Restricting height of tall buildings would create ‘a skyline of little interest’

RESTRICTING the height of tall buildings in Woking town centre will lead to challenges by developers that will be difficult to resist, the borough council’s executive committee was told last week.

It could also cause the limit to be accepted as a minimum number of floors and a collection of tower blocks all the same height, councillors heard.

Tower blocks under construction in Woking town centre

The committee was discussing an officers’ report clarifying the existing guidance on the height and scale of new buildings across the borough, along with the consequences that might follow if heights are restricted.

The report was ordered in December, after the full council accepted a motion from Liberal Democrat Liam Lyons. He had highlighted growing concerns at the number of planning applications being made for large-scale buildings that would change the nature of the town centre.

Cllr Lyons told the executive last week that his request for clarity came out of two years of frustration as a member of the planning committee.

“The committee is being presented with applications for very, very high buildings, which they are uncomfortable with approving,” he said. “Sometimes, they come with officers’ recommendations to approve. The committee usually makes a decision to refuse unanimously, with all parties agreeing.

“The net result is that homes are not being built if the plans are refused. We have to have a policy which the committee is comfortable with, so that we can build something that meets our requirements without building on the Green Belt.”

The Woking town centre skyline as seen from Horsell

He added that the council should not wait to review its tall buildings policy until the next local plan review was due, in 2023, as recommended by the report. This would be “kicking the problem into the long grass”.

Council leader Ayesha Azad denied this would be the case. She pointed out that residents would be able to express their opinions on tower blocks as part of the council’s Big Conversation, which would begin after the local elections in May.

The council’s planning policy manager, Ernest Amoako, said councillors had decided to allow 4,555 homes to be built in the town centre. If it did not approve applications that accommodated that number it would have to specify where else they would go.

“Developers will have a comeback on the council if we do not keep to the plan,” he said. “It is important to continue to look at the town centre for housing.”

He was supported by deputy chief executive Douglas Spinks, who said: “The council has the obligation to have a plan for 15 years and cannot re-word it on the whim of a particular planning committee. The committee must have regard to the policies.

“If we set a height limit it will become a minimum height for developers to apply for and we will have a skyline of little interest,” Mr Spinks added.

Cllr Debbie Harlow pointed out that the target for building affordable homes in the borough was not being met, and just eight had been built this year.

“Does it matter how high the buildings are?” she said. “People are desperate for homes. If they are in the town centre, they don’t need cars and there are green spaces nearby for them to enjoy.”

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