How High in Guildford Town – the debate continues

27 January 2022

Recent developments

We commented on the need to have good height policies in place for Guildford Town Centre in February 2021 at the start of the appeal hearing on the for the Casino Site, on Bridge Street/Onslow Street, in the centre of Guildford.  The Casino Site was refused due to issues not related to Building Heights.

However the desire to allow buildings up to 10 storeys (or more?) seems to be ever present.  Many developers are taking the Solum scheme as a signal that 8-10 stories are acceptable to the council, this has been re-infoced by comments from the leader of the Councillor Joss Bigmore.  In a recent Guildford Dragon interview, which included a discussion on the Debenhams/St Mary’s Wharf the council leader stated that in his view the ‘the ship has sailed’ in respect of building heights in Guildford.  The society is concerned at this approach as it is a strong indication to property owners who will be left expecting heightened land values. This could result in long and expensive development wrangles as the council uses inadequate policies to manage development. 

In a parallel development the Shaping Guildfords Future 26th January webinar included a question to Cllr John Rigg in charge of Major Projects who stated in response to a question on heights in Guildford that:

There is currently no limit on building height Guildford today, no mention in the 2019 Local Plan and not in the Development Management Policies (DMP) which are out for consultation at the moment This is not to everybody’s preferences, including probably not my preference, because it would be easier in many respects.  The view of some of the experts is that fixed height does not give the flexibility of placing a building at the top of the hill or at the bottom of the hill and it should be on a case-by-case basis.   That the current position, via the DMP consultation, it is open for consultation at the moment and if people want to prefer something else then now is a good time to comment.  (Transcribed from Webinar 2 Shaping Guildfords Future)

So there is obviously a range of views within the council:

Heights and intensification in Guildford

Guildford Town is a very unique town being located within a gap in the North Downs with river and transport communications running through it. It is a special place with its old High Street running down to the river crossing and wide selection of buildings filling the valley but not, until now, at a great height.

Historically most of the buildings are of a height of up five stories with some significant buildings e.g. churches going above that level. There are plenty of good views across the town.  Although suffering from traffic, walking through the town remains an attractive option in most areas with the buildings not dominating pedestrians and having a variety of age and style.

Height appears to be going up in Guildford.

Guilford has a history of some tall buildings e.g. the castle which appeared in its current form in around the 11th century. The industrialization of Guildford during the Victorian era produced a crop of buildings which remained sensitive to the landform and didn't go too high with the exception of Brewery chimneys etc.

The 1960s produced a new buildings some of which were successful and some not. Notable were the two blocks of flats at the Portsmouth Road which have 10 stories, the since demolished Electricity Office Building (the Plaza site), also on the Portsmouth Road which was 9 to 10 storeys, the Debenhams building with its height of four to six stories, ant the BT building of 8 Stories.

More recently there have been a number of new buildings built including No 1 Onslow Street (previously known as the Sanofi Building) which is up to eight stories and the Friary Centre built to a  height of about five to six storeys.

The 1990s saw attempts to further develop the town centre including an office block which was proposed on the east side of Millbrook,  and the provision of a bridge from Debenhams crossing Millbrook to link the site more effectively with the High Street. Both of these were rejected due to the impact on heritage assets around the crossing of the river and Quarry St.

During the 2010s there was a comprehensive master plan commissioned by Guildford Borough Council from Allies and Morrison. It is noticeable that this report, which is available on the council website, showed a series of new buildings and developments in the town centre all of which were broadly of 4-5 storeys in height and thus matching the existing aesthetic of the town centre.

Damaging Changes.

In recent years we have had some serious damage to keeping buildings to a 4-5 story height. 

The Solum site which consisted of the redevelopment of the east side of the station, this was subject to a long series of planning issues and it is now being developed as a series of blocks which are between eight and nine storeys high. Many consider that this development is not ideal for Guildford.  It is notable the recent Town Centre Views SPD (Supplementary Planning Document) would have caused the Solum Scheme to be modified considerably. 

The Casino Site on the one-way system has been subject to numerous planning appeals and discussions with a recent decision to reject a development which was going to reach up to 9 storeys high on the basis that it was impacting the local heritage buildings on Bridge St.

Number 1 Onslow St, is seeking permission to add three stories to the exisiting building, this planning application has yet to be agreed by the council.

However some good news; the Plaza site development has taking a long time to come to fruition and is now subject to planning decision in February 2021. The building height is going to be circa 4-5 which is well within the envelope of the previous building on the site.  The previous building which is the demolished electricity office building was 10 storeys high.

There is a gathering storm of higher buildings coming forward higher than than the four to five stories that have been accepted over the course of several decades in the aftermath of the high buildings being implemented during the 1960s.

Does Guildford need these high buildings?

There is absolutely no doubt that Guilford has serious issues with its housing availability. In particular affordable housing is scarce and causes many issues with attracting and retaining a younger workforce within the town.

The Society has looked at consented, current and likely planning applications (e.g. North Street) in the Town Centre including Permitted Development Rights. It looks as if the Town Centre will comfortably exceed the dwelling numbers proposed in the Local Plan.

The recent Guildford Society Architecture Lecture, see in particular video from Glenn Howells, provided a interesting perspective on the subject of height.  A comparison of cities shows that the number of people per Sq. KM is not directly related to high rise with Manhattan, New York accommodating fewer people per Sq. kilometre than parts of London (Kensington). These comparisons are complex as office high rise hubs can make comparisons difficult.  A ‘rule of thumb’ does appear to be 5-6 stories provides a very liveable environment together with intensification of land use that brings several benefits:

  • A more liveable town
  • Reduces reliance on private transport
  • Makes good public transport cost effective
  • Encourages walking and cycling
  • Creates opportunities for workspaces, retail and food
  • Supports provision of health and education facilities
  • and supports the vision of a the 15 minute neighbourhood.

Conclusion.

The Society believes Guildford needs clear policies on Building Height to protect the Town Centre and Urban area, this will also make development simpler by setting clear parameters.  The Council are relying on a Town Centre Views SPD.  It is notable that other towns and cities have successfully introduced policies that intelligently bring building heights into their consideration of new developments. Three examples are

These policies do manage topographical issues often cited in Guildford for not having policies that consider height. Each has taken a slightly different approach, but these councils seem to have established useful policies to manage the impact of new developments; whilst engaging the Public in what policies are appropriate. 

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