I love living and working in Winchester. I love its narrow streets, its historic buildings, its small scale.I love the way every corner you turn in the city centre offers a delight to the eye.
Unlike, say, Southampton, a city I've also loved for 30 years, Winchester has avoided both the demolition by war and even greater destruction by developers. In trying to look to the future, Southampton planners have approved many large bland buildings and missed pretty much every opportunity to provide something iconic.
Probably the last building of architectural significance to be constructed in Southampton was the Wyndham Court flats and we all know that example of brutalist design is not to everyone's taste. I remember walking the comic Dave Allen from the station to The Mayflower where I worked and seeing him do a double take when he saw the grade II listed flats. 'Whoever built those should be made to live in them,' he quipped.
Winchester planners have precisely the opposite responsibility, that of not messing up a thousand years of history. They stand on the shoulders of giants but in recent years their track record is one of midgets. The last major development, The Brooks Shopping Centre, is universally loathed as a building and regarded as a white elephant.
Now once again Winchester Council is being tested. The five acres known as Silver Hill, in the south east, form the ugliest and most run-down part of the city centre. So the current buildings, including such monstrosities as the Friarsgate Car Park and the Bus Station, are being razed to the ground. No-one would defend the current buildings as in any way appropriate to the historic city. The problem is, what kind of replacement is appropriate to the historic city?
The Silver Hill development was given planning permission back in 2007 after discussions that began in the last century. The developers have moved through the appeal process and on to compulsory purcase, only now to change their plan.
Henderson, having carefully put together one plan, have now decided a mix of street level shops and accommodation would serve us- or perhaps them- better. Gone are the Bus Station, offices and social housing and the possibility of a cinema.
So, more shops. A report by Nathaniel Lichfield, relied upon by the Council and BID, says, 'The proposed Silver Hill development is primarily aimed at attracting new operators to Winchester, in particular high quality fashion retailers and restaurant operators. There may also be some opportunities for existing retailers to upsize and remain within the City Centre rather than relocating to a competing centre or out-of-centre location. This in turn will release further premises for new entrants to Winchester.'
This might surprise you, given all the bad news from the world of the high street. As someone who used to be involved in retailing, I am only too aware of the difficult climate for shopkeepers. A government report this year stated that by 2020, because of the growth of e-commerce, there will be '21% less retail space and 31% fewer stores in town centre venues... with secondary shopping venues declining further while prime venues such as Westfield will thrive, attracting customers and driving strong performance.'
The Council are banking on Winchester being the exception. It is certainly true that the current available retail space is limited and there are many big brands missing but I suspect at the very least we will kiss goodbye to the struggling shops of Parchment Street and other off High Street locations, as shoppers' interest switches to the south east. At least, a couple of shopping streets is a more attractive idea than a shopping centre.
[ADDED 14 JULY: My experience is that the city has a loyal local audience for its shops. I don't see a few more seducing those who currently go to, say, WestQuay. PI would prefer to see a leisure orientated development which would add much more to the city's richness. I believe the city would gain greatly from providing a concert hall and perhaps a small-scale arts centre. These are things the city dearly needs and which could be attractive to a wide catchment.]
So what about the design? A Planning Brief in 2003 recommended limiting the height of buildings to three or four storeys. The latest plans show buildings six storeys high. One of the delights of Winchester is that buildings are on a small scale, usually two to three storeys. except for the magnificent Cathedral and the Guildhall. Some call this a 'human' scale, although personally I don't know any 30 foot tall humans. The size of Silver Hill will be nothing compared to the skyscrapers that have obscured the historic buildings of the City Of London but in the context of Winchester, it is likely to be what you notice first as you look down the High Street or from any of its wonderful hills.
Fair enough if it looks attractive. It's probably too much to expect a 21st century architect to come up with a design to match the glories of the past. The architects chosen, Allies and Morrison, have a good track record of producing nice buildings and their designs for Silver Hill seem okay, if a little in the Toy Town style that has been popular in recent years.
The trouble is, it's hard to tell from the drawings what it will really be like. Will it dominate the skyline or blend in? Will the combination of narrow streets and high buildings create a bleak windy environment so often observed in the City Of London or will it be a return to the tradition of Winchester streets?
And here's the problem. The Silver Hill development seems like a juggernaut ploughing up the city centre. It seems that decisions are being made too quickly without adequate consultation and that there is a smokescreen surrounding what the impact on the centre will be. It may only be a perception but perceptions are important.
The decision makers on Winchester Council believe they are acting in a sincere and honest manner in their planning of Silver Hill and I have no reason to doubt that. However, with so much past corruption in planning departments in other parts of the country and such a high level of mistrust of politicians, our councillors and planners need to be absolutely open and transparent about this process. Even if that means it all takes longer and may have to be revised yet again.
They owe it to the people of Winchester, not only the current inhabitants but also those over the centuries who made it what it is today and those future generations who will live with the consequences of the Silver Hill decision.