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Town Split Over St Mary’s Wharf As Historic England Accuses Developer of “Flawed” Conclusions

Published on: 16 Jan, 2022
Updated on: 16 Jan, 2022

By Hugh Coakley

Opinion in Guildford remains split over the St Mary’s Wharf proposals for riverside apartments, up to nine storeys high, on the former Debenhams site.

And in what the Guildford Society has called “a rare development”, Historic England, the public body which champions the protection of historic places, has weighed in with a forthright,  formal objection to the planning application, accusing the developer of  “flawed” conclusions of the impact on heritage.

Comparison between the existing Debenhams building and the proposed St Mary’s Wharf.

The developer, Native Land, has said they are committed to working with the council but has put the decision firmly in GBC’s court saying “ultimately GBC will need to balance those [Historic England’s] concerns against the substantial benefits that a redevelopment will bring”.

Artists impression of St Mary’s Wharf, viewed from Millmead.

Historic England has recommended refusal of the application saying the design is “out of keeping” with the conservation area and the “…massing, height and design would introduce a dramatic change in the prevailing building height of the surrounding townscape.”

They have accused the developer of using “flawed” methodology in assessing the impact on the heritage saying the “significance has not been adequately assessed”.

They also raise the option of “reusing and adapting the existing building” saying it “could be a less harmful and a more sustainable approach” if it was used as a “new commercial or experience/ recreational/entertainment” venue with some new residential units.

See St Mary’s Wharf Planning Application Has 215 Homes But No Affordable Specified

Illustrative view showing St Mary’s Church in Quarry Street seen between the proposed buildings from across the River Wey.

Views in the numerous letters and comments to The Dragon show the divided opinions in the town. They range from fear the developer, Native Land, will withdraw if the proposals are not accepted, leaving yet another prime, long term derelict site in the town centre, to opposition to the plans saying they are too high and out of place in the conservation area.

Interviews in the town on Thursday (January 13) showed the public were also split but generally less concerned with the height of the building than the site being left vacant. But four of the eleven people interviewed echoed Historic England in believing that re-purposing the existing building, locking in embodied carbon emissions, would be the best solution.

Diagrammatic view of the proposed buildings which are much higher than anything adjacent.

Guildford resident Mark said: “The height is not an issue to me. I would rather it was a park but that’s not going to happen and the developer has to make a profit.”

Regular visitor to the town, Stuart Burrows from Epsom said: “The height won’t make a difference and it will mean more homes in the town centre. Leaving an empty building in the middle of town is bad.”

But expressing a view in favour of retaining the Debenhams building, friends Mandy and Mel said: “Sometimes when they refurbish buildings, it’s really good. You have to be careful if you don’t want Guildford to become another high-rise Woking.”

And local resident Lauren was also keen for the existing building to be reused. “With a bit of imagination, it could be fantastic” she said.

St Mary’s Wharf (illustrative view) is to give “publicly accessible spaces like a new landscaped riverside walk”.

The stakes are considered to be high for the future of the town and prominent local leaders have been vocal on the issue.

Bill Stokoe, chair of the Guildford Vision Group (GVG), but speaking in a personal capacity, said GVG members “were not united” on the merits of the building but if it were a choice of “this development or no development then my vote would be to accept, indeed embrace, this development”.

He concluded: “The worst outcome would be many years with another area of vacant dereliction such as suffered at the nearby Plaza site and, not least, North Street.”

Lead for regeneration, John Rigg (R4GV, Holy Trinity) said Guildford did not yet have policies to limit storey heights. He said: “It will be interesting to see if the public is concerned or not with increases in height. l expect some extra stories may be acceptable although almost none of us will want to follow the Woking example.”

View 10 ‘From the Castle Motte looking north west’ is called by Historic England a “particularly harmful view” of the impact on the “predominantly low scale historic buildings”.

Gavin Morgan, founder of the Guildford Heritage Forum, said he did not believe “eight to nine stories can be the minimum height required to deliver a profit. Solum achieved nine and ten stories at the station and Native Land seem to be playing the same game. They are in the business of maximising profit, after all.”

“Guildford must embrace this opportunity, be willing to compromise and work positively with all developers. However, it should think not just about this development but the precedent it sets. It should not hand over the keys to the town and let developers decide its future shape.”

The Guildford Society have questioned whether a “rethink is required”. They say that “Native Land proposals are but one solution for the site.”

