Next Tuesday Guildford Borough Council’s Planning Committee will decide whether to grant planning permission for a retail led mixed use development on the Bellerby Theatre site. The principal component is an out of town format (trolley-based) Waitrose foodstore with 168 surface car spaces accessed by a new traffic light junction half way up York Road between Woodbridge Road and Stoke Road.
In many ways the decision to be made by the Planning Committee next week draws comparisons with the decision the Executive Committee were asked to make on 6th September to adopt the Interim Town Centre Framework in which the Bellerby Theatre site also featured.
In both cases a single planning officer has waded through lengthy and conflicting representations made for and against the particular proposal and came up with a recommendation in a report to the Councillor decision takers. In both cases the electorate, the vast majority of whom have qualifications or experience other than that related to planning, have been presented with the product of many months work and expected to comprehend that product and respond to it in a matter of days. In both cases the opportunity for concerned residents and local traders to have their say is restricted to a few slots of three minutes at the relevant committee hearing.
Whilst the proposed adoption of the Interim Town Centre Framework just involved the Council as local planning authority, the grant of planning permission on the Bellerby Theatre site also involves the Council as landowner. This is because the Council owns the Bellerby Theatre site and has contracted to sell this community asset for several millions of pounds, provided Waitrose is granted a satisfactory permission for a foodstore. In the purchase contract Waitrose has also stipulated the amount of planning gain they are willing to accept and deliver to the community.
Guildford Vision Group has objected to the grant of planning permission for a foodstore and has expressed concern about the way the inherent conflicts of interest of GBC as vendor and planning authority have been handled. Whilst GVG very much looks forward to seeing a basket-based Waitrose foodstore in the core town centre, a trolley-based foodstore accessed from York Road on an edge of central site, allocated for housing in the 2003 Local Plan, represents bad planning.
It is widely accepted that Guildford’s economic success and its attraction as a place to live is being stifled by lack of affordable housing and traffic congestion. At a stroke the Council, by granting itself planning permission for a foodstore, will not only a) reduce the number of affordable housing units previously planned and previously existing on the site b) waste valuable urban land for surface car parking, it will also materially add to Guildford’s biggest problem, which is traffic.
Guildford Borough Council’s planning department is keen to be recognized as a professional team. This is the perfect opportunity for them to turn away from bad planning and make a proper professional recommendation. The Officer’s report casts serious doubt on that claim of professionalism.
The Councillors will have to balance the planning decision for a controversial scheme which could set dangerous precedents for the treatment of other development sites (see Solum’s planning objection, for example) against refusal that would go counter to the planning officer’s 69-page recommendation. Refusal will likely delay the receipt of capital proceeds to the Council.
Although the Report has only been published a few hours before this letter was written, nowhere do we see reference in it to the Localism Act and its detailed provisions for community empowerment. The approach taken to bringing the planning application to decision is at odds with those provisions.
Nowhere do we also see any consideration given to the impact the grant of planning permission will have both in itself and as a precedent on the ability of the Council to bring forward a holistic new Local Plan for the town. This the Council intend to do in the early New Year. There are many examples of local planning authorities deferring, if not refusing, foodstore applications on the grounds of prematurity, as happened to Waitrose just eight weeks ago in Malmesbury. Why no deferral here, when we know the grant of planning permission will make it much more difficult to plan the regeneration of North Street, yet alone find an innovative solution to removing traffic from the town centre?
But most importantly, unless special rules apply to Council-owned land, the grant of planning permission will send a signal to the property world that it’s open house in Guildford. If the Interim Framework Document was intended to safeguard Guildford from the growth agenda implicit in the National Planning Policy Framework published in March then this is the message to be taken from the Officer’s report, now the Council has canned the Interim Framework. That message has already been heard by Solum, who has written indicating that if Waitrose can have a supermarket on the Bellerby Theatre site it will expect to have a 35,000 square foot supermarket in the station car park fronting Walnut Tree Close.
These are some of the messages GVG would have liked to deliver to our elected representatives personally next Tuesday but the Committee Chairman has declined its request to speak.
Director, Vision for Guildford Ltd