To respond to any questions received from Members of the Council in accordance with Procedure Rule 11.2.
The deadline for receipt of questions is 5pm on Tuesday 19 April 2022.
109.1 The following question was received from Councillor Cosser in accordance with Procedure Rule 11. Before asking his question, Councillor Cosser raised a point of order that a written response to his question had not been tabled. The Leader of the Council responded that, in accordance with Procedure Rule 11.5, an oral answer would be provided.
“Would the Leader of the Council please tell this Council:-
1. Why proposals for a significant redevelopment of Godalming town centre have been progressed since July 2020 only in secret within the Council and without any chance being given to the residents and businesses of Godalming to input into the considerations their wishes and priorities for the future of their town centre?
2. Why he has gone back on the promise he made to finally release the proposals for public comment last month and when he now finally expects to release these proposals for the public to see?
3. Whether his reluctance to give residents and businesses any say on this is because of his justified concern about the outrage that will be felt at the damage that his proposal to build housing on the Crown Court and Wharf Street car Parks will do to the future vitality of the historic town centre of Godalming?”
109.2 Councillor Follows, Leader of the Council addressed the use of the word “secret” in respect of Council business. He advised that the word “exempt” was used which was in accordance with s12A of the Local Government Act 1972, which set out what the Council may reasonably do in confidential session and the reasons for that, commercial sensitivity being one of those reasons. He highlighted that between June 2019 and April 2022, there had been 35 meetings of the Executive scheduled. Only 5 of those went into exempt, 25 did not and 5 were cancelled. Between June 2015 and May 2019, under the previous administration, there had been 46 meetings of the Executive scheduled and 15 of those went into exempt, 25 did not and 6 were cancelled. He urged Members to take care with their language and not misinterpret exempt business as “secret”.
109.3 With the permission of the Mayor, the Leader asked Councillor Merryweather, Portfolio Holder for Finance, Commercial and Assets to respond in more detail as follows:
“While Cllr Cosser’s question is addressed to the Leader and raises mainly questions of process, there are some matters of substance that for completeness the Leader has asked me to cover off albeit at the risk perhaps of repeating points from the many public and private meetings and briefings that we’ve held as the project has progressed.
Cllr Cosser will of course be aware that the underlying fundamental problem with the Council’s offices pre-date this administration and that the Council started exploring options for all three sites way before 2019, although our predecessors were more focussed on selling the land to private developers we are focussed on delivering better than that for our residents.
Given the importance and complexities of the sites, a great deal of work has been necessary and is still in process on the feasibility, viability and deliverability of potential outcomes which has included the elimination of undeliverable and inappropriate options. Those options that are surviving are still being examined and tested by our appointed experts and debated within the Council arena. Only once we have preferred options which have been thoroughly examined internally and felt ‘deliverable’ will we take them forward for wider consultation. To describe anything as a “proposal” at this time is slightly premature.
Bearing that in mind, Cllr Cosser will be aware that the retention of appropriate car park provision has been a critical success factor for us throughout this process and that our ongoing work includes a dedicated workstream specific to that. There is no question that public consultation is a very important part of the project, but it should be remembered that we are in only at the pre-planning stage and it would be counter-productive to consult on options that are still being assessed.
There is no reluctance to give residents and businesses a say, it is merely a question of timing. The first stage is to bring forward schemes that could be delivered for comment, we are at that early stage.
Bringing much needed housing, delivering on the climate emergency, supporting the high street and ensuring viability in its widest sense are all key pillars of the project. In summary consultation and feedback from residents and businesses will be crucial to the success of the scheme and as Cllr Cosser is aware is a key part of the project plan. It is merely too early to share options publicly which may not be ultimately deliverable and while due diligence on them is still being carried out. Thank you.