A lack of drinking water and power, continued flooding risks and a flatlining economy are all challenges that will have to be overcome in the regeneration of Guildford town centre. As the borough council’s executive approved a £3m spend on the next stage of the masterplan project, concerns were also raised about how much residents have been engaged in the process.
At its meeting on Thursday (September 22) councillors heard from the team of consultants and officers as well as councillors leading on the plans for the town centre, which include a new bus station, new town square and opening up the riverside. The plans will also address traffic in Surrey’s county town, with the one-way system proposed to be replaced with two-way traffic and a congestion charge also being considered.
Lead councillor for regeneration, Councillor John Rigg (Residents for Guildford and Villages, Holy Trinity), told the meeting it was the first time in the borough’s history that there was “a real plan looking to the future to address the problems of today”. He said it would be a holistic plan to address flooding issues, traffic, public space, the need for new homes, better walking and cycling and attracting businesses to the town.
The masterplan includes up to 2,600 new homes within a 15-minute walk of the town centre, which Cllr Rigg said would be important for key workers and needed to be one- and two-bedroom homes people could afford. But questions were raised about there being enough water and electricity for these new homes, with council documents showing a shortage of drinking water was “a concern”.
Documents said Thames Water could not confirm if there was capacity to supply the proposed development and would need around six months to look into it. If work on the water supply was needed, it could take a year to design and deliver.
UK Power Networks had also said that “little capacity” remains in the network for new development and that substantial grid reinforcement would be required for the majority of the planned development in the town to be delivered. Meeting documents said: “The lack of utility capacity revealed is a very serious issue for Guildford.”
The town’s flatlining economy was also raised as a concern, and a reason to push ahead with the plans. The meeting heard a list of businesses and major employers that had left the town, including Colgate Palmolive, Arriva and Ericsson, with Cllr Rigg saying Guildford “now has serious economic stagnation”.
Dawn Hudd, the council’s joint strategic director of place, said despite a GDP in the town of £5.5 billion according to consultants, the town’s economy had been flatlining for the last five years. She said: “We believe that the Shaping Guildford’s Future regeneration programme, with its holistic vision, can deliver sustainable economic prosperity with new homes and employment opportunities to support a healthier community, reimagining the county town and cementing our place as a regional destination.”
Councillors also raised concerns about the level of engagement from the public on the plans, with Cllr George Potter (Lib Dem, Burpham) saying there were “key questions” that the public and the council had never been asked in the plans. Raising questions around the council’s Millmead offices in particular, and plans to turn the car park there into a riverside park, he asked whether the public had specifically been asked if this was what they thought should happen with the site.
He added: “My concern is that as you go forward with an area action plan, those decisions are going to be written up and adopted into planning policy without anybody ever having the opportunity to change them or express an alternative view and actually get anything amended.”
Cllr Tony Rooth (Residents for Guildford and Villages, Pilgrims) said councillors had been sent 400 pages of reports to read ahead of the meeting, which he said he suspected not all would have the time to read. He also called for greater engagement with the public on the plans, citing a phone consultation of less than 400 residents, four webinar events with 100 attendees each and a website that had not been updated since March.
The meeting had previously heard that the plans had received 4,000 questions and comments, 14,000 website page views, 6,000 web sessions and more than 500 questionnaires completed. Council leader Joss Bigmore (Residents for Guildford and Villages, Christchurch) called it “the most comprehensive consultation process the council has ever done”.
All development projects will go through the normal planning application process, with the borough council acting as “an enabler for regeneration” over what could be a 20 year timeline. Flooding measures will be in place throughout the plan, with Cllr Rigg saying the borough council was on “borrowed time on not addressing flooding for decades” in the town.
The meeting heard that since the late 1960s flooding had been an issue affecting businesses, homes and infrastructure, and that 92 homes in the town centre were flooded in the winter of 2013/14. Plans for along the riverside include flood defences built into the landscaping, with the council working with the Environment Agency on solutions.
Councillor Christopher Barrass (Residents for Guildford and Villages, Clandon & Horsley) said towns like Reading and Kingston had understood the importance of the river in their development. He added: “We should not lose sight of the fact that the name Guildford itself comes from the words ‘golden ford’, which is where the river crossing was. We seem to have lost sight of our river over continuous years of poor development and at last, it’s now being addressed.”