even on the yearly operating costs of around £1.3 million, but money for structural upkeep, estimated by them at around £3.5 million over the next five years, is a trickier problem.

Guildford’s answer has been a controversial proposal to sell land that forms the green space surrounding the cathedral to a developer to build 124 houses, funding an endowment to cover the refurbishment costs. But they got it wrong and last month, the council rejected their planning application for the second time.

Guildford Cathedral sitting atop Stag Hill.

Despite it being estimated to meet less than a quarter of the repairs and maintenance costs, the leaders at the cathedral gave the impression the sale of land on Stag Hill was their golden ticket to financial security.

The dean’s plea in December 2022 that the cathedral’s survival depended on the money from the project didn’t convince the planners or the many objectors.

But then it didn’t sway the planners in 2017 either when the Bishop of Guildford claimed the cathedral would probably close if their proposal for 134 houses on the same land was rejected.

The cathedral is still open, they’re still paying their bills. Campaigners called it “emotional blackmail”.

The golden angel on top of the Cathedral Church of the Holy Spirit looking out over Guildford.

So where did it go wrong for the Cathedral Church of the Holy Spirit as it is formally called and what will they do now?

Will they go for a third attempt to get approval, maybe trimming back on house numbers? Or will they appeal?

Objectors to the scheme say the scheme should be completely scrapped. They say it is inappropriate to build on land given to the cathedral to commemorate the fallen Canadian soldiers in the First World War. They say the scale and massing will spoil the views of the cathedral and will take up green space much used by locals.

However, ditching the scheme altogether would seem unlikely considering the Local Plan still allows for 100 housing units on the Stag Hill site.

Refusal came because they tried to pack too much into the site. If it wasn’t for the Canadian memorial issue, a smaller number in a new application, not exceeding that in the Local Plan, would be hard to argue against.

Will they be forced to close the cathedral as the local church hierarchy has implied? Never say never, but it seems unlikely. Have there been any cathedrals in the UK closed due to lack of funds?

There was a warning in 2021 that London’s iconic St Paul’s Cathedral could shut without tourist cash. It is still open. Anyway, people are sceptical about claims of poverty by the church or the cathedral and have resented them looking for special treatment from the council.

Or will they be forced to seek other forms of income such as a highly risky entrance charge for the around 100,000 annually who go into the building, of controversial style, for events and services, as has been suggested?

Campaigners against the scheme say the cathedral and their partners, the developer VIVID, have not listened to their complaints and have accused them of being “all about money and greed”. That’s not a good look for a cathedral.

Rightly or wrongly, we expect higher standards from religious organisations than from commerce. We don’t expect them to act as businessmen developers, keen to squeeze as much money as possible out of every asset, overriding the harm that would be done, according to planners and local people, to the views of the cathedral itself and the surrounding area.

Squashing relatively tall blocks onto the land around the cathedral was seen as unfriendly by their overshadowed neighbours and proposing an enclave of 13 houses for cathedral staff with separate access from the rest of the estate was labelled as elitist, or at the very least insensitive to local road congestion.

Was the cathedral proud of its plans for 124 houses? Tellingly, when asked for comments by The Dragon or indeed the local objectors, we were generally directed back to the developer, hardly the actions of a proud scheme sponsor.

True or not, the cathedral and the developer misjudged what they could get away with and their plans have come unstuck.

We shall see in good time what they decide to do. But the cathedral, isolated on the hill in more ways than one, can’t ignore the message sent by the planners.

It could have been very different had they kept to the 100 dwellings allowed in the Local Plan.

And would it have been asking too much from the church to have charitably opted to build social housing instead of the questionable value of the 31 affordable homes proposed?

Maybe it is time for a new approach by the cathedral, even perhaps new leadership.

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