Fringe Box



The Dragon Says: No Party Can Promise to Stop North Street Development

Published on: 30 Apr, 2023
Updated on: 28 Apr, 2023

Many Guildford voters seem undecided on who to vote for. Some seem confused by the claims and counter-claims, others are clearly unsure which party is standing for what.

Certainly, planning is playing large in the campaign and little wonder. The North Street proposal has proved very controversial and has excited strong feelings both for and against, while Dragon polling indicated that, overwhelmingly, voters here want some sort of building height control.

See: Borough Council Election Still Up for Grabs – Poll Says Nearly Half of Voters Are Undecided

But the idea that by voting for specific political parties the North Street proposal can be stopped from re-emerging or progressing is fallacious and misleading. Such claims should be dismissed as the ignorant nonsense they are.

At The Dragon Hustings, all the party representatives agreed that a zoned planning height policy was required but this is a recent U-turn for all of them, apart from GGG.

The Conservatives, over decades, did nothing to put a limit on building height; nearly all the existing high-rise buildings in Guildford were constructed on their watch. And even though building height featured in their internal discussions, no height limit policy emerged.

Neither have the Lib Dems fought for a limit. It was the lead councillor responsible for planning policy, Jan Harwood, a Lib Dem at the time, who willingly agreed, in 2019 or 2020, with the woeful advice from GBC planners that a building height limit was not a good idea. Other senior Lib Dems agreed with him. For many Lib Dems the lack of affordable housing and public realm are bigger concerns than building height.

R4GV share the Lib Dem prioritisation of public realm improvements over height control. Party leader Joss Bigmore, perhaps with his colleague’s ideas for town centre developments in mind, but also because he did not wish to damage the newly-formed R4GV/Lib Dem coalition, went along with Harwood’s decision, despite some dissenting voices in his ranks.

The crucial decision passed without much public debate. If there were councillors who recognised the consequences, they made no fuss, in public at least.

Only when the proposals for the two major town centre sites, Debenhams and North Street, came to the GBC Planning Committee did it seem to dawn on those promoting the plans that there was serious opposition for North Street from SCC Highways, bus companies and the Guildford Residents’ Association. English Heritage and the Guildford Society opposed both proposals for a range of reasons.

Despite consultation efforts and media coverage, news of the plans had not reached everyone. Frequently residents only complain of developments too late, when plans have been approved or even when building is under way. But information on planning proposals is there, including in the local media, and is more accessible than ever.

We should all take an interest in our local news. Complaints that “I have not been told” are not good enough. We should not blame others for our own lack of attention.

John Rigg, who as Lead Councillor for Regeneration had been supporting the proposals from GBC’s perspective, says he encouraged all councillors to attend briefings on the plans as they progressed. But, he claims, attendance from other parties was patchy and the only concern he heard expressed was from the Lib Dems, that the proposals did not include enough affordable housing units.

When it came to the votes on the proposals, for all the claims that party politics should not play a part in planning decisions, things divided almost entirely on party lines.

It appeared that the Lib Dems and Conservatives, despite their earlier indifference, had realised that the proposals were not universally popular with voters and an election was looming.

Now, at last, all the parties appear to have belatedly got the message. If only they had done so earlier.

But what does this mean for those who are still deciding who to vote for?

Model of the proposed North Street development, refused by GBC’s Planning Committee

For those voters whose deciding factor is the North Street proposal, it is probably too late. If developers St Edward go to appeal it is likely they will win anyway. The council’s position is weak. GBC’s planning officers recommended approval, the proposal by and large conforms with the Local Plan and, rightly or wrongly, public opinion counts for nothing.

Furthermore, with planning permission secured, the sale of the plot of land within the site, currently owned by GBC, would have to be completed, under the terms of a signed contract.

Alternatively, St Edward could reduce the heights a little further, change the bus station layout, perhaps even make a few more units “affordable” and resubmit the application. This would make it very difficult for GBC, whoever is in power, to once again refuse.

In any event, and whoever is running GBC, if the plan looks set for approval, Secretary of State for Housing Michael Gove could step in and “call the plan in” for him to decide. He said that if the council had approved it in January he would have called it in then.

