I write with reference to the public consultation on the draft Town Centre Masterplan prepared for Guildford, which ends this Monday 23 January (www.Guildford.gov.uk/towncentremasterplan).
As a local resident, and someone involved in the property industry, I am deeply concerned about the quality of this document, and the missed opportunity if not detrimental effect it could have on our town over the next 20 years.
Guildford is an attractive and prosperous town, surrounded by rolling countryside and blessed with many fine historic buildings. But there is so much room for improvement – the town centre is blighted by traffic congestion, and effectively cut off from the railway station, cathedral and university. The River Wey is a completely underutilised asset, overlooked by surface car parks, derelict sites and poor quality industrial units. There is a pressing need to consider public transport accessibility, town centre improvement and the myriad of other issues that are holding Guildford back from achieving its true potential – to rank alongside Bath or Cambridge.
What we need to address this is a truly visionary Town Centre Masterplan . I fear the current draft tabled by Guildford Borough Council to be sadly inadequate on nearly every level. I cannot call it well-researched, or considered or having vision. As a consequence if right our town could suffer two further decades of mediocre, piece-meal development. I urge local people to study the proposals and write appropriate representations if Guildford is important to you.
What might be your concerns having looked at other such plans (see Wokingham as an example)
A Masterplan is not just a document containing proposals that set out and control change in an area, it is also the process by which organisations (in this case Guildford Borough Council) undertake analyses and prepare strategies that inform change. Recent government legislation (the Localism Act and the draft National Planning Policy Framework) are concerned with decentralising government power, and placing decision-making back into the hands of local communities – allowing them much greater influence over their neighbourhoods, towns and cities. These new policies present the people of Guildford with a golden opportunity to take responsibility for the future of the town centre and ensure they get the type and quality of development they and the town deserves.
While I appreciate that some effort has been made by the Borough Council to involve local people in creating the Masterplan, you might feel this has been weak in comparison. Other programmes of stakeholder engagement allow local people to fully participate in the process, with Steering Committees and Focus Groups helping to drive the masterplanning agenda, in a manner reflecting the true spirit of Localism. Your draft Town Centre Masterplan has been largely the result of an internal process at the Borough Council, put out for public consultation over the Christmas period for a short time when most people are rather busy with other commitments to comment.
Research & Analysis
A Town Centre Masterplan that sets urban strategy for 18 years should be based on excellent research and analysis. Evidence of this in the draft document is light. At a most basic level you would expect analysis of the challenges the town might face externally over the next two decades, such as the threat posed to High Street shopping by the Internet, shifts in patterns of working, or the rising levels of environmental sustainability being set by the government. Other issues you might have expected to see include:
- mapping showing Guildford in its context within the county, with London or the rest of the South East; the Centre serves a wide area.
- There is a history of the town in the Appendix, but no conclusions are drawn regarding what makes Guildford the place that it is – what is locally distinctive or special about our town, and therefore what should be done to preserve or enhance this;
- The unnecessary and worrying timescale of your masterplan means G B C are relying on population figures and other data from 2001 Census, despite the 2011 information being available in Spring 2012, which we are told ‘if possible’ will be used in the final Masterplan;
- One might have expected an analysis of the town’s distinctive topography, the influence this has on the nature of the place, and the relationship it creates with the surrounding countryside in terms of views, landmarks or skyline;
- Given the problems facing the town one might have expected an analysis of vehicle movement, identification of congestion areas, or identification of existing bus and cycle routes. Traffic is our number one issue and it is surely addressed somewhere?
