CAMBERLEY TOWN CENTRE: MASTERPLAN AND PUBLIC REALM STRATEGY
Recently the ‘Camberley Eye’ promised that we’d provide a detailed commentary on the substance of the draft supplementary planning document (SPD) that the borough council has just released. Here it is.
But first, a health warning. The SPD probably took quite a few weeks and quite a few thousand pounds to produce. Together with its appendices, it occupies well over a hundred pages. What follows took a couple of hours – and no pounds whatsoever. And it covers about four pages. If you want the definitive, error-free and complete story, you should refer to the SPD itself, and not to what’s written below.
(You’ll find our conclusions at the end of THIS text. If you think what we’ve written is too long, bear in mind it’s only a small fraction of the length of the SPD.
We often have a problem with plans produced by the council. Plans made by commerce, industry, or even households, usually consider costs quite closely. But council plans are different. The word ‘cost’ makes no appearance in the SPD or its appendices. Nor are there any pound-signs. The expectation is simply that the proposals in the document will be paid for largely by those who want to invest in the town. Indeed, one aim of the document is to “outline the improvements for which developer contributions will be sought”, and, as far as we can see, developers are expected to pay for most things.
None of which is wrong. But it’s important to understand the substantial challenge that exists in implementing what the document describes. And, if funding is limited (is it ever NOT limited?) what are the priorities?
Now, looking at the document more closely…
1. The first significant section of the text is titled ‘Context’. As the first part of this is largely factual, and a re-statement of existing council documents, it is generally quite reasonable. Some might argue with the comment that the town is “well connected and within easy commuting distance of London”. Maybe the obelisk – generally invisible from the town centre – should not be described as an “important landmark”. But these are minor quibbles. As is the fact that the Context does rather repetitively point out that the town’s streets are laid out in a grid pattern, and that east-west communication is difficult in the evening when The Mall is closed.
But the ‘Context’ strays from being just factual to outlining improvements. It makes suggestions for improved east-west communication, for improved road junctions, for reduced street clutter, and for more trees (though it’s ironic that the appendices criticise the over-grown trees in Knoll Walk). All perfectly reasonable – it’s just a little difficult to follow the structure of the document at this point.
2. The next section: ‘Town Centre Framework’ is a challenging read in places. Those confounded east-west connections are touched on, according to our rough count, on eight separate occasions. And we really wonder whether a vision of “Reveal the assets; Release the potential; Raise the offer; and Reinforce for the future” has the clarity expected of a public consultation. Which is a crying shame, as this section is full of good suggestions.
Inevitably, we wonder about the ability of the council to deliver everything. For example, ‘Establish a co-ordinated town centre signage strategy’. We’ve been going on for YEARS about the poor quality of signage within the town, yet very little has been done to improve the situation. More ambitiously, there is the suggestion that part of the RMA grounds – including the Staff College – could be opened up to the town. Hmm. And we’ll fight back our doubts about the aim “To encourage people to cycle into the town centre”.
Towards the end of this section, we became particularly confused about structure. So much so we had to go back and look at the Contents page. The ‘public realm’ is included in the sub-title of the SPD, so it must be an important component of the SPD. But it seems to be covered only as a sub-heading of ‘Servicing’ – which in turn is a sub-heading of ‘Movement Framework’ – which is a sub-heading of ‘Town Centre Framework’. There’s no mention of ‘public realm’ whatsoever in the Contents page. However, since the public realm is what pedestrians actually see and experience, this ‘sub-sub-sub section’ deserves much greater prominence. Especially as its emphasis on tree planting, high quality materials and making the High Street pedestrian-friendly is exactly what Camberley desperately needs.
For those with unusual enthusiasm, there is more consideration of the public realm in the appendices. But in the appendices – why there?
3. Opportunity Area Guidance
This is a major section of the SPD. It is subdivided into different opportunity areas.
The London Road Block. The principle of redeveloping the whole area between the High Street and Park Street, from the A30 down to and including the north side of Obelisk Way is familiar territory. But the document contains a few surprises (at least, surprises to the Eye). Firstly, it is proposed that the A30 service road be eliminated, creating a much wider pavement than at present, with trees planted along the central reservation.