The Conservative government does have some sensitivity to public opinion in their normally safe South East seats and if their planning policy was seen to be the cause of unpopular development, as it already is in parts of the borough, there might be a further electoral price to pay.

Importantly, only if St Edward gives up and puts forward no application for a couple of years will there be time for GBC to add a building heights policy to the Local Plan that would affect North Street.

It cannot be done overnight. Considerable work would be required to draft the policy. Councillors would need to agree and the public to be consulted. It would then need to be approved by a planning inspector in the normal way. It will probably be included in the statutory review that is required by 2024 (i.e. five years from the date of adoption).

After the May 4 election, none of the parties will have the power to stop an appeal or a further proposal being made before a building height policy is introduced.

With the notable exception of GGG (although their leader did vote in favour of North Street) all the parties share culpability for the lack of a building height policy. They did not press for one and they did not sufficiently measure public opinion. In our democracy that is not, unfortunately, unusual, but there can sometimes be a price to pay.

In this case, it is impossible to blame any single party. To pretend otherwise is simply wrong.

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Responses to The Dragon Says: No Party Can Promise to Stop North Street Development

  1. Sara Gillingham Reply

    April 30, 2023 at 8:44 am

    I am a new candidate in Castle ward, so am not party to previous discussions. However, I thought it useful if I spell out my personal position. Firstly, I would really welcome development on the site.

    The low level of “affordable housing” in the current proposal is a significant issue and I wish there was more debate about this, along with a heights policy.

    Small businesses and larger employers in retail, hospitality, and property services (cleaning, security, etc) are having huge problems recruiting staff. Guildford needs to provide quality housing for young professionals, academics & lower-waged staff to “keep Guildford going”.

    The current development proposal is obviously deficient in terms of how it incorporates the bus station and is too high. The bus station is in dire need of investment if we are to encourage use of buses including Park & Ride. The development is on a key pedestrian pathway from the bus station into the town, and we need to be far more strategic in how we link pedestrian and cycle routes around Guildford to avoid stopping at pedestrian crossings every few yards.

    Much work to be done, including reviewing the need for heights policy, if we are to ‘keep Guildford going’ and make the best of our beautiful town.

    Sara Gillingham is a Lib Dem candidate for Castle ward

    • Bibhas Neogi Reply

      April 30, 2023 at 3:36 pm

      The bus station area needs to be vacated and added to the development area so that reduction in density and height of the proposed development could be achieved.

      Alternative locations for the bus station have been identified and the Bedford Road car park site adjudged the best of 10 locations examined. It should be reconsidered.

      Traffic alterations and repositioning of the bus lane on Onslow Street would be required for buses from the north and the east to proceed to the bus station without having to use the gyratory. But these buses would drop off and pick up passengers from a location very close to the existing station so that no one has to walk farther than they need to access The Friary and the Town Centre.

      A bonus would be that the bus station will be closer to the railway station making transfers a whole lot easier and convenient. Some car journeys to the railway station would also be reduced when commuters use buses instead.

      To allay fear of relocation to a place away from the current location, the above features need to be appreciated and explained to the existing and potential bus users.

      A saving to developers of £4 million on refurbishment of the bus station together with GBC’s proceeds from the sale of the land to the developer could contribute towards the cost of the new one. So this would be a win-win solution.

  2. John Redpath Reply

    April 30, 2023 at 12:17 pm

    Thank you for a very balanced article which is mostly accurate but the image use is for the earlier proposal and not the one voted on by the GBC Planning Committee. The planning application had reduced building heights with the tallest building at 13 rather than the 15 storeys the included image shows.

    I also noted in an earlier article published in The Dragon [Leaked Email Shows Tories Were Debating Building Height in 2018] that the previous Conservative administration had also been discussing heights of buildings in the town centre and a Shard-type feature building was talked of.

    Also, another article that should be mentioned was the one about the Lib Dem flyer [Lib Dem Claims of Working with North Street Developers Shows a Divided Party, Says R4GV] where they informed residents that the “Lib Dems on the Council have worked with a developer, St. Edward, to bring forward a scheme to redevelop North Street”. So, by their own admission the Lib Dems had a hand in the North Street scheme and one could assume influenced the final result?