- A parking study is being undertaken, in early 2012. I wonder if this might inform the draft Masterplan;
- Landscape open spaces areas are merely identified and described rather than investigated for their current role or future potential in the Town Centre offer;
- One piece of analysis might have been relevant -that is on the local economy! The figures presented are five years out of date . I suspect the economy may have changed a little meantime. There is no listing or mapping of local firms and forms of employment;
- Evidence of a cultural audit having been undertaken might be normal or appreciation of the nature or role of the night-time economy;
- Figures given for Tourism are from 2003 – nine years out of date;
- No analysis seems to have been undertaken of the nature of the residential community in the town centre, and how their needs are being met in terms of social infrastructure
Vision & Objectives
Because research and analysis of the existing situation is a mystery, and community/stakeholder engagement limited, the Vision and Objectives of the Masterplan are unambitious and lack any degree of specificity. The proposed Town Centre boundary mostly expands on the existing designation but is not bold enough to capture key future development areas to the north along the river, or create connections with the university or the cathedral, so that a more holistic approach to the non-residential areas of Guildford could be developed.
The Masterplan ‘strategy’ is divided into four different themes: Development, Environmental Improvements, Town Centre Management and Sustainable Living. Because the Vision & Objectives are vague and generic (they could equally apply to Swindon or Basildon), none of the themes approaches a coherent ‘strategy’ demonstrating how the town will move from a current situation to any future identifiable goal.
For the sake of brevity it is not possible to comment on the 25 sites identified for development within the town centre totalling around 14.5 hectares (36 acres). Should all of this come forward over the planning period it would have a major impact on the town, and yet each site is considered individually, with no attempt at ‘joined up thinking’ around the Railway Station, or visionary planning of the River Wey corridor. Do residents really want a new bus station on its banks?
- Environmental Improvements
Although perhaps the best considered aspect of the Masterplan, the proposals for Environmental Improvements lack ambition, and in other places like Scarborough, have been used as part of a raft of strategies aimed at stimulating the economy in lower value parts of town.
- Town Centre Management
This theme includes two strategies, the opportunity for an enhanced market offer in Guildford, and the potential for a Business Improvement District (BID). Given the fact that the structure, remit and funding of the BID is currently being developed, and will not be voted upon until Summer 2012, is it sensible for the Borough Council to adopt a Masterplan before it is clear what impact a BID would have on the future shape and functioning of the town centre?
This section of the Town Centre Masterplan is at best inadequate given the national significance of this issue. Many people will know that Guildford is twinned with the historic city of Freiburg in Germany – but perhaps less will know that Freiburg is recognised as being at the leading edge of sustainable urban planning in Europe. It is unfortunate that to date the opportunity seems to have been missed to engage with Freiburg, and learn from their considerable experience.
People can embrace change in the town centre – but only if it is for the better – magnificent new buildings, excellent streets and squares, access to the countryside, new public spaces, high quality retailing, residential and commercial office space, unique cultural attractions, and well integrated public transport facilities – all carried out in a manner sympathetic to the existing scale and character of Guildford.
To achieve this kind of development, and a step-change in the profile of the town, we need a visionary Masterplan created through a large-scale process of public engagement (Collaborative Planning). To do this the Borough really needs to appoint a highly skilled masterplanner (plus traffic engineers!) with experience of such processes in towns addressing issues similar to Guildford. Some of these places have used a Charter to enshrine the Key Objectives of the Masterplan, which is then governed by a Town Team, a group of enthusiastic individuals drawn from local businesses, leading institutions, resident associations and special interest groups. To me this sounds like the true spirit of Localism and an approach people might embrace immediately. If a real masterplan takes additional time and money – then so be it – in the bigger picture it will be a small price to pay to ensure that every development in the town enhances the quality of the environment, the economy, vitality and national standing of our town.
Everyone who loves Guildford should make representations please on the Town Centre Masterplan to the Borough Council before the closing date on Monday 23 January.
Whilst it is hard to compare the draft document if you have not seen other towns superb plans but perhaps just ask yourself this: Is this good enough? or should we have a greater sense of ambition? Do we want to be considered alongside Chichester Bath and Cambridge or nowhere-ville? Our wonderful town has been in existence for over 1000 years – let’s not allow it to decline under our stewardship. Together with GBC let’s raise our aspirations for