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Guildford Historic Streets

01st June 2009

Guildford High Street is often seen on TV News where it is used as an icon for South East England. It is widely used to represent the town and county in tourist material.

The High Street is unique.  John Aylward’s gilded clock, projecting out from the Guildhall, is silhouetted against the sky, while the granite setts lead the eye down the steep street, over the river Wey, to the soft green of the Mount.

The granite setts were laid by Henry Peak in 1864, funded by a public subscription. Today the responsibility for the highways and therefore the High Street lies with Surrey County Council (SCC).

Recently, the setts have begun to suffer from a lack of proper maintenance. Utility companies dig up the road to lay pipes and cables, but do not properly re-instate the setts. Sometimes the repairs leave gaps; the setts then work loose and become a trip hazard. Even worse, contractors throw away the granite setts and fill the holes with unsightly tarmac.

Recently there has been some good news. Guildford Borough Council (GBC) and Surrey County Council are jointly funding a project to re-instate some of the worst areas of the High Street.

Initially the work is aimed at reacquiring the skills needed to lay setts and to establish accurate costings, so that the cost of future work can be estimated accurately.  This work is continuing, following a break for and over Christmas. We will be monitoring this work closely in future. Figure 2 Setts replaced with tarmac

While we are overjoyed that GBC and SCC are jointly funding a maintenance project in the High Street, it is a quick fix for today. In time the Utility companies will dig up the road again and before long we will be back where we started. We need a long term solution to the problem.

Figure 3 Paving replaced with Tarmac

At the same time that the setts are being fixed, SCC is replacing broken paving slabs on pavements with tarmac. The tarmac is unsightly, but it is cheap and removes a trip hazard. But, in the absence of planning guidelines it cannot be said to be wrong.

There is a need for planning guidelines that set policies and standards for Guildford’s historic streets.  Planners call this a Streetscape Manual.  English Heritage advises that a Streetscape manual should be included in the Guildford Development Framework (GDF). The GDF already includes Character Assessments for Rural, Urban Fringe, Urban, Town Centre and Conservation Areas. These Assessments describe the features that give an area its essential character and which need to be conserved and incorporated into new developments

Other historic towns such as Chichester and Winchester have already developed Streetscape Manuals to define the character of their historic streets. Guildford has not developed one, largely because responsibility is split between GBC and SCC. To be accepted and usable, a Streetscape must be agreed and adopted by both Councils.

Getting the Councils to agree to develop a Streetscape Manual together is going to take a lot of lobbying . English Heritage recommends that we start by carrying out a Placecheck. This asks three basic questions:

What do you like about this place

What do you dislike about this place

What needs to be improved

Robin Stannard and Doug Scott from the Design & Heritage Group have started work with Cllr Roy Hogben, the GBC Design & Heritage Champion , on recording a Placecheck.    It will be used to seek the involvement of the Town Centre Management Group, the Business Forum and our elected representatives to encourage GBC and SCC to jointly develop and adopt a Guildford Streetscape Manual and thus define and protect the character of Guildford’s Historic Streets.     

Guildford High Street - Photos by Doug Scott