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Letter: Why Not Re-purpose Debenhams as Council Offices?

Published on: 21 Apr, 2022
Updated on: 21 Apr, 2022

From: Richard Mills

vice-chair of Guildford Town Centre Conservatives

See also: Welcome to Woking-on-the-Wey!

In response to my expression of concern at the potential height and mass of buildings in the proposed North Street Redevelopment correspondents fairly asked what was the alternative.

There is no easy answer to that, but I would like to suggest a possible new way forward in the hope it might be considered and stimulate discussion of alternatives.

In essence, the approach would link solutions to three separate issues now facing the town.

The first step is to re-purpose rather than redevelop the Debenhams building. It is not a beautiful building, but it is much preferable to the new one now proposed.

There is also a compelling case for re-use on environmental grounds, and under the government’s “Waste Hierarchy” adaptation and re-use should always be the preferred option.

With contemporary material and building technologies refashioning even a building of this kind should be possible: the escalator well might make possible an atrium and increased light access; and enhanced river access might be possible by a colonnade, on the model of the Rodborough Building.

The resulting building might not be fully suitable for residential use, but it could be well-adapted to office use.

That leads to the second opportunity. Demand for such office space may be falling but there is one potentially available tenant: the borough council itself which has for some time planned to relocate and sell its present site for housing.

An obvious candidate, particularly for its customer-facing functions, would be the Debenhams building, not least because it sits fairly within what current drafts of the proposed Master Plan see as a “Civic Quarter”.

It might however be problematic to carve out of the Debenhams building a sufficiently large, suitably serviced and appropriate council chamber. This opens up the third opportunity.

It is time we asked ourselves what we want from a council chamber. Surely it should be an accessible building, available for use by community organisations when not required for council meetings. It should be a symbolic building, reflecting the pride of the town.

Above all, It should be in the heart of the Town, not buried in an office complex away from the centre. The North Street Development then emerges as the obvious candidate.

Guildford is a rich town. Perhaps it is time for a benefactor – one or more individuals or companies – to come forward to sponsor an architectural competition for an iconic new chamber?

Failing that, even in these times that are challenging for so many, even in this rich town, we might resort to crowdfunding, in much the same way that school children bought bricks to help fund the completion of Guildford Cathedral after the Second World War.

No doubt there are many difficulties in this proposal, as in any others, notably in finance and land tenure, but if so minded I am confident our councillors and new chief executive could find a way to respond effectively to these opportunities.

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test 2 Responses to Letter: Why Not Re-purpose Debenhams as Council Offices?

  1. Valerie Thompson Reply

    April 21, 2022 at 6:40 pm

    Meanwhile, Ukrainian refugees would be happy to doss down there while being allocated proper homes with volunteer hosts, once the government can get the visas organised!

    The restaurant could be repurposed to feed them. There are lavatories and I bet the staff areas have showers.

  2. RWL Davies Reply

    April 22, 2022 at 7:53 am

    Eminently sensible suggestion worthy of detailed consideration.

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