Guildford Deserves Better

20 November 2022

Debenhams/St Mary's Determination Set for 22nd November 2022

The Society has written to all councillors making the following comments on the St Mary's/Debenehams application for redevelopment.

Note sent to Councillors

The Committee in its determination of the application to redevelop the Debenhams/St Marys site 21/P/02232 will be adjudicating on the most important Town Centre Site to come forward in the last 30 years. The decision will affect Guildford for maybe 100 years.  We have also published this letter on our website including some further details and pictures.

The Society would ask you to consider the following carefully:

  1. The Site – It is one of the best in the South East of England adjoining the Wey, a magnificent Heritage High Street, and well situated for communications.  It is the best and most important site in Guildford.  It is a complex site with poor connectivity across Millbrook and Flooding Issues.

The Society supports a mixed-use development/redevelopment of the site; supporting the view of the council that the provision of a large retail store on the site is inappropriate.  We also support the opening up the riverside as a promenade. (which mustn’t be confused as a cycling track or as a pedestrian walkway to access the town quickly).  We also support the emergent ideas to bridge across to the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre. 

We remain concerned by many aspects of the scheme and feel the connectivity of the site to the lower high street and to the Yvonne Arnaud complex has yet to be properly addressed.

We support imaginative development that respects the area and maintains Guildford as a distinctive town.

Any development must respect and enhance this important site.

  1. Housing – We welcome housing being provided as part of a mixed development on the site. However, Guildford Town Centre on current building and development programmes is due to contribute circa 1000 dwellings in excess of the 1300 predicated in the 2019 Local Plan. It is noted that Shaping Guildford’s Future proposes a further 2600 houses in the Town Centre. Reducing the quantum of housing on the site would allow for a more varied mix of uses in the development energising the riverside and provide more public good.

Is the mix of accommodation and quantum correct on the development.

  1. Economy – It is accepted the site will provide jobs whilst under construction and continuing employment in the commercial units – primarily F&B.  The economy of Guildford is on several measures ‘Flat lining’ at present. The St Mary’s site could play a fuller role in the immediate economic future of Guildford by:
    1. Providing, in the foreseeable future, modern high quality Office Space within walking distance of the station for which there is an apparent demand.
    2. Provide new attractions to support the visitor economy (3m visitors per year source Shaping Guildford’s Future).  Where is our equivalent to the Light Box in Woking, Baltic in Gateshead?

Is this precious site being used to the best economic advantage for Guildford and the Borough.

  1. Height and Bulk of Building – The society is pleased that heights of the buildings have been lowered after negotiation compared to the original submitted scheme. We still believe the Height and massing of the scheme is inappropriate for the sensitive location.

The new Northern Block of the Solum Development is approximately the same height as the proposed Building A at St Mary’s, being 8 Storeys High.  It is worth walking around this development, at the station, to get an impression on the height and bulk that will be apparent from for example Millmead, and Millbrook. (See Solum Building pictured below with height of exisitng Debenhams indicated by red box) It is apparent, from remarks at the recent Development Management Policy Examination, that the council have a full model of the development in the Vu.City visualisation tools.  Images from this platform have never been made public. It is hoped that the planning committee have had an opportunity to examine this material as it can provide insights on shading, night-time views etc well beyond a limited series of static views of the site.  

Is this Height and Mass acceptable in a sensitive location near the river and high street.

As well as considering views across the Town, it is important to understand how a town appears at street level, including affording glimpses of the surrounding Hills and Heritage Buildings.

  1. Design - The design of the development is very generic, being very similar to designs for North Street and Guildford Park Rd. The architect has also proposed very similar designs on several (5 to our knowledge) developments in London.  There is much talk of ‘distinctiveness’ in Guildford, and we have a proud history of developing architectural styles. The Design Review Panel which appears to have commented only on the original scheme 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”.  We agree.

It must be noted that the developers have produced essentially one design for consultation.

It is very disappointing that an Architectural Competition has not been run to inject a plurality of ideas into plans for the site.

Are we getting a really distinctive development on this important site.

  1. Sustainability – The council has declared a ‘Climate Emergency’.  The St Mary’s site is due to use 14,000tons of concrete in its construction with consequent embodied carbon mainly from Cement Production. Although it is on a different scale it is notable that there is a current planning inquiry into plans to redevelop Marks and Spencer in Oxford Street London which will emit 40,000tons of CO2.

More information on embodied Carbon and an exploration of alternative building techniques should be requested before determination.

  1. Heritage – Heritage England wrote an objecting to the impact of the development on the Heritage of Guildford and in a second letter on the revised plan comments “Historic England maintains our objection to this application on heritage grounds”.

Our Town Heritage, as well as being an attractive set of Buildings and Places is valuable a valuable economic asset as it attracts visitors, businesses, and residents to Guildford and surrounding area.  

We have serious concerns that the issues raised by Historic England have been ignored. We don’t believe the harm to our heritage is balanced by the benefits that can be allocated to the scheme e.g. rating affordable housing (5 units) as a significant benefit of the scheme seems bizarre.

Dismissing the objections of Historic England must be questioned.

  1. Conditions - The Society requests that consideration is given for the following:
  • A missing Condition? The Site Plans ‘Red Line’ consistently show the site owner having an area stretching over part of the Town Bridge approaches at the east end.  This appears a ‘Hostage Strip’ that should be negotiated away before consent is given particularly as the Town Bridge may be subject to upgrading and modification in the future. (See Diagram in Pictures below)
  • Condition 4,5 In these days of ‘Value Engineering’ it is important that these conditions are rigorously followed, we would consider Condition 5 should request physical examples of the windows etc and surrounds not just written details.
  • Condition 13 Drawing number 20018-SQP-ZZ-PL-A-SK002 refers.  We believe the condition should be extended to provide some rules on matters such as seating especially related to possible F&B use – the walkway must remain clear as a walkway.  


The Society has expressed serious reservations about this development on several occasions.  We believe it is an indifferent development in a key location providing limited public benefit and causes significant harm to Townscape, Heritage, and the Sense of Place of Guildford. 

Dangerously, it also opens the way to similar developments along the Wey e.g. the owner of the Casino site has already stated, in the local press, that he plans to bring forward a scheme if the St Mary’s scheme is consented.  It is a concern that one of the arguments for ignoring Historic England appears to be the Solum and Casino Development have already compromised Guildford, so don’t bother with other developments. Can the council exercise any control of future development?

Much is made in the ‘Shaping Guildford Future’ material, where it is notable most of the sketches show 4-6 storey buildings, about opening up the riverside. We support proposed walkway along the Wey (Shaping Guildford’s Future).  However, if is to be lined by a row of 8-10 storey blocks, which consenting the St Mary’s development could enable, it won’t be an attractive prospect. Shaping Guildford’s Future cites Richmond on Thames as an exemplar – note it is only 5 storeys high.  

Guildford needs for the Town Centre to move on from considering individual sites in the context of inadequate policies. A set of robust and agreed set of Town Centre Strategies and Policies is urgently required. To ensure development is managed properly and positively against the ability to solve issues such as infrastructure provision and connectivity.  It must be hoped that ‘Shaping Guildford Future’ can be the mechanism for this to occur.

The Society believes the proposal needs to be reconsidered for the reasons given above.  Guildford is missing a major opportunity to develop a brilliant site for a variety of uses, supporting economic activity in the area, including housing.  Please note the developer appears capable of delivering high quality schemes, judging by their schemes in London.  We believe they could offer a better scheme.

We hope the committee refuses the current application – Guildford Deserves Better.


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