Let’s Get Together For Guildford

Dear Sir

I read with great interest and some regret the letters in the Surrey Ad (21st February) setting out criticism of Cllr Mansbridge and Guildford Borough Council – however merited the correspondents may feel their comments were.

The job of balancing the forward-looking process of preparing Local Plans with the backward-looking nostalgia that many residents rightly have for the status quo is tough at the best of times.  Never more than now.

Yes, the Local Plan is years late; yes, there has been a dysfunctional sequence in the process (it surely would have been better to have the debate about how many homes, how much growth and what infrastructure improvements were required BEFORE setting out the list of possible sites); yes, the Council is under siege.

It is worth pointing out that:

  • Guildford Vision Group has been advocating a Master Plan for the town which was to be generated through a cathartic process of ‘conversation’ with all stakeholders, facilitated by professional master planners (allowing the Council and Community to engage openly, objectively and fearlessly in a debate about issues and opportunities) – not a NIMBY approach but a pragmatic approach to ensure the town centre can accommodate much development as it reasonably can – based on a consensus of stakeholders;
  • The Guildford Society has set itself an objective target in responding to the Local Plan process to forensically examine the data and not to weigh into site-specific arguments – not a NIMBY approach but an attempt to ensure that the decisions that need to be taken are made on the basis of sound data and comprehensive analysis. (If the data is good and the analysis is clear and defensible, we should be able to help direct our Councillors and officers to arrive at a sustainable, successful Local Plan that lays the foundation for future generations to enjoy living in Guildford as we do);
  • A number of land owners were approached by the Council in the preparation of the Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment (SHLAA) to see if their sites were available for development; this seems to have triggered development proposals to be brought forward in anticipation of an open door in the Council – which was almost certainly not the intention of the exercise;
  • There is still piecemeal development in the town centre, some of it promoted by the Council and some by private developers.  We urgently need to arrive at a comprehensive plan to allow us to optimise combined development opportunities and resolve long-standing traffic and transport issues;

There really needs to be a positive discussion about Guildford (town and borough) rather than indulge our natural impulses towards negativity and protectivism.  In my view we need a multi-faceted approach.

Guildford Borough Council needs to re-examine the robustness of some of its reports and data – key starting points are methodology and approach to the Green Belt and Countryside Report (GBCS) and the data behind the Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA) – and it should do these from a perspective of both

(A)   establishing how to defend Guildford against premature and inappropriate development proposals that might otherwise seek to use the GBCS and SHMA as a skeleton key to unlock any greenfield site for development – doing so should enable Guildford to rely on some of the protections identified by Nick Boles MP and enshrined in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) – but only if the reassessment is also done…

(B)   to identify where it might be appropriate for development to take place and under what circumstances – this is what the SHLAA set out to do but it left residents with the impression that all those sites were to be developed.

There are times when (perhaps unnaturally) we have to trust our officers and Councillors to do the right thing.  This is, despite my protestations above, NOT the right time to do so without sanction and controls.

The letters page last week alone demonstrates there is both passion and expertise amongst residents which, if used as a force for good could really help the officers and Councillors.

We really need, therefore, to challenge our Councillors to:

  • raise the shutters that too easily come down in the face of criticism;
  • engage positively with the different parts of the community – thinking along the lines that if we have to develop somewhere, WHY NOT have a lively but informed debate about where this should or should not take place; and
  • trust us all to help arrive at a solution rather than try to conjure up a plan in spite of everyone.

I would personally prefer this to be done almost in the manner of a locally-based public inquiry over a few days with a third party facilitator (there are several mediation firms with experience in planning matters) that would allow voices to be heard, cases to be made and should allow us to stick to a Local Plan timescale.

I could not guarantee that everyone would like the results but it would certainly allow the issues to be debated in an organised and pro-active way. It would allow Officers and Councillors to walk tall again in the knowledge they have opened the shutters to ideas, discussions and debate.

One thing is absolutely certain, however. If we allow the Local Plan to be born out of destructive argument and counter-argument we will all be the poorer as a community and we will probably see unwanted developments slip in through the back door. I know it seems counter-intuitive, but let’s harness the emotion and expertise and work together for Guildford’s future.

Julian D S Lyon
Onslow Village
Guildford