John Harrison, a member of the Guildford Resident’s Association, was sceptical about the developer’s claims for the benefits the proposal would bring. He said: “Whether you visit Guildford daily, weekly or monthly you should be concerned at the excessive scale of the proposal. I hope all councillors will reflect on their duty to conserve and enhance the town at its heart.”

The merits of the existing Debenhams building is also called into question by some. Mr Knight in a letter to The Dragon said: “How the proposal before us, which does open up the river, is considered worse than the current eyesore (or the current empty, and falling into disrepair, eyesore) is baffling.”

A spokesperson for Native Land said: “We recognise that Historic England has expressed some concerns, and ultimately GBC will need to balance those concerns against the substantial benefits that a redevelopment will bring.

“These benefits will only come forward as part of a redevelopment proposal and we are committed to working with the council to making that happen. We are confident we can create a very positive addition to the townscape in terms of its architecture, open space, accessibility and biodiversity.

“We are encouraged by the support we’ve received locally for the St Mary’s Wharf development and strongly believe in the benefits it will deliver for Guildford. These include opening up the River Wey to the town centre for the first time in 50 years, creating publicly accessible spaces like a new landscaped riverside walk, a new pocket park and the opportunity for a bridge to the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, along with new shops, cafes, homes and a new civic square.

“We’ve worked hard with our architects to create sustainable proposals which are sensitive to local heritage in terms of design, scale and use of materials.”

The residential-led application is for the “demolition of the existing building and the construction of two new buildings to provide 215 new homes, with flexible retail and commercial use, open space for the new residents and public realm” with a public square and a one storey pavilion to the north of the site.

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Responses to Town Split Over St Mary’s Wharf As Historic England Accuses Developer of “Flawed” Conclusions

  1. Gina Redpath Reply

    January 16, 2022 at 7:19 pm

    We cannot continue to allow Guildford to stagnate whilst other towns are progressing at speed. Just take a look at (most of) our neighbours; some fabulous developments are shooting up to 10 storeys or so – yes UP and why ever not?

    Do the objectors realise if we don’t go up we must spread out. We must stop objecting to everything and embrace change, especially where it is such an improvement.

    In my opinion, this is an exciting, well thought out development which opens up the river in a most innovative way and will draw people to it. And the development does away with the embarrassing slab, an eyesore ridiculed by many, that became Debenhams.

    Guildford must embrace the 21st Century and it is high time the council receives support from residents to approve new and tasteful development and, at last, get those spades in the ground.

    • Julian Chase Reply

      January 17, 2022 at 12:28 am

      There seem to be too many “musts”, too many rigid either/or choices in Gina Redpath’s reply. By all means re-develop the Debenhams site, but it doesn’t have to be with something that squats so big, intimidating and out of scale as the Native Land proposals.

      Whenever there are urgent demands that something *must be* a certain way, as there are in Ms Redpath’s reply, it’s time to become very wary, step back, and remember that there are satisfactory alternatives.

      There are many ways to “embrace the 21st century”, but blithely advocating tall buildings is a very 20th-century way of doing so. A town like Guildford must be more imaginative than simply following agendas set by such neighbours as Woking, Basingstoke or Reading in some misconceived rush to ape them by building high.

      We can find – precisely – more flexible 21st century innovations via technology and attracting businesses to a town with unique attractions and strengths. Building high is the least imaginative way of fostering development, and will result in yet more bad decisions that will, like so many others that Guildford has been afflicted with over recent decades, come to be sorely regretted.

  2. Craig Ellis Reply

    January 17, 2022 at 12:30 am

    Good grief.

    So yet another part of the town potentially going to be left to drift into stagnation.

    Does anybody with decision making authority realise how great this town could be? We are not too far from London when people are looking to move out of the city. We have good transport links, are close to beautiful countryside and home to the multi-million pound gaming industry which adds so much to the local and national economy.

    But there is potentially beautiful riverside land given over to car parks and prime town centre real estate boarded up and left to rot.

    It must have taken effort to fail so hard and for so long.

  3. Barry C Williams Reply

    January 17, 2022 at 12:10 pm

    The local community is being asked by GBC to give their views on the Draft Guildford Borough Local Plan – Development Management Policies. Those who wish to comment might want to look closely at the wording of Policy D4 titled: “Achieving High Quality Design and Respecting Local Distinctiveness” and ask themselves does the design match that aspiration?

    Interestingly, the local police crime officer objects to having a 24/7 riverside access and pocket park – fearing that current social order issues a little further along the river will spread to the St Mary’s development.

