High Rise Blues

My wife’s threatening to chain herself to the first concrete mixer that shows up at the site.   The last time she was this animated about a planning issue was twenty years ago when I tried to explain about Tree Preservation Orders.  “You mean they can stop you chopping down a tree in your own garden?”  she had asked me incredulously.  But this time it’s serious.  And it’s on my doorstep.

So – imagine you’re on a train from London, bound for Portsmouth.  As you leave Waterloo further behind there is gradually some greenery between the stations.  Golf courses and playing fields at first, then, after passing Woking, with its tower blocks resembling a Le Corbusier-inspired Parisian banlieue transplanted into the middle of Surrey, there are fields and heaths, real countryside.

A few minutes beyond Guildford, as the train slows across the viaduct before pulling into the next station, you can look across the riverside meadows to the little town of Godalming.  The parish church is by far the tallest building you can see, its 13th century lead spire seeming to reach almost as high as the wooded hills that surround the town.  Indeed if it wasn’t for the winter sunlight glinting on the cars in Crown Court car park you might have been transported back a hundred years.

But soon the church could have a rival.  There are plans for 180 apartments, with an eight storey tower, at the opposite end of the High Street, on what is known as the Godalming Key Site.  And it could very well get planning permission.  Not from the local Council mind you, who have already refused it three times.  But at a previous appeal the Inspector recommended approval, only for the Secretary of State to decide the design did not pay enough attention to local character.   The next public inquiry is in June.

So when the Shard of Glass is rising ever higher into the London sky, 45 minutes away, with apartments on floors 53 to 65, what’s going on?  Join me as you get off the train.  The gabled Bargate stone railway station is separated from the town centre by the River Ock and, with a wooded hillside descending right to the opposite platform, is a very peaceful scene.  It seems to say “This is nowhere near London – you may not even be in the home counties.”  But the notice under the big sycamores in the station car park tells you that parking costs £6 per day after 9 am.  Earlier than that and it’s season ticket holders only.  Yes, this is firmly commuter land.

Descend Mill Lane to the river, where the mill race still roars.  The old mills, now converted to offices, sit opposite ancient timber and sandstone cottages – a clue to the fact that, like a pre-industrial version of Bradford, it was woollen milling which once formed the mainstay of the economy here.  Next to it is Church Street – Godalming’s most depicted location, and not just by local water-colourists.  It also featured in the Cameron Diaz vehicle The Holiday.  This schmaltzy rom-com may not be up there with There’s Something About Mary on her CV, but it did at least pay for the town’s new Christmas lights.

I stand outside the church and try to work out how high it is.  I reckon the tower and spire together are probably about eight storeys.  Maybe a bit more.  Then at the top of Church Street I reach the small Regency market hall known as the “Pepperpot”.  This pinky-white building, with its little cupola bell tower, is as tall as any structure in Godalming High Street, once the main London to Portsmouth Road.

Through traffic is long gone now, and as I stand in the High Street I can see to the wooded slopes that still close the view at each end.  The illusion of a self contained country town would be complete were it not for the standard mix of chain stores and cafes rubbing shoulders with charity shops and surviving independents.  And In Caffe Nero the baristas are Italian, and the customers are using the free wi-fi.

Another couple of minutes walk brings me to what all the fuss is about – the site of the redundant police station.  One of very few modern movement contributions to the town, Pevsner’s Buildings of England describes it as “an ingenious use of a sloping site,” as it is only two storeys high at the top of the slope, with the rest of it on concrete stilts.   Most locals don’t see it as ingenious, more an insufferable eyesore, and will be glad to see the back of it.   However, the new plans have the tallest bit, an eight storey tower, at the highest point of the site, and like the church spire it will appear to reach up to the top of the surrounding hills.  Indeed from many viewpoints it will blot them out completely.  Still, the Local Plan calls for a focal point on that corner, and there is little doubt that this is what is being offered.

Now to be clear, the site isn’t in the heart of historic Godalming.  It sits flanked by supermarket car parks on the busy relief road.  The big stores have tried to disguise themselves as faux tithe barns with gables, tiled roofs and pretend dovecotes, but it is still anywhere town.  Even so the size of the planned buildings has come as a shock.  The Council received 299 objections and one letter of support.

I asked friends and neighbours what they thought.  Most said that the human scale of Godalming was what attracted them to the town in the first place, and this monster wasn’t suitable at all.  They greeted the news that it is supported by CABE, the government-funded design adviser, with angry astonishment.  “I can’t believe they actually came here and had a look” was one of the more repeatable comments.

But when I pop into a High Street pub I get a rather different reaction.  “It’s about time Godalming was brought into the present day,” the publican tells me.  “They should do the same at the other end of the High Street too if you ask me.  It’s dead once you get past the Pepperpot.”

“But isn’t it a bit, well, big?”  I ask.   “No – it would be a landmark – tell people they have arrived in the town.  And we desperately need more housing”.

The planning appeal will be fought over detailed wording in planning policy documents.  Expert witnesses will trade references in the Local Plan to a focal point with the requirement to respect existing local character, and argue over sustainable locations for high density development and the need for a five-year (or is it six now) land supply.  But for many people here the question is rather simpler.  With big blocks of flats going up all over the country at a rate not seen since the 1960’s, should our historic town still have the right to say “no thanks”, just because there aren’t any tall buildings here at the moment?  Is that what localism means?

I end my day chatting to a local architect over coffee.  One of his projects, a modern extension to a listed building, is currently under construction not 100m from the proposed tower.   “I like most of the design” he tells me, “but the tower is just too big.  It can be a landmark just as well at half the size.  It doesn’t have to look old, but it should still maintain the grain of the historic town.   With this we’ll have a little Pepperpot at one end of the High Street and an Italian waiter’s huge pepper mill at the other!”

Will the Planning Inspector take the same view?  We’ll have to wait until June to find out.