The problem in detail

The Council’s Proposal for Silver Hill, published in November 2020, can be found here.

Below are just some of the reasons why WDB believes that the City Council’s latest proposal for Silver Hill is misguided and may lead to a calamitous outcome.

The chief problem is that the Council is abdicating all responsibility for the future of the site and relinquishing effective and necessary control far too early.

The 2018 Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) took the project a long way forwards, and its key recommendations included 1) parcelling the area into several sites, 2) opening up the waterways, 3) stipulating the maximum heights of buildings, and 4) broadly identifying the uses appropriate to different parts of the overall site.

The Council says that its proposal follows the SPD.  We don’t believe that this is the case, and the Council is ignoring the critical requirement (on SPD page 69) that there should be “multiple developers”, the idea being that this would encourage variety and avert a repeat of the previous homogenous scheme which would have greatly harmed the city centre.

Ignoring this requirement, in Cabinet paper CAB3271, the Portfolio Holder, Cllr Learney, is recommending that Cabinet: “notes the emerging delivery strategy approach is to enter in to a development agreement with a development partner and a further report be brought to Cabinet that sets out the proposal for development in due course”.

The other two recommendations in the same paper request that Cabinet:

“Approves commencement of a period of consultation on the draft Central Winchester Regeneration development proposals from 11th November 2020 to 12th January 2021” and

“Instructs the project team to progress the schemes for Kings Walk and Friarsgate Medical Centre to the next stage of decision making.”

For the potential of a wonderful new quarter in the city centre to be fulfilled, it is essential that the next steps in the regeneration process are directed by a civic-minded body rather than by a developer who, with respect, will be chiefly focussed on the financial return.  The Council is failing to realise that this is not the place to ‘sweat the asset’ but a fantastic opportunity to create something special that will radiate cultural, social and economic benefits across the whole city.

The Council will say that it can achieve the desired outcome by the careful selection of the developer and by retaining effective control via the contract and other means.  We do not believe that to be the case either.

However altruistic the developer the Council chooses is, they will still want to take a profit out of the development, and if they then intend to subcontract elements to other developers the pressure on any scheme to produce a financial return becomes even more intense.

With regard to the contract, the Council seems to fail to understand the limitations of the legal process when trying to structure subjective aspirations into legally binding commitments, and it also lacks the ability to comprehend the constraints of the planning system which we have all seen overwhelmed time and again.

The reality is that, for all its initial efforts at trying to control the outcome, the Council will be so keen to complete the deal and to receive the money that whenever the developer asks to change anything it will, inevitably, roll over.  It has done the same many times before and is now setting up a re-run of the Henderson debacle.

Too much has yet to be resolved, including the still-awaited Movement Strategy.  It makes no sense to dispose of the bus station before it is known how the buses and traffic will be accommodated around the city.  The same applies to the opening up of historic waterways and their role in the prevention of flooding in the city.

Serious questions about the skills of those managing the process on the Council’s behalf are raised by a moment’s consideration of the material recently produced, as compared to that for the SPD.  There is, in our view, an absence of inspiration and sensitivity which doesn’t bode well for the future.  There is also a lack of understanding of the limitations of the SPD which does not, for example, include a design code and which only sets the location of uses in broad general terms.

There is a trust issue caused by statements made by the Council about how their proposal follows the SPD and about the public consultation over the last year.  This wasn’t a consultation.  It was, in our view, a series of monologues.  It is also the case that some of the key individuals managing this project are the same as those who were responsible for the Council acting unlawfully in respect of Station Approach, a situation for which, as with Silver Hill in 2015, the Council has never apologised.

The proposal is also impaired by an apparent democratic deficit.  The Council’s proposal was devised by the Portfolio Holder with officers and external consultants.  We understand that no other councillors were involved in its preparation and that it was presented to them only recently as a ‘fait accomplis’.  The Council now intends that critical decisions about Silver Hill should be taken by just the eight members of Cabinet rather than by the forty-five members of the Council.  This is unprecedented.

Reinforcing this concern, is the Council’s plan to rush through a limited consultation process, which encompasses lockdown and Christmas, and to make decision in February, just ahead of the next election campaign.  The last thing the city needs is for Silver Hill to be made a political issue.

In addition to all the above, the Council is again putting the site’s potentially priceless archaeology at risk of destruction.

The Council claims that a preliminary investigation comprising of a dozen or so boreholes follows planning guidance.  This is disingenuous and, because it refuses to carry out any further exploration, for instance by Ground Penetrating Radar or excavation works, it will have no idea of what Anglo-Saxon or Roman remains actually exist or where they are located.  An independent structural report of the Henderson proposal indicates that nothing left on the site would have survived if their development had gone ahead.  It’s difficult to have any faith in the Council’s ability and desire to monitor the situation, or in the claim that we can rely on the developer to ensure that all archaeology will be preserved in situ.

Moreover, the Council is missing an obvious trick by disregarding the possibility of exhibiting the archaeology.  The vitality of the High Street and the city centre is draining away so why not consider whether the archaeology could create an attraction to support the city’s future economy?  In what used to be the ancient capital of England, the Council’s lack of imagination is dire.

The key point is that the next step after the SPD was to devise a detailed masterplan under the direction of a civic-based body before the site is parcelled out to developers.

If the Council is not prepared to undertake this itself, its best option is to pass that responsibility to a Community Development Corporation or Trust, comprised of excellent local professionals and others concerned for the fabric of the city and its heritage.  Only in this way is there a path to ensure that any development would benefit the city rather than any developer.