    So I believe that’s full house amongst the political parties who either have similar views or indeed ‘worked’ with the developer on the proposal.

    This has surely undone Robin Horsley’s obsessive claim that the electorate should only vote Conservative or Lib Dem.
    The Electorate, on tenterhooks, can now await Horsley’s latest demonic view on who they should vote for next!

    John Redpath is a R4GV candidate for Castle ward in the forthcoming GBC election

  3. Robin Horsley Reply

    April 30, 2023 at 4:07 pm

    What expert advice has the author of this piece taken on an appeal? If it was as easy as he suggests, the developer would already have done so surely?

    Or are they just waiting to see if R4GV win and then can just force it through with a minor modification before the law is changed to avoid building tower blocks like these with single stairwells – the anticipated legislative change that is occurring due to the tragic deaths of 70 people and the sometimes life-changing injuries of more at Grenfell Tower?

    And I am ‘demonic’ according to John Redpath? Absurd.

    Looking forward too seeing the expert advice on the apparent ease with which an appeal can be won despite the eight detailed reasons for refusal – I am sure the editor will be keen to justify his claims by publishing the expert advice and illustrate that he is not misleading the electorate.

    He might also reconsider his position on publicity. The developer claimed to have printed 20,000 leaflets regarding the scheme but only distributed them within a 1/2 mile radius of the site.

    This scheme affects the entire Borough… and it is the responsibility of the council to make people know but they admitted only emailing or writing by letter to 938 residents – when there are more than 150,000 in the borough.

    No audit on the developers ‘consultation’ was done by the council to verify the limited claims they made about making people aware of the scheme.

    To suggest people should blame themselves for not knowing about something they were told nothing about from an internet-only, non-mobile optimised, paper that is poorly distributed does seem bizarre in the extreme. And it’s an insult to his very small readership.

  4. S Collins Reply

    April 30, 2023 at 10:38 pm

    “nearly all the existing high-rise buildings in Guildford”

    Which definition of the high-rise is The Dragon using for this article?

    And apart from churches, what is the highest non high-rise building in the town?

    Editor’s response: It might be a subjective judgement but the following might be considered “high-rise” in the context of Guildford’s townscape: Bishop’s Court, Mount Court, Solum development at the railway station, CEGB (demolished now being redeveloped at, at least, similar height), Police Station, Dominion House, 1 Onslow Street, the EA Building, there are many others that are significantly higher than neighbouring buildings such as the Telephone Exchange, the extension at the top of House of Fraser. Further from the town centre there are: Artington Business Estate, London Square offices, Liongate, and the Allianz Building.

    It is usually only the spire or tower of a church that has significant height. Even so, some of these in Guildford have already been dwarfed by surrounding buildings, eg St Saviours.

  5. RWL Davies Reply

    May 1, 2023 at 7:45 am

    Sound article and sensible comment by Sarah Gillingham but how long until “something is done” along the lines she suggests?

    Precedents suggest sometime after the coronation of the next King William.

  6. George Dokimakis Reply

    May 1, 2023 at 10:53 pm

    Nature hates a void and always finds a way to fill it.

    This redevelopment alongside the atrocity that will be Guildford Railway Station is what happens when people find themselves in power with no vision of what to do with it.

    The last election in 2019 was very much a protest election. Parties were voted in because of what they stood against rather than for. Worst of all they lacked imagination and even basic competence to simply copy other succesful towns.

    Having spent the last four years in power, the two main parties continue to argue between themselves, blaming the Local Plan, because they can’t envision how Guildford should look like from 2030 onwards.

    The result is that developers are deciding what Guildford will look like. Whilst they are not putting a positive vision forward, others will be deciding for them.

    George Dokimakis is a Labour candidate for Stoughton South in the forthcoming GBC election.

    • David Roberts Reply

      May 2, 2023 at 11:04 am

      But the Tory Local Plan is the root of the whole problem. And Labour voted for it and would not even change it.

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