Flooding, a possible cinema, barges taking away building waste and affordable homes were all debated by Guildford councillors as they made a decision on the former Debenhams site in the town.

The borough council’s planning committee narrowly approved the plans for 185 homes on the site of the old department store.

As part of the redevelopment, a riverside walkway will be created around the site, though an application for a bridge to the Yvonne Arnaud theatre has been withdrawn.

The plans were approved by six votes to five, with two abstentions at Tuesday’s meeting (November 22).

Council documents show a cinema could be included in the development, underneath a garden area which would be for use only by residents.

But officers advised councillors not to imagine an Odeon-style cinema in the complex.

‘Boutique cinema like the Everyman’

John Busher, the borough council’s case officer for the application, said: “This is going to be one of the more boutique cinemas that you see around the country, the likes the Everyman, that kind of operation.

“In terms of the number of seats, that will be up to the applicant to sort out the internal arrangements but it certainly won’t be a massive Odeon that you probably have in your head at the moment.”

Planning conditions were included on any future cinema, that it would not open to the public until screening times and other measures had been agreed and approved in writing by the council.

With the number of homes reduced from the originally-planned 215 to 185, just five affordable homes will be included in the development.

Developers said a viability assessment did not allow for any affordable homes but they would nonetheless be including five one-bedroomed homes as affordable.

A follow-up assessment had been carried out on behalf of the council by BNP Paribas, after the number of homes overall was reduced.

They advised the council to put in place reviews to the section 106 agreement, where money is given by developers for facilities relating to a project, after the sales and costs had been established.

Section 106 agreements for the scheme come to more than £3m, according to officers.

Their report said: “The proposed scheme has been adjusted to remove a number of private sale units.

“This, along with overall increases in build costs now render the proposed scheme as unviable and therefore unable to provide any affordable housing on site, even with the sensitivity testing as per our previous assessment.”

The site, which was bought by the applicant in December 2020 for £20 million, will be redeveloped to include a pocket park and public square, and will be built in materials that will reflect the surrounding buildings including the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre and the Guildford Castle.

‘Council must grasp the nettle and see homes are needed’

Cllr Christopher Barras said the council was going to have to “grasp the nettle” and recognise that homes and sustainability were needed, but weighed up the few affordable homes against the increased public space to be created.

He said: “[It’s] always wonderful to have a few more affordable houses, in as much as affordable is a definition of affordable in this area, but on the other hand, something like bridge is all part of opening up the riverside to thousands of people.”

“A few people benefit from some increases in affordable homes, but having a bridge will add enjoyment, open up the area for thousands of people.”

The river also came into the debate when Cllr Ramsey Nagaty (Guildford Greenbelt Group, Shalford) said it had been suggested that Broadford Bridge in Shalford be used as for construction traffic, despite not being wide enough for a car and a lorry to pass.

He said: “A solution may be found possibly in using barges on the river to move the demolition waste, and I would hope that that can be considered.”

Despite originally objecting to the plans, the Environment Agency had since been satisfied the applicant had resolved the issues relating to the flood risk of the site and the surrounding area, with conditions put in place for this.

Cllr George Potter highlighted the health care contribution from developers being reduced from the £114,000 requested to £100,000, a £200,000 request from the county council towards a cycle link between Guildford  and Godalming reduced to £100,000 and just five affordable homes being provided.

He said: “We have a number of items there which are in the local plan as significant considerations: affordable housing provision, playing field and play space provision, sustainable transport provision, health care provision.

“All of those things appear to be being shortchanged within the section 106 contributions.

“We have £1m here for opening up the riverside despite the fact this does not appear to be a priority within the local plan, and especially not towards a bridge which of course was the original impetus for this suggestion of having this million pounds earmarked.”

Council documents show the £1 million could be used by the council to open up the front of the Millbrook car park and give access to the river, riverside walks by Millbrook Lock, along the front of Portsmouth Road car park and to improve the riverside route by the Electric theatre.

The meeting heard that a number of late letters had been submitted, 33 in support of and four objecting to the plans, adding to the 149 and 189 previously received, respectively.