St Marys/Debenhams Site

15 August 2022

Amended proposals submitted.

The Debenhams/St Marys site is a critical one for the centre of the Guildford capable of re-invigorating the riverside, providing public facilities and housing.  Note we are not against the site being redeveloped, but it needs a high quality proposal for what is a magnificent site. 

Native Land the developers have now formally lodged a revised planning application on the GBC planning website 21/P/02322 with a view to the scheme being determined.

Debenhams Sites are difficult.

Many Towns and Cities are wrestling with how best to redevelop their Debenhams stores. Locally, Staines is having a major debate on the future of its Debenhams site, with the council having recently rejected proposals..

Debenhams sites are subject to a wide range of proposals including:

A Revised Proposal

Native Land, as well as lodging dociuments with GBC, have published a newsletter detailing the revised proposals, see link below.  In addition during the week 15th August Native Land will also upload their latest update video to the project website – presented by our architects – to outline the revised plans in detail. This link will be updated on this post when available.   

Native Land have made the following changes following ongoing engagement with key local stakeholders and Guildford Borough Council, compared with the original proposals:

  • Removing a further storey from the Town Centre Building (North Building), reducing the height to seven storeys from the ten originally proposed.
  • Revising the facades of the buildings.
  • Revisions to the mix of dwellings being provided in the buildings
  • Further opening up of the riverside walkway
  • Removal of the ‘Pavilion’ to make the Northern Square by the Town Bridge bigger and less obstructed.
  • Revisions to the foundations to manage flooding.

It is claimed that St Mary’s Wharf will continue to deliver the significant public benefits as contained in Native Land’s original proposal, including: 

  • Opening up the River Wey by creating wide, open and biodiverse, publicly accessible spaces, with more than 50 new trees, together with landing points for the future provision of a pedestrian footbridge to the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre.
  • Creating a new civic square at the end of the High Street, as a gateway to the town and riverside.
  • Developing two new sustainable housing buildings, with retail and restaurants at ground floor, providing 194 new private and affordable homes, shops, cafés, and bars, thereby alleviating pressure on the surrounding Green Belt.
  • Improving access and permeability with a new residential street linking Millbrook to the river, the creation of a new vista to St Mary’s Church from Millmead, and active frontages along Millbrook.
  • Creating more than 415 construction jobs and up to 83 jobs in retail on site, which will contribute an estimated £1.7 million a year to the local economy.

The Society initial views

We do need time to go through the extensive documentation.  We welcome several of the changes but still consider the proposed design has serious issues. 

Height and Mass

Whilst we welcome that some reduction in height and mass has been proposed, The Society believes the revised proposals do little to address the hugely significant impact of the proposed buildings on their sensitive surroundings, conservation area, heritage, and environment. 

The removal of an additional floor on the North block, next to the Town Bridge, is claimed to allow the development “to sit more naturally within the local context.”  The block is still 7 stories high, and partly due to being raised up higher than Debenhams ground level (by approximately 600 cms) to reduce flood risk, is still about 60% higher than the current Debenhams building at the north end.

The southern building is higher than the Debenhams building by circa 50% over much of its bulk. Both buildings will overpower the Millbrook.

Setting a Precedent?

It is known that as part of the emerging Town Centre Master Plan being created as part of the; Shaping Guildford’s Future exercise that Millbrook Car Park, Millmead Council Office site and the north end of Millbrook (by the Town Wharf) are due to be redeveloped.  If the St Mary’s site is consented this will open the way for equivalent buildings in mass and scale to be built.  ‘Woking on Wey’ will be another step nearer?

The Society argues we need a height along the river that respects the valley landform in which Guildford sits and provides a genuine opening up of the riverside.

Design of the Buildings

We will be looking closely at the materials proposed and how these relate to the other buildings in the town centre.


There has been considerable debate between the Environment Agency and Native Land on flood issues.  It will be interesting to see how this issue is being progressed..

Riverside Walk

The society is supportive of opening up the riverside and approve of the proposed widening of the riverside walkway, but hope it doesn’t get too cluttered by tables and chairs for café’s etc. The bridge is also welcome but it appears very unclear who will pay for this facility.


The society argued that the current building with its steel frame could be redeveloped as is happening at several other Debenhams sites in the UK. See our ideas here .  We will be interested to see how the developers manage the issues of embodied carbon in the substantial changes to the basement and how the buildings will be designed to be adaptable over time.  We note the North Street are having double height commercial space to provide flexibility of use.  

Dwelling Provision

The site is going to provide a total of 185 new homes the majority of which are going to be 1 and two bedroom flats.  Guildford Town Centre is gaining a large number of 1 and 2 bedroom flat units.  Although welcome these units don’t help families there must be a concern that the town is failing to provide family accommodation.

It is noted only 5 affordable dwellings will be provided.  Affordable housing appears to be becoming the preserve of council sponsored schemes e.g. Guildford Park Road surely the private sector should do more?


It is very disappointing that the opportunity for redeveloping the site is not solving the issue of access from the east of the town.  Originally there had been talk of re-opening aor revamping the tunnel under Millbrook.  This appears to have been discounted bt GBC and Developers.

A Missed Opportunity?

The society has repeatedly said that the site is possibly the most important in Guildford and will shape the town for the future.  We are concerned that the public realm uses have not been fully considered and that the proposed buildings do little to enhance the site. How this proposed development fits with the emerging Town Centre Master Plan and proposals for North Street is unclear.

Native Land and their architects Squires have consistently shown relatively minor variations on one scheme since starting consulting on the site.

With ideas coming forward for the Town Centre Master Plan and other sites e.g. North Street also firming up proposals isn’t it time to consider what the Debenhams site should provide for the town and how it relates to the rest of the town?  The development should enhance Guildford with good design and a vibrant public realm.

As Guildford Borough Council (GBC) have declared a climate emergency and considering the significant embedded carbon in the existing building, re-purposing of the existing building should also be thoroughly tested as an option.  It is worth noting that Sheffield have taken an interesting approach asking for proposals to either repurpose the existing building or redevelop entirely. This followed a council consultation process that showed a wide range of views in the city as to what should happen.






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