DEMOLITION of The Woolmead shopping precinct in East Street looks set to begin within weeks after councillors granted full planning permission for “Farnham’s most hated building” to be replaced with a new block of 138 apartments above more than 4,000 square metres of shops and restaurants.

Kicking off a busy week for Waverley’s joint planning committee - during which councillors have also consented to plans for 94 new homes in Badshot Lea (see page five) as well as fresh amendments to the Brightwells scheme (see page two) - members voted resoundingly in favour of Berkeley Homes’ full planning application for The Woolmead redevelopment on Wednesday, July 25.

The decision means Farnham’s much-maligned contribution to the 1960s’ concrete boom could be bulldozed within weeks, with Berkeley’s development manager Max Gaulton telling the committee “demolition is due to commence in late summer 2018”.

This does mean the redevelopment of The Woolmead will clash with that of the adjacent Brightwells scheme, however, with around 80 HGV movements anticipated per day during the three to four month demolition of The Woolmead, and around 2,000 HGV movements in total expected during the basement excavation phase of around eight months.

It comes after Berkeley Homes, one of Britain’s biggest house-builders, acquired The Woolmead site from previous owners Friends Life Ltd last year - soon after Friends Life itself gained outline planning consent to knock down the current three-storey building and replace it with a new mix of shops, restaurants and up to 96 flats.

Berkeley exhibited fresh plans at 40 Degreez youth centre last November, including a 46 per cent uplift in the number of homes proposed, and again revised its proposals following consultation with council planners and the Design South East design panel.

These latest proposals include a mix of 13 studio, 63 one-bed, 57 two-bed and five three-bed apartments above 4,097m2 of “flexible mixed use commercial floor space”, totalling 11 units.

These will be spread across mainly three and four storeys, with a traditional Georgian-style frontage onto East Street and a more contemporary design overlooking Woolmead Road and Dogflud Way, with three private courtyards at first floor level.

A residents-only basement car park will exceed the number of spaces required by Waverley’s residential parking standards, with the addition of 28 electrical vehicle charging points, plus a further 28 to be enabled for future conversion.

The majority of councillors praised the revised proposals at last week’s joint planning committee, voting through Berkeley’s plans by 18 votes to just one against, with one abstention.

But many members did criticise the absence of any affordable housing in the scheme, in conflict with the 30 per cent requirement contained in Waverley’s new Local Plan.

Officers explained that the applicant had demonstrated that it would not be financially viable to provide any affordable housing, adding this position had been verified by independent assessors.

But Lib Dem councillor Paul Follows demanded to know the criteria by which this decision was reached, and seconded a motion by Farnham Residents councillor Jerry Hyman calling for a deferral of the decision, on the grounds of the scheme’s lack of affordable housing and alleged failure to adhere to the European Habitats Directive.

Andy MacLeod, ward member for the development site and fellow Farnham Residents councillor, also questioned Berkeley’s rationale for omitting affordable housing, commenting: “They are working on a profit margin of £12.3 million on total project revenues of £57m. That is 21.5 per cent, which seems a little bit excessive compared to what I understand to be the general industry guidelines of around 15 to 20 per cent.”

The criticism wasn’t limited to opposition councillors either, as Tory member Mike Band expressed concern that “in accepting this we will be slipping behind our targets to provide affordable housing”, adding “without affordable housing, our communities will not survive”.

However, another Tory member Mary Foryszewski pointed out that, whether considered ‘affordable’ or not, “by size and definition” the influx of smaller apartments proposed by Berkeley Homes at The Woolmead would be “more affordable to the masses” than most so-called ‘affordable’ homes built elsewhere in the borough.

Accordingly, the majority of councillors begrudgingly accepted the advice of officers and defeated Mr Hyman’s motion by two votes in favour to 17 against - instead requesting that, in future, any shortfall in affordable housing be explained to them in advance of the meeting.

Endorsing the scheme, Farnham Town Council leader Carole Cockburn said members must accept “some compromise with big developments” such as the Woolmead, which she referred to as “the most hated building in Farnham”.

“It’s going to be difficult, everybody in Farnham knows it is,” she continued. “But I think at the end of all the development, we are going to have something that is so much better than what is there.”

Mrs Cockburn also secured a commitment to safeguard the public art attached to the existing building prior to its demolition.