  4. Anna-Marie Davis Reply

    January 17, 2022 at 6:26 pm

    It always amuses me when GBC ask for our opinions. Historically they completely ignore them. They don’t ask because they want to hear or engage, they will do what they want regardless. They are merely paying lip service to the requirement for consultation rather than embracing it as a concept. Living in GU1 is merely a convenience for me and no longer a pleasure.

  5. Martin Elliott Reply

    January 17, 2022 at 10:37 pm

    It is good to see views about the St Mary’s Wharf, even if a bit polarised.

    It would also be good to hear updates on the other large development projects in the Borough, especially the GBC owned ones which have, as usual, gone silent.

    North Street Regeneration – should be close to presenting V2.0 after getting V1.0 so wrong.

    Weyside Urban Village, or is it still stalled by the lack of negotiation over the allotments?

    Bedford Wharf – the vanity bridge is seated, the plaza halved in area, all property now the cinema’s, but is there any consultation on the £0.5 million landscaping to convert from a ‘grotty shortcut’?

  6. R Broster Reply

    January 18, 2022 at 2:00 pm

    John Rigg (R4GV, Holy Trinity) said “…It will be interesting to see if the public is concerned or not with increases in height. I expect some extra stories may be acceptable although almost none of us will want to follow the Woking example.”
    No, no, no.

    People have spoken over and over about the extra storeys. This councillor is obviously not listening and doesn’t believe that his view won’t be the view of us normal people.

    The height of this building in this position will change Guildford forever. It sets a precedent and ignores the fact that the council bothered to have a conservation area.

    It is untrue that the only way to provide homes is to go up. Much research has shown that housing density in low rise, human-scale housing gives as much residential area as high rise blocks.

    The type of housing being proposed is not the type of housing that Guildford needs. Guildford needs two- and three-bedroom houses if the young people living here in starter home apartments are going to stay and build the community.

    This site is a prime commercial site that could be an amazing open market on the ground floor (gets over the flooding problem) with super shops above.

    Build what’s needed, not what will make a very small number of people money.

  7. Dee Bruce Reply

    January 18, 2022 at 10:30 pm

    I commented on this proposal directly to the developers. I complimented them on the decision to create two buildings, to open up the riverside to the public and the creation of the stepped area for the public to use. But I pleaded with them to reduce the height by 2-3 storeys and advised them they would receive greater support from Guildford residents if they did so.

    I also asked them to save themselves some money and not bother building the bamboo shack and leave that area free.

    It is so frustrating that Guildford has far too many derelict sites that are long overdue for development and are permanent eyesores. I would love to think these developers would show some respect for Guildford and make the necessary changes, particularly in light of the strong objection by English Heritage.

  8. Ben Jones Reply

    January 19, 2022 at 11:08 pm

    Guildford should take note from the City of Bath. This city manages to find the balance between modernisation and being a world heritage site by keeping new buildings in bath stone and a height reduction.

    This development will add to the town centre of Guildford ugly mismatch of buildings and not try to improve the multi-use opportunities.

  9. Stephen Campbell Reply

    January 20, 2022 at 10:29 am

    It’s the same old story loads of objections and not much in the way of solutions.

    We should recall:
    The “Plaza” site – a plot of land next to The Canon pub at the bottom of the Portsmouth Road, empty for 25 years;
    The bus station (a filthy eyesore for at least 15 years)
    The two plots of land near North Street (vacant nothing happening)

    Guildford needs to get out of the arguing and start moving forward otherwise we will be left far behind.

    Editor’s comment: It is understood that an announcement might be imminent about North Street.

  10. Roger Main Reply

    January 20, 2022 at 9:10 pm

    This is a very good proposal. If it is refused the developer might give up.

    • Adam Aaronson Reply

      January 23, 2022 at 1:21 pm

      Developers rarely give up and certainly not at the first hurdle.

  11. Annette Preece Reply

    January 22, 2022 at 8:55 am

    No, no, no. The buildings are far too high and box-like, more in keeping with the old dock buildings on the River Thames.

    Prince Charles’ comment on architecture from some years ago comes to mind.

    New plans please.

    • Bibhas Neogi Reply

      January 23, 2022 at 8:16 pm

      Can Annette Preece put forward her ideas bearing in mind that the developer has to pay for the demolition, removal of debris and bringing in materials for the new construction and then make a reasonable profit?

      Alternatively, does she think the building could be re-purposed? If so, does she have any ideas?

      “We don’t know what we want but we don’t want this,” is not at all helpful.

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