20120914 PropertyWeek Opinion Piece

Retail-led Regeneration of Guildford?

Locals question the thinking behind Guildford’s retail plans

The new National Planning Policy Framework of April 2012, and the Localism Act of 2011, should encourage local Councils to fully engage with knowledgeable and interested local residents.

Apparently this is not the case in Guildford.  A single-issue campaign group is calling for a properly established, professional masterplanning process.  The Guildford Vision Group (GVG) was formed in March 2012 by, among others, John Rigg (Director of Savills Commercial) and Gerald Bland (former property partner of Herbert Smith) in response to a poor plan for Guildford, a thinly-disguised prospectus for the sale of a number of Council-owned properties.

GVG has been trying hard to engage with Guildford Borough Council (GBC) who can easily afford a proper professional master plan which should more than pay for itself.  GBC makes (£6m per year from its car parking and the cost of a comprehensive masterplanning process is likely to be between £500,000 and £1 million – a few weeks of revenue.

Allies & Morrison was brought in by The Guildford Society to help it draft its response to GBC’s original draft master plan, and demonstrated to residents the benefits of a properly-managed, fully-engaged masterplanning process.

In most of the 50 years I have live in Guildford, the retail-led regeneration of part of the town centre has been dreamed of (through boom and bust) – a deteriorating area of short term lets and temporary municipal surface car parking belying the strength of Guildford’s actual and potential role in the retail hierarchy.  The North Street Development Brief (NSDB) proposes an increase in town centre retail footprint by around 60,000 sqm, based on oral advice from GBC’s retail consultant, Cushman & Wakefield without any traffic study or impact analysis.

The regeneration area sits adjacent to the successful Friary Centre (Hermes recently bought out Westfield following a £40m refurbishment) and yet, although, Hermes own most of the properties covered by the NSDB, GBC elected to masterplan this area without them, including placing a major multi-level department store at the highest part of the plan area (10 metres higher than the lowest point) on land outside Hermes’ ownership – thought to have been earmarked by C&W for John Lewis.

It is not only for topographic or townscape reasons but also on economic grounds that this location is inappropriate.  Retail value contours across shopping centre developments show that anchor tenants should be located where, by attracting destination shoppers, they increase footfall and consequently raise the demand for remaining shops.

Hermes, in a clear demonstration of intent, recently acquired an office building ‘Dominion House’ at precisely the spot (on the lowest part of the site and at a visible focal point for car-borne shoppers) where the department store anchor should probably be located.

GBC, advised by C&W (appointed as advisers to GBC in 2009 without having to bid competitively[1] despite its retaining instruction from John Lewis Partnership around the UK) has also conditionally sold an ostensibly residential site in the designated town centre for an out-of-town-format Waitrose supermarket despite demand from a number of residential developers. This is not what I think of as community-led regeneration and it seems to fly in the face of the Government’s Localism agenda. It will simply not allow Guildford to contribute to growth or the UK economy in the way it should.

Guildford is beautiful in so many places largely due to the actions of our 18th and 19th century predecessors, but in the past forty or fifty years there has been a complete absence of strategic planning – with predictable consequences.

Guildford recently featured at the top of a survey of the least affordable places to live in the UK and much of this is due to a shortage of supply of residential sites for which the ‘Waitrose site’ was perfectly suited[2].

A recent report by TomTom® placed Guildford as the 12th most congested town in the country and 42nd most congested in Europe[3] – and a disjointed public transport infrastructure where trains and buses do no link up and where visitors are forced to navigate narrow pavements around part of the gyratory system (where traffic takes precedence) to get from the station to the town all need to be resolved.

The Cathedral, the University of Surrey (UniS) and International Research Park, one of only three university-owned research parks in the country, are poorly served by the town, having no coherent link or gateway from the centre.  UniS has almost 18,000 students (from 140 nationalities) and more than 2,500 staff and its Research Park is home to the world’s largest satellite engineering group and Europe’s largest mobile communications research group along with around 140 other companies.  Despite generating well over £1bn for the regional economy, UniS struggles to overcome the town’s infrastructure issues.  The town has struggled to retain Corporate headquarters due to a lack of housing for staff and poor traffic infrastructure.

At about the same time as GBC was planning to adopt the NSDB and an Interim Town Centre Framework, the British Council for Shopping Centres (BCSC) was holding its conference in Liverpool on 10th-12th September.  The base retail evidence on which the NSDB is founded, acknowledges that, “unlike its competing centres, Guildford has not seen any new shopping development since White Lion Walk opened over 20 years ago” (Roger Tym & Partners, 2011). I was astonished, therefore, in the absence of recent development progress and against a backdrop of masterplanning myopia in Guildford, to find that GBC’s Chief Executive along with Alistair Parker, GBC’s development adviser from C&W and the Property Director for John Lewis Department Stores (who withdrew from the session), were sharing a platform on the topic: “All is not lost, retail-led regeneration is alive!”.

Without a rethink, the heralded retail-led regeneration of Guildford may well stall again, and it is clear that GBC has neither tangible experience of bringing forward a comprehensive development scheme nor the will to bring about the coherent and inclusive masterplanning of a great historic town.

Article contributed by Julian D S Lyon MBA FRICS

Julian Lyon is Manager, European Real Estate for General Motors by day, and is a member of the Guildford Vision Group (the campaigning name of Vision for Guildford Limited) and former Chair of the CBI Property Group.

Background information:

GVG website:  www.guildfordvisiongroup.com

GBC website: www.guildford.gov.uk

Draft North Street Development Brief:   www.guildford.gov.uk/CHttpHandler.ashx?id=12431&p=0   

Interim Town Centre Framework: http://www.guildford.gov.uk/Guildfordinterimtowncentreframework

Guildford Dragon: www.guildford-dragon.com

[2] “Guildford topped the list of unaffordable homes, coming ahead of Cambridge, Oxford and London, which made up the top four.

“The town was also rated second, after London, in the list of most expensive places to rent, with tenants able to afford 23% of rentable properties compared with 20% in London.

“This means that, according to the research carried out by Adzuna.co.uk, it is harder to find affordable homes to rent than to buy in Guildford.

“The South East as a region was also shown to have the lowest ratio of affordable homes with couples on average salaries only able to get a mortgage for 46% of the available properties.” (Surrey Advertiser 17th August 2012) and…

“the most affordable locations to buy and rent are available to those who can break free of the herd. Research by the job and property search engine Adzuna.co.uk shows that the most affordable places to buy, based on local salaries, are Hull, Glasgow and Dudley. The least affordable are Guildford, Cambridge and Oxford.” (The Times 17th August 2012)

[3] “BUMPER-to-bumper gridlock along roads such as Ladymead means Guildford is rivalling major international cities in the traffic stakes, after being labelled the 42nd most congested city in Europe.

“The dubious accolade puts the town ahead of Cologne, Germany’s fourth largest city, whose population of around one million people is 15 times larger than that of Guildford’s with 66,773.

“The new figures also mean the town has been named the 12th ‘most congested city’ in the UK, beating Liverpool and Leicester.

“The annual table was compiled by satnav company TomTom, which calculated it by working out the percentage of main roads suffering regular congestion.

“In Guildford in 2011, 20% of the 205km of main roads that were researched were found to regularly have traffic jams.” (Surrey Advertiser June 11th 2011)

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