I write with reference to the Council’s invitation to respond to consultation on the Town Centre Masterplan. (www.Guildford.gov.uk/towncentremasterplan).
My proposition can be stated simply: Guildford is currently falling a long way below its potential, and the opportunity should be taken now to have an imaginative plan prepared that will raise its standing in the eyes of residents and the world.
Guildford has great assets: it has a beautiful downland setting; its origins go back at least to Saxon times and it has many historic buildings and attractive quarters; it is the county town of Surrey. It is a prosperous town, and generally recognised as a good place to live. It hosts a number of global businesses; and was famously ranked 12th best place to live in the UK by a Channel 4 programme in 2007.
The problem is that the physical fabric of the town overall is uninspiring, and it lacks any significant profile beyond the local area. This is well illustrated by the images used by the Council as part of the consultation exercise: the sheet entitled “What are your priorities?” summarises in 20 images how surprisingly poor so much of the physical fabric is, and reminds the reader that most of the deficiencies are deep rooted, and not just superficial.
Towns of comparable size such as Harrogate and Chester are known world-wide, and attract visitors to see their buildings, public realm and attractions. Guildford, by contrast, has little profile, and little to attract visitors. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the town has repeatedly been rebuffed in its attempts to secure city status.
Guildford needs transformative change. This will not happen quickly, and is particularly difficult to contemplate in a time of economic stress. However, it will only happen at all if we have a plan to capitalise on the town’s assets and provide us with a 10, 20 or 30 year vision, satisfying growth aspirations, sustainability, traffic management and other objectives in a way which enables both the public authorities and the private sector to pick up the reigns and deliver over time.
Now is the ideal time to be defining a vision. The Coalition Government has made it clear that it is removing the top-down planning system of the past. Ministers have stressed repeatedly that now is the age of localism, and that this means empowering local Councils and communities to express their aspirations and to take control.
Guildford Council, having long resisted regionally imposed targets, should seize this opportunity with enthusiasm, and produce a visionary plan that gives everyone something to aspire to and takes us away from the “same town” quality that has increasingly gripped Guildford in recent decades.
THE WAY FORWARD
Whilst I have every respect for our Council planners, I do not consider such a vision can be delivered by overworked local officials and even asking Joe Public to respond to surveys is uncertain in outcome.
To inject new thinking, we need the Council to be bold and organise an international competition to select a leading town planner to produce new visions for the town.
They can be briefed to celebrate the best of Guildford – the High Street, the Castle, the River Wey – but to conserve these assets within a much improved contemporary town centre of which we can all be proud. We still want Surrey Hills vernacular – clay tiles, brick, pitched roofs – but with squares, fountains, new paved footways (to the River Wey, the station and even to the Cathedral), as well as segregated and improved traffic circulation with easy access to transport and parking.
We need to bring to bear the long experience of those who can identify what is the essence of a beautiful English market town, and can understand what it is that has been successful for instance in York, Bath, Winchester, Oxford and Cambridge – all of which leave Guildford (of which we are so proud) trailing behind with its increasing mediocrity.
A similar approach has been adopted elsewhere, in places as disparate as Croydon and Barnsley, and is generally regarded as having worked well. If organised in the right way, it can be a great mechanism for bringing people together and achieving community consensus as well as producing a planning agenda for everyone to follow.
My inclination would be to give the masterplanners a free hand. However, they would doubtless quickly identify some of the key issues, for example:
- the large areas of under-utilised land between the town centre and the A3, which have the potential to support mixed use development that could animate the town and make it much more sustainable and less car-reliant;
- the opportunity presented by the train station, to enable high density mixed use development and a new west-east link;
- the opportunity to secure John Lewis in the town centre and, if properly planned and managed, to use this as a catalyst to attract other quality retailers.
We now have a great opportunity which I hope can be capitalised upon by council and elected officials to set a long term vision for our town.