The battle to save Winchester

Hampshire's finest cathedral city is under threat from development

One of the requirements of the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is that local authorities should promote competitive town centres the results could soon be seen on a high street near you. To some, this burst of activity will seem a welcome example of urban renaissance; last year, the Portas Review highlighted the dire state of many traditional town centres, reduced to pound stores and charity shops by the consumer preference for out-of-town and internet shopping.

In April, a £1 billion package of Government support came into effect, largely in the form of reduced rates. Redevelopment of ‘unattract ive backland’ in Guildford should, in theory, offer shoppers a gleaming new retail experience to tempt them away from retail parks and computer screens. In practice, however, existing local businesses are rarely enchanted by the prospect of competition, often from large retailers and supermarkets.

However, as ruthless expansion of big supermarkets seems to be faltering, in the face of Tesco’s falling profits, it may be that some projects should be revisited. Campaigners such as Civic Voice, the successor to the Civic Trust, believe that a multiplicity of small shops is healthier than the dominance of major brands. It also offers consumers a genuinely different, local choice.

In many places, passions are running high. At Winchester, they’ve reached boiling point. The Tory councillor Kim Gottlieb is so incensed by a scheme to redevelop the rundown area around Silver Hill that he’s pursuing a judicial review against his own (Tory) local authority, Winchester City Council. His wife, Nicky, grew up in Winchester and he feels passionately that this ancient city, Alfred the Great’s capital, should be treated with the sensitivity appropriate to its historic status. Prof Robert Adam, of Adam Architects, whose office is in a medieval tithe barn just outside the old city walls, agrees. ‘I know of no other historic city in Europe that would be developed in this way,’ he says.

Although Winchester is only one of many cities to have caught the eye of developers no doubt there will be yet more if the economic upturn continues it is by far the most important and, alas, a textbook example of how not to achieve the best result.

The story begins in the late 1990s, when the council formed the laudable ambition of upgrading the Silver Hill area, whose charms include a defunct multi-storey car park and an old bus garage. In 2003, it developed a planning brief, stipulating that this five-acre site should not be monolithic, but designed by several hands and that buildings should be no higher than four storeys.

Six years later, Thornfield Properties received planning permission for a scheme that included a new bus garage and affordable housing. Thornfield then fell victim to the financial crisis and was bought by Henderson Global Investors, the same company whose plans for Smithfield Market in London were halted by Eric Pickles this summer.

Henderson has been awarded planning permission for buildings that, in places, rise almost as high as the cathedral nave. Critics believe that the designs, all by Allies and Morrison, lack the variety that makes the adjacent streets so delightful. It’s also feared that the presence of big retailers will degrade what is said to be the oldest high street in northern Europe. If visitors want superstores, they can find them nearby in Basingstoke or Southampton.

Mr Gottlieb is fuming: ‘What irks me so much is that we have a wonderful opportunity to build something really worthwhile, that might be appreciated in decades and centuries to come, that is interesting and special to Winchester. Instead, it’s all being sacrificed for a heap of identi kit shopping that simply isn’t needed.’

His views chime with those expressed to The Hampshire Chronicle. One correspondent writes: ‘This scheme will ruin the centre of our wonderful city, both visually through overshadowing it with a looming, intimidating structure and through the fact that the commercial success of the scheme must depend upon the failure of our high street. To say that it should go ahead because it has taken so long to plan is a ridiculous argument. Regeneration is needed, but not until the plan is right it has taken much more than 17 years for Winchester to become the city it is, and the current plan would ruin it forever.’ It’s difficult to find any member of the public who has commented favourably.

None of this, however, affects the judicial review. That will turn on the technical question of whether Winchester City Council followed the correct procedure when the Henderson scheme was procured. Mr Gottlieb contends that, because it’s significantly different from the original Thornfield proposal, it should have been tendered again. On this fine point, the future of Winchester will be decided by a High Court judge.

If the judicial review is upheld, advocates for the redevelopment of Silver Hill may despair; they may feel that the present scheme is the only one that offers a chance of getting Silver Hill improved for a generation. To conservationists, however, the setback would give breathing space to devise a new scheme that takes account of Winchester’s historic character. This could offer a greater draw to leisure shoppers, who want to soak up the ambience of an ancient city while enjoying specialist shops.

It could also offer a fine example for the other towns contemplating redevelopment rather than an awful object lesson in what to avoid.

This article was originally published in Country Life, September 17, 2014