Secondly – and this was a real surprise – we quote: “The group of three larger buildings including the former post office building on London Road (137-143 London Road) are an important part of the character of the road. The Council will support schemes which retain the facades and re-use of the building frontages.”
Thirdly, is the size of the proposed anchor store. Though we’ve never thought of it as being a direct replacement for the Allders building, the SPD says: “The anchor store, in particular, should provide continuous active frontages onto London Road, the High Street and Obelisk Way and Park Street.” Wow, that’s big!
Finally, the south side of Obelisk Way will be affected to some extent, with “Part demolition, part-refurbishment of The Bear public house”.
Not a surprise is the prediction that part of the redevelopment will be six storeys high. Support for buildings significantly taller than their surroundings was a late addition to the town’s Area Action Plan. We understand the commercial pressures to ‘build big’, but Camberley is a compact town that needs to keep to a human scale.
The High Street (including the Granary and Knoll Road). This section starts well. We all know that the High Street is tired and that the footpaths between it and Knoll Road are scruffy. So it’s no surprise to see the proposal that everything be upgraded, while retaining the Victorian/Edwardian character. Jolly good.
Initially, the SPD says that redesign of the High Street should “Narrow the carriageway to lessen the dominance of vehicles within the space. Provide a pedestrian priority space. Reduce parking to one side of the street – enlarging the pavement on the opposite side” That sounds a good recipe for horrendous traffic congestion! Virtually the only reason cars are driven down the High Street is to look for a parking place.
But later, the document says: “TWO [our emphasis] options have been developed with varying degrees of pedestrianisation of the High Street. Option A pedestrianises the Northern section of the High Street and increases pedestrian space in the southern section, whilst maintaining access for vehicles. Option B pedestrianises the full extent of the High Street, maintaining service access only. The council is seeking comments on a preferred option”. Option B – the workable option – seems at odds with the previous paragraph..
Pembroke Broadway (including Princess Way, Main Square Car Park, Ashwood House and the former Magistrates Court site). Pembroke Broadway could be improved by tree planting and better pedestrian access to the station. Redevelopment of the station – and of Ashwood House – is proposed… ” Redevelopment does offer the opportunity to provide some residential, retail uses leisure and community uses.”
It’s suggested that part of the car park could be ‘re-clad’ to soften its appearance. (We wonder about the design life of the car park – we’re under the impression that it’s not expected to last all that much longer….) As it happens, the current appearance does not particularly upset us.
Princess Way should become an ‘active’ through route, with the roof currently over part of it removed. At least, we think that’s what’s proposed. The SPD refers to “lifting off the roof over Main Square on Princess Street.” As it’s neither Main Square or Princess Street at that point, we have to guess somewhat. And if we’ve guessed right, it seems a totally daft idea! In wet weather, it means that anyone parking in Main Square car park will have to scurry through the rain to enter The Mall.
Finally, apparently little can be planned at present for the Magistrate’s Court site: “Plans to refurbish the office block to the rear of the Magistrates Court may limit its potential for development in the short medium term.” This seems a rather feeble statement.
Cultural/Civic Quarter – ‘the east of Knoll Road’. This section strikes us largely as general guidance, and broad statements. There’s emphasis on opening up access to Camberley Park and the obelisk, though the demand for this isn’t clear. Challengingly, it is suggested that the current access to the multi-storey car park from Knoll Road should be removed, but no alternative access seems to be proposed. (Inevitably, there are several mentions of east-west connections in the town…)
Although the whole Opportunity Area section of the SPD is titled ‘Guidance’, it goes far beyond that in proposing specific projects (another instance where the structure of the SPD is weak). These are impossible to summarise, so are reproduced here. (Apologies, the tables are difficult to read, especially on a small screen.)
We’ve not been able to find any definition of ‘short-term’, ‘medium-term’, or ‘long-term’, so we have to use our own judgement. (In our experience, ‘long-term’ usually means ‘never’!)
You’ll note that funding sources are either not identified or are usually ‘the developer’. (“S106” roughly equates to ‘the developer’ too).
