120413 Master Plan

Letter to Guildford Dragon

Guildford desperately needs to address its traffic congestion (clearly confirmed by the meeting of 150 to 200 people on 21st March launching the Guildford Vision Group) and to create a vision for a better town to meet the needs of all its stakeholders.

The Council’s Draft Town Centre Masterplan, with minimal consultation over the busy Christmas period, has been widely criticised as “woeful”, “badly researched”, “lacking any vision” and “fundamentally flawed” – mainly because it did nothing to address congestion and the impact of traffic routes on pedestrian access between the station, the town, the river and elsewhere.

Perhaps having a plan approved by a Council Executive I have previously criticised for its lack of transparency, is more about selling off Council-owned (actually our) town centre sites, and triggering quick-fix solutions such as the Bedford Road bus station idea and the Waitrose supermarket land sale! (For those unaware, a sale of the Bellerby Theatre and surrounding land to Waitrose has been rushed through before the Council even had the chance to grant itself planning permission – although it did publish a planning brief to convert less lucrative residential use to a ‘preferred’ supermarket use without any reference to traffic generation or solutions).

The Planning Brief for the Bellerby Theatre site does state that that the draft Town Centre Area Action Plan is “being afforded no weight in determination of planning applications”  – so now they have to get some sort of Town Centre Masterplan through quickly to provide a valid planning context for the Waitrose scheme.  So what of the Draft Local Masterplan?

Guildford’s Principal Policy Planner last week indicated that the Council is going to appoint Urban Design Consultants, staggeringly, not to start again but only to finalise the ‘useful’ document and “in particular to work on its presentation including its maps and diagrams.”  The draft plan did not fail in any of these matters specifically; it failed through a dearth of basic and up to date research, a lack of any investigation of traffic engineering solutions; it failed on transparency, community involvement and through an absence of any vision at all.

But wait! These new revisions are only going to delay the plan by two months. From my professional experience I know this is barely long enough to get started, so where is the brief for this external planning appointment that can redesign Guildford in two months?  So, for the sake of indecent haste, we can expect the plan to be ‘garbage in and garbage out’ – but with better plans and diagrams!

Fixing the problems with the original document would normally take at least 9-12 months as these firms like to engage with the public as part of their work – and we can be sure this new document (passed off as amendments to the draft) will not be open properly to public scrutiny before the Executive hastily adopts it in July.

The Government are increasingly encouraging (and enabling) communities take on a greater role in such matters – and for very good reason.  Perhaps our rather secretive Chief Executive (who can sell off the Council’s prize assets and retire back home to South Oxfordshire without ever again having to think about the traffic chaos he will have left behind) is keen to get this plan in place before the community has the chance to fully organise its neighbourhood response!

The Council also now says that actually it was not a masterplan as such and that they now want to call it a ‘town centre framework’ – whatever difference that makes. Furthermore, as they have not done the research, they intend to call it ‘interim’ – to be reviewed next year.  Why could they not just publish the plan after due process in a year’s time? This seems to back up my (perhaps cynical) view that the Council Executive needs to have an adopted plan in place to legitimise the change of zoning of residential sites and sell them off to supermarket operators with the minimum of public scrutiny (if any!).

I am not opposed to Waitrose (or John Lewis for that matter) coming to Guildford, but I cannot stand by and watch; residents, shoppers, businesses and visitors are going to experience the biggest growth in traffic movements in the town centre for a decade if the Council’s Executive banks the Waitrose cheque, allows 350 apartments, another supermarket and a 9-storey hotel on top of the station and pursues another 250,000 square feet of retailing on the Friary extension whilst everyone directly involved continue with their mantra – “Traffic? That is for others to sort out!

Come on Guildford Borough Council, start again; do it properly and transparently.  Promote a publicly agreed brief, a tender for external master planners and traffic engineers and full consultation and engagement with all the stakeholders in Guildford – including the residents, visitors, shoppers, business community, the University, the Science Park, the Cathedral and the Hospital.  This fudged framework document is not going to keep me quiet and I suspect many others share my passion and concern.

Guildford’s next 50 years are too important for a handful of officers and the Executive of the Council to keep possession of all decisions to themselves in this way.

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