The Egham Residents' Association broadly supports this planning application. We also have a number of concerns about it, however – including serious misgivings about the height of two of the buildings and about the loss of car parking spaces.
First, the positive points to be made about the scheme:
Many High Streets are struggling, not least because of the growth in on-line shopping. Egham High Street is among them. The opening of the Waitrose supermarket in 2015 failed to give the town centre the big lift that had been strongly suggested would occur. The 'Waitrose effect' did not materialise, and local talk of lots of new shops coming in on the coat-tails of the supermarket proved to lack substance.
There is consequently a continuing sort of sadness to the High St today, and the number of independent retail businesses in it carries on declining.
It is good, therefore, that Runnymede Borough Council has been devoting so much consideration to the rejuvenation of the town centre. The proposals for 'Gateway West' in Station Road North are salient fruits of that, and in principle we applaud and welcome them.
There is considerable excitement in the town, and rightly so, about the proposed cinema – which is a much better idea than the theatre school that was originally to be included. Egham once had two cinemas, and it will be excellent to go back, as it were, to the future.
The proportion of non-student to student accommodation is better than originally planned. Furthermore, we also recognise that, principally with Building A, some considerable effort has been made in design and the proposed use of building materials to create a new landscape that reflects Egham's character as a town that possesses much history and a conservation area at its centre.
If implemented, this scheme – with the retention of retail uses and its ' public realm' features - will provide a substantial enhancement on what is currently in Station Road North.
But it is hard to exaggerate its importance to Egham. This is the biggest town centre scheme here for many a year – perhaps ever – and it is essential to get it right. What is built in Station Road North can be expected to last for the rest of the century, and it would be terrible if not many years pass before substantial numbers of people are saying: – as has been the case for decades about The Precinct - “Why was that ever allowed?”
The main reason why there is a danger of this is the height of Building C (rising from four to seven storeys) and Building B (rising from one storey to six or seven). This is completely inappropriate for “historic” Egham.
Egham is a low-rise town. There is currently no edifice of more than four storeys in the town centre. So this scheme would bring a radically new element to it. Some people feel strongly that the proposals “just aren't Egham”, and we in ERA feel that the repeated assurances from RBC that “you won't finish up with a mini-Woking or mini-Addlestone” have proved not to be worth very much.
It is not just the height of these particular buildings. If they were constructed, they would set a precedent. After Gateway West there will be Gateway East (The Precinct). Would the fact that the latter is in the town centre conservation area be enough to prohibit more seven-storey blocks being proposed in its redevelopment?
There is also the 'High Street North Opportunity Area' (as described in the Draft Local Plan) including, and around, the Tesco site. If RBC were (effectively) to grant itself permission for a seven-story development at Gateway West, what could stop permission being granted for development to the same height in that area?
Car-parking is also an element of major concern in the current planning application. The scheme includes a total of about 200 accommodation units, but also features a net loss of 57 parking spaces. This combination is unacceptable and asking for trouble, and RBC needs to give better answers than it has so far to questions on this subject.
As we have said several times before, we are not opposed in principle to the provision of student accommodation in the town centre. But the student units in Block D of this scheme would add to a wave of such schemes that is causing substantial irritation in the town. How much more of it is there to be? We have looked to RBC, but so far in vain, for some idea of restraint and limitation with regard to this matter. Block D is moreover, bog-standard mediocre in design.
We are not convinced that this building would help to secure a substantial reduction in the number of HMOs in the town's residential streets. We understand that if there proved to be difficulty in filling it, internal alterations could quite easily be made to accommodate non-students. More information about this is needed.
The scheme could be improved in many ways – for example by moving Egham Library into 'Gateway West'. That could facilitate a development on the existing library site that would allow the height of buildings in 'Gateway West' to be reduced without a loss of net income.
We believe these concerns need to be addressed. But, overall, we think the pluses in the scheme outweigh the minuses. So, instead of being “No”, our response is “Yes… but.”