Overlooking its need for stricter editing, the SPD is generally an excellent document. The future it describes for the centre of Camberley is appealing, and in many instances it sets out much-needed and overdue improvements. Its emphasis on retaining some of the more significant frontages along the A30 is to be positively praised.
So, having largely endorsed and supported what is proposed, here are our four detailed reservations.
– One of the options for pedestrianising the High Street is unworkable. Narrowing the carriageway, reducing parking spaces, but allowing full access to most of the length of the street would lead to disastrous traffic congestion. Only the second option – full pedestrianisation – is workable. (Strangely, the document does not consider other options, such as excluding traffic only at certain times of the day or week.)
– the Bear public house is one of the few ‘old’ buildings left in the town centre. The suggestion that it might be partially re-developed is therefore a concern.
– removal of the roof across Princess Way between Main Square car park and The Mall will mean that drivers/passengers walking between the two buildings will be exposed to the elements.
– A London Road Block redevelopment with a significant six-storey component could dominate what is otherwise a low-rise town centre.
In addition, we repeat our criticism that the SPD makes no attempt to estimate the cost of its proposals – are they affordable? As a result, it does not prioritise any of the projects it proposes (other than on a timescale). If developers are unable to contribute as much as the proposals need, which projects will be axed first?
WHAT CAN YOU – THE READER – DO?
If you’ve managed to read this far, congratulations! Apart from doing nothing, you now may wish to do the following:
Complete the council’s downloadable questionnaire from HERE (Beware, the word-processing and formatting are rather ‘basic’, and our experience of viewing the questionnaire on a tablet was rather depressing.)
We’re not terribly impressed by the content of the questionnaire. Given the comprehensive information in the SPD, asking just four questions seems unambitious.
Question 1 asks for views on the Vision and Principles/Objectives (are principles and objectives the same thing?). This is a pointless question. Everything is now set in stone. Quote from the SPD: ” The principal objectives for the town centre are highlighted in the Camberley TownCentre Area Action Plan (AAP) adopted in July 2014.” It could also add that the adopted AAP sets out the Vision as well. What’s more, it’s difficult – impossible? – to find the Vision and the Objectives quoted in the SPD. The only reasonable response seems to be to save time and say nothing.
Or, come to think of it, are the Objectives the four actions that we quoted much earlier: ‘Reveal the assets; Release the potential; Raise the offer; and Reinforce for the future’? These are, indeed, described as ‘strategic objectives’ in the SPD. They’re just not the objectives in the Area Action Plan. We’re confused – and it seems justified to comment in the questionnaire accordingly.
Question 2, asks about enhancing Camberley’s streets and open spaces. Other than the few reservations we’ve expressed in our Comments, we like what we have read, and our response will be along the lines of ‘Get on and do it!’
Question 2 also addresses the pedestrianisation of the High Street. It states one option as being just to pedestrianise the north of the road, and the other being complete pedestrianisation. (We hope that respondents will vote for the latter!)
Question 3 seems to be closely related to Question 2, asking for views on allocating more space to shops at the north end of the High Street. We can’t find much actual mention in the SPD of shops in that part of the street, so the question seems largely to be about pedestrianising the north of the street.
Question 3 also asks for views on “a reinvigoration of cultural and civic uses to the east of Knoll Road.” Which is a bit odd, as, though increased investment in the theatre and redevelopment of the library are both mentioned, the SPD makes it clear that “The main interventions in this opportunity area will be to improve the physical pedestrian connections to the town centre and the overall quality of the public realm. The emphasis will be more on public realm schemes as opposed to major development.” This doesn’t seem to us like a ‘reinvigoration of cultural and civic uses…’
It’s really only the final part of Question 3 – which asks about improvements to Pembroke Broadway where we get enthusiastic. More trees, better pedestrian access, sorting out the station building – what’s there not to like?! That’s what we’ll support in our response.
Question 4 is the only opportunity to say what you really think. If you agree with ‘Our Conclusions’, above, feel free to express them in the questionnaire.
You have until 24th February to submit your response. But why wait! (Exhibitions in the town centre are planned for the 20th and 22nd January. You might like to delay your response until then.)