I applaud John Rigg’s observations and arguments in his letter last week, the thrust of which I fully support. I am certain that I was not alone in feeling immensely energised by the thought of transformational change that could unlock the huge untapped potential of this community. Change on such a scale however would clearly require three essential components.
Firstly, we need to be clear and agreed about who we are and wish to become. John Rigg rightly emphasises the need for a long term vision and his reference to towns such as York, Bath, Chester, Oxford and Cambridge echoed aspirations raised by the Guildford planners themselves at the launch of their public engagement on 23 June. Yet the substance of the council’s process thereafter, and indeed in the surveys they undertake via the website, rapidly descends to a focus on the minutiae of specifics, of new retail development opportunities for example and the need to sustain and grow our “zone A retail rent” performance!
This country’s great cities did not become so by focusing on their retail rent potentials. They got there by becoming recognised centres of faith, learning and culture, respectful of their natural attributes and heritage, yet endlessly bold and experimental about engaging new ideas, energy and enterprise. I am far from opposed to retail, but a singular focus on national brands with fancy covenants risks creating a bland mediocrity whilst squeezing out diversity and innovation. Illustrations of this already underway here might include the reluctance to support an Arts Cinema for Guildford in favour of yet another fashion store, or the contracting out of the management of G Live to a third party organisation more closely associated with the likes of Southend, Swindon and Hastings than York, Bath et al.
This latter point brings me to my second component, the need for inclusivity. In its Inquiry into Tomorrow’s Company, the Royal Society of Arts concluded that successful enterprises of the future will succeed or fail according to their ability to engage with the multiplicity of their stakeholders of all kinds and to ensure their actions are seen to be creating a strong mutuality of success. Local councils would surely wish to be in the vanguard of such enlightened practice. Yet a public debate on the future of Guildford appears to have been launched at a weekday meeting which very few residents knew about, attended by at most around fifty people. As I write this two weeks later, I see the engagement period is now closing. I am sure retail and commercial property interests have been recorded but it seems unlikely that most of us have had time to even become aware of the initiative, let alone contribute to any meaningful debate.
Lastly, that same RSA inquiry re-examined the central role of leadership which will need to shift from a purely competitive mentality towards co-operative stewardship for the longer term. In turn, this will be informed by a much wider and richer set of measures of success than simple financial performance.
So yes, let us indeed seize this opportunity to make Guildford great and start by hosting a genuine and inclusive dialogue about the future we wish to create, a future which would inspire the enthusiasm and energies of generations to come.
Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts