Controversial plans to redevelop Guildford’s “eyesore” North Street with more than 450 homes, shops and public space have been given the green light.
Despite just 47 of the planned homes being affordable, this number was higher than put forward in a previously rejected scheme for the largely-vacant site.
Guildford Borough Council’s planning committee approved the plans by 13 votes to two, for the site which sits between the bus station, North Street and Leapale Road.
Woodbridge Road, which runs through the middle of the future development, will be closed up and a pedestrian route will replace it, with public squares and a wellness garden also planned.
Councillors rejected a similar plan to regenerate the area in a knife-edge vote in January, which the developer St Edward has since appealed.
But that appeal will now be withdrawn, after the decision of the planning committee on Wednesday evening (October 11).
The tallest building in the plans, roughly on the site of the current Dominion House, will now be 11 rather than 13 storeys, with the height of the buildings increasing further away from North Street.
Jack Nicholson, St Edward’s land and development director, said the 471-home application had received 16 objections and 193 letters of support.
He said since the previous scheme was refused, the developer had worked with Surrey County Council to improve the bus station design and had lowered building heights and added more affordable homes.
He added: “The quality of the placemaking, architecture, landscaping, commercial spaces and public realm will create a vibrant new cultural destination in the town.”
But others at the meeting raised concerns about the number of homes being built, the size of the buildings and what it may mean for the future of the town.
Alistair Smith objected to the plans on behalf of The Guildford Society saying the density of the homes was “more suited to a city location” and raised concerns about setting a precedent for similar developments in the town.
He said the development could influence the town for several hundred years and “more carefully considered” design was needed to avoid things such as the “dull” largest building.
Mr Smith added: “The character of Guildford attracts businesses, shoppers, visitors and residents.
“It is the economic foundation of our successful town, we lose it at our peril.”
The homes will be mostly one and two-bedroom apartments, with 59 three-bedroom homes.
The affordable homes will be made up of 31 at an affordable rent, and 16 shared ownership homes.
Another public speaker, John Harrison, said he was “really disappointed” there would be no review during the course of the development to see if more affordable homes could be added.
He said the 47 homes meant “a few people will get 10% off their rent and a few more will get a slightly cheaper flat”.
Mr Harrison said: “The developer is now free to make unlimited profit over the 10 or more years it will build.
“The professionals will tell you that they’ve done their best, but they said that last time.
“Ten per cent [affordable housing], and no more, cannot justify rampant overdevelopment. It sets a precedent for others and will swamp the town.”
On the “controversial” application, one councillor said there was a danger of the committee adopting a “‘something must be done, anything is better than nothing’ state of mind”.
Councillor Richard Mills (Conservative, Castle) who voted against the application, said this was the “worst basis” on which to make a decision, and was also against the process needed to take a planning decision.
With worries about density, affordable housing and the height of buildings, he told the meeting: “We are already a crowded town with heavy pressures on infrastructure in every sense, and our first obligation should be just to have limited development that meets the needs of those in the town.”
Responding to one public speaker who said the “overcrowded, bland and boring” buildings could impact on residents’ mental health, Cllr Maddy Redpath (Residents for Guildford and Villages, Castle) said she had grown up in Guildford.
She told the meeting: “I’ve walked around a derelict site for 28 years, so that’s not been particularly cheerful either.”
Cllr Howard Smith (Labour, Westborough) said there was a danger the site would continue to be a “huge blight on the town” if the application were not approved.
He said: “There’s one thing we can all agree on with this site. It is an absolute eyesore.
“It’s a disaster area in the centre of Guildford and it’s been there for 20 or 30 years and we need to do something with it.”
Speaking after the meeting, Cllr George Potter (Lib Dem, Burpham), the lead member for planning at Guildford, said he was “proud” of the committee for doing a job which was “not an easy one”.
Describing the application as a “controversial” one that would “shape the future of the town centre for decades to come” he said it was clear “many councillors felt torn”, on the application, despite the improvements.
Cllr Potter said: “But the committee had to make a decision and they made one based on what they thought was best for the future of our town.
“Now that a decision has been made, regardless of our personal views, we can all focus on working to make the best of it, for local people and for the future of our town.