Strong Vision and Policies needed for the Town Centre

24 April 2023

Ineffective Policies

Managing a consistent and integrated approach across proposed developments to develop a proper sense of place within the town is looking increasingly difficult. New developments are too often of poor design, and have height and scale that overpower existing buildings.  There has also been little planning gain to rectify an ageing and inadequate infrastructure, sewers, flood prevention, traffic in the Town Centre.  We have seen little to compensate for an increase in population to provide public facilities, medical, schools. 

Planning policies and decisions over the last 20 plus years have demonstrated a lack of coherence to develop an attractive and livable town centre.  This culminated with North Street lying empty for years, a flawed local plan being adopted in 2019 (LPSS2019), the Solum station being consented at appeal in 2018 which set an unhappy precedent for mass and height, and various initiatives, over the years, to create a Town Centre Plan stalled due to a lack of political commitment.

Inconsistent Decision Making

The failings in the LPSS2019, and recently consented supporting Development Management Policies, has resulted recently in inconsistent and damaging decisions being made on major sites in the Guildford Town which have been subject to much comment and debate.

Stag Hill and St Mary's 

Stag Hill (the site on the south and east side of the hill on which the Cathedral sits), has been refused, in part , because one Grade II* building, the Cathedral, would be affected by the proposed development, whilst St Mary’s/Debenhams which has two Grade1 buildings (St Mary’s Church and the Castle) plus many Grade 2 buildings and a conservation area impacted by the a development was consented. 

Comments on the Stag Hill development were obtained from Historic England, and various experts including Paul Fineberg Commissioned by GBC), Amanda Reynolds Director of AR Urbanism, commissioned by JTP Architects, and Barker-Mills Conservation all expressed various levels of concern.  St Mary’s/Debenhams in contrast had comments solely from Historic England who continued to express reservations about the plans, even after modifications were submitted, including reducing the height of the proposed buildings.

Design South East via its Guildford Design Review Panel, drawing on a network of over 180 built environment experts, provides advice on major schemes.  The panel commented on both applications at early stage of the application, this caused some modifications to final designs. 

At Stag Hill Design South East noted that the “Where the development can sit and the scale and mass and form of buildings must be delicately balanced……”.  These comments were expanded upon in the refusal note from the planning officer, despite revisions made by the developers to the plans. 

Design South East at St Mary’s noted that “The critical issue is that the proposal does not make the most of the opportunities of the site, nor does it do justice to what is one of the most prominent and important sites in the town centre”.  Although the developers, at St Mary’s, reduced the height of the proposed development and made other modifications many of the Design South East comments were not adopted.

St Mary's site was not subject to a Planning Policy in the local plan - despite the financial difficulties of Debenhams being apparent for some time.  Other local authorities have been far more proactive in managing sites comming forward due to the demise of major stores.

Is more concern being placed on didstant views rather than streetscapes?  Has an opportunity for true placemaking at St Mary’s been lost?  Is overdevelopment being allowed with impact on mass and scale?

Woodbridge Road/No1 Onslow Street/North Street

Three developments at the junction of Woodbridge Road and Onslow Street.  

The North Street Development was rejected by the Planning Committee, with maybe an appeal pending. It should be noted that Policy A5 in the Local Plan was for 400 flats and 41,000Sq M of retail – the developers could have argued that 41,000SQ/M of retail would equate to circa 450 Flats i.e. 850 in total. The proposed scheme after lengthy discussions with GBC was submitted for only 485 units, but the proposed scheme still reaches 13 stories on one of its blocks.   

Note that the policy A5 stated “(8) Bus interchange facilities presently provided at Guildford bus station on the site are to be provided in a suitable alternative arrangement to be located either partly or wholly on or off site”.   The proposed St Edward scheme has retained the existing bus station with modified access arrangements, a subject of much debate at the Planning Committee. 

If the development had been built as originally defined in policy A5, the retail space would have been 2.5 to 3.5 Storeys of retail across the site depending on the inclusion of the Bus Station area in the development, an additional 2.5 to 3.5 storeys would have been allocated to 400 proposed dwellings.

The development once you add in circulation spaces outside and inside, and spacing of dwellings to allow for light and ventilation would have been circa 6-9 storeys not very different from the current proposed North Street scheme in mass and scale.

Although, correctly, the Policy A5 proposed that the council could change the site from retail to other uses if retail was unviable, there has been a failure to update the Guildford Retail and Leisure Studies.  If Local plan site policies are to be changed materially surely this should require a statement of change to be issued for a site?

Policy A5 was significantly lacking in detail and shows that major sites in any amended Local Plan should have included a discussion on Height and Density at a minimum, North Street is of such significance that in Guildford, there should have been like other towns, a Development Management Policy covering the whole site and the significant proposed changes to North Street traffic flows.

At almost the same time, under delegated powers, the change in height from 8 Storeys (two of which are Roof and Plant Space) by an extra 2 floors to 10 Storeys at No1 Onslow Street (ex-Sanofi House) together with a total repainting/recladding was consented. Regardless of the numbers of objections it seems inconsistent that an application of such significance was not put to the planning committee.

A Permitted Development Right application for the Commercial block next to St Saviours to add two floors of flats to the building, which brings the roof line almost to the ridge line of St Saviours is also under consideration. 

The Future

Good local policies have never been more important, particularly as national planning policy appears to be in so much flux.

The Shaping Guildford’s Future programme has been criticised on cost grounds; it is important that it is concluded, especially the proposed Area Action Plan and associated policies that are due to cover the town centre as well as the new sites identified by Shaping Guildford’s Future. Some of the cost of Shaping Guildford’s Future will be in the production of information e.g. Flood Plans, that can also inform a review of the Local Plan.

The Local Plan to comply with legislation will need to be reviewed, particularly to provide more detail in relevant site policies on sustainability, density, mass and scale of buildings. 

The Local Plan review needs to increase focus on the provision affordable housing and also potentially larger housing units – the town centre in particular has a large number of 1-2 bed units being proposed does this make sense? 

The Local Plan Review or the Area Action Plan needs to provide updated policies to manage mass and height more effectively in the Town Centre.  Note height needs to be considered in relation to density of development; a high building can be the correct solution in certain circumstances.

The council needs to encourage more diversity into design thinking in the town, having one architectural practice design three major sites is not healthy.

The Town does need to develop, using its brownfield sites as well as redevelopment, but this needs to be done with more care and consideration to complement its heritage and ensure Guildford is a town fit for the future.

We will be interested to see how the new council responds to the challenge?

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