Debenhams is Closing

04 October 2020

An opportunity for the town?

The Debenhams site is an opportunity for the Town -- we should not lose it.

Today 1-12-2020 the demise of Debenhams was annouced.  This is obviously a major concern to the many Debenhams employees, particulalry as other retail jobs are not readily available.

The Guildford Society understands at the very least this will lead to a redevelopment of the Debenhams site.  This provides a unique opportunity to create a vibrant new area and attraction for the Town Centre to support its transition to multi-use town centre not one overly dependent on retail.

There needs to be a debate now about what the population of Guildford would like to see happen to the site.
Being able to present ideas to whoever buys the site is important; just getting a block of flats or offices built with limited public use does not do justice to the Town or the Site.  We also need to avoid the site being derelict for years – another North Street.

The Guildford Society has looked at potential uses for the site and options for its redevelopment. 

An Option

To prompt debate, we present ONE idea of what might be done with the site below.
Current information

It likely is that the shop is due to close early in 2021.

The building on the site has provoked a variety of reactions over the years!!  The M&G the owners of the site are understood to be selling the site and it is estimated the value of circa £20-25M for the site.  Apparently there have been serious bids for the site which are subject to negotiation.

The Crossroads of the Town?

The site sits on the old ‘Cross Road’ of the town, by the Town Bridge influencing the lower High Street, the River Wey and Millmead. The site is approx. 0.45HA and the current building has a floor area of circa 21,000Sq/M.

How the site is used could have a major impact on the Town Centre. The site is not mentioned in the Local Plan adopted in 2019. The recently agreed Guildford Economic Regeneration Programme Masterplan Strategy (Masterplan) does identify the site as a key site for consideration. The Masterplan will take at least 2 plus years to complete, plans for the Debenhams site may come forward far more quickly.

The society believes the site is a unique opportunity to revitalise the Town Centre.

There needs to be a debate now about what the population of Guildford would like to see happen to the site, so that local councillors understood such concerns.


How the site is developed will influence the attractiveness of the town centre, (the current building has provoked a variety of reactions over the years!); economic vibrancy, and public space and facilities; for decades to come.

The Society believes being able to present ideas to whoever buys the site is important.  A block of flats or offices built with limited public use does not do justice to the Town or the Site.  We also need to avoid the site being derelict for years – another North Street.

The Society has looked at options, the site could be:turned into a park beside the Wey, also providing a measure of flood protection, although the cost of the site makes this difficult to justify.redeveloped to provide dwellings (Flats) and/or commercial space.turned into a mixed-use site ‘anchored’ by a Community Arts Centre providing a variety of attractions.

What might a re-purposed Building be used for?

In 2005 a Community Arts Centre was proposed housed in a new building on the Portsmouth Road Car Park.

The Society believes this concept should be revived to provide an ‘anchor’ for the site, which would also support a range of other activities.

A Community Arts Centre would also provide an important element in a ‘Cultural Corridor’ running from the Museum - Yvonne Arnaud – Community Arts Centre (Debenhams) - Electric Theatre to Guildford Academy of Music.

The Debenhams Building is substantilly larger than the proposed building in 2005, potentially the building could provide flexible accommodation for:

Community Arts Centre

Multipurpose exhibition space – used for visiting exhibitions, loans from other museums etc.

Interactive Space for use by Media and Games exhibits

Arts - exhibition spaces, practice, and lecture rooms

Library (in 2005 the SCC library service were not averse to moving the Library).

Tourist Centre

Gym and cycle hire station

Small Retail Outlets

Restaurant and Café

Flexible office/commercial space, and meeting rooms – to      support ‘blended working’ (mixture of home and office working post Covid).

Homes added to the roof, replacing the unused areas and plant rooms on the roof.

Revamped exterior with public frontage to the river.

Protect the Environment

Building has a major environmental impact, with cement being a major producer of emissions.

A total redevelopment of the site would need to be tall to be a viable scheme, 8-10 stories has been mentioned, with considerable impact on the town.

The Society would urge careful consideration is given to re-purposing the current building.  This would involve re-using the strong frame of the building, recladding, and reshaping, and adapting it for a new series of flexible uses.  Re-purposing the building is cheaper than total redevelopment and quicker; potentially the need to build high is avoided.

This approach would also allow Guildford to show its green and sustainability aspirations.

The Rebuild

A possible scenario would:

Retain the existing Garage and Loading Bay.

Possibly retain the current Escalator Stack

Re-open the Lower Ground Floor

Utilise the existing retail space

Revise the roof space

Re-clad the Building and restructure the Riverside Façade to provide a better pedestrian environment.

Better flood prevention including a ‘signature’ Foot Bridge from the building for access at time of flooding.

Re-open and widen the pedestrian underpass from the High Street to link the Site, Riverside, Town Bridge and High Street effectively.

Heating and Ventilation to make a Carbon Neutral building

Is it Viable?

The 2005 proposals showed that a Community Centre development could be a viable proposition including building a new building.

The Debenhams site could provide circa 40 generously sized apartments with a potential value of £25m approx., covering the basic acquisition costs for the building. The council has recently scrapped the scheme to revise the Museum at £20m which shows funding for arts and heritage can be found for an innovative scheme.

The Covid-19 crisis does pose serious problems in determining viability and funding over the short term. Viability may be improved as an effect of the Covid-19 crisis could be the increased use of smaller town centres like Guildford; as small hub offices and commercial premises are set up to avoid commuting into cities.

Re-purposing the building is substantially cheaper than redevelopment and quicker.

Next Steps?

The society believes the site is a unique and exciting opportunity to enhance the attractiveness of Guildford and provide a range of benefits to the community.  We have proposed ONE option that builds on the strengths Guildford has in the Arts to create a new attraction to complement an inevitably smaller retail presence in the town.  We recognise that the building will have to be flexible as adaption to change over time will be required.

The site is unlikely to be acquired without an indication from the council on its attitude to change of use, we will be seeking to discover what the council are considering.

We especially welcome ideas from local Arts Organisations, Small Businesses and Architects.

The Society will consider a forum to discuss with those interested.

There needs to be a debate now about how we as a community  guide any redevelopment


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