Winchester: A 21st century historic city

21st Century Winchester

Speech by Cllr Stephen Godfrey, Leader of Winchester City Council:

There has been much debate about change in Winchester, sparked by a range of new developments including housing at Barton Farm and Pitt Manor, the town centre regeneration of Silver Hill, the extra care scheme at Chesil surface car park and ambitious plans for commercially-led development at the Station and Cattle Market.

There are those who are uncomfortable with this change. For some people new development, whether housing, commercial or retail, will destroy the very essence of the city.

Of course Winchester is special. It’s a unique mix of buildings and spaces, full of people and of interest. But it didn’t get that way because it was ‘master-planned’ by some far-sighted Roman or Saxon. Nor did it become special by putting up barriers to development and change.

Most historic cities are ‘special’ in their own way, because they’ve all evolved. The best has remained, the worst has not endured and been replaced. Cities become special because they change.

We, the citizens of Winchester, can and should take some role in managing that change. The whole planning system is set up to allow us to try and identify what will and won’t work. But it’s not aiming for perfection; it doesn’t offer a blueprint, any system that did would be a recipe for dullness. And it’s a democratic process, it promotes debate and disagreement.

Winchester has choices: is this to be a city that provides jobs for residents, or do we accept a future as a commuter dormitory? Should we provide new homes to respond to housing demand, or are we ready to see our young people live elsewhere, and to pull up the drawbridge to new residents? And how, in a changing world, can we maintain and grow the vibrant, up-to-date retail, leisure and cultural offer our residents and visitors want?

And there is one further challenge we have to address: that of declining funding of the public sector. There is also a clear policy objective of encouraging councils to raise money locally to support services they provide. That may be through specific grants such as that to support housing building, local charges for services or raising income from land and property assets.

We can accept the challenge of growth, with more jobs and more housing. More residents, workers and visitors make for more customers for shops, cafes, theatres and cinemas. And the council can use this opportunity to generate some income from sites like Silver Hill, Carfax or the Cattle Market. That is sensible use of public assets to generate income to protect public services.

The alternative is to resist such developments, and settle for a different Winchester in the future. It would be a smaller Winchester, perhaps with fewer jobs, less housing development. There is a real possibility that we lose the diversity of our community as people – residents, workers or visitors – become excluded by lack of housing, lack of a local job or simply because there are fewer reasons to visit the city.

It is wrong-headed to say that growth will render Winchester bland, make it like anywhere else. It’s wrong because the city has become what it is by absorbing growth and giving its own imprint to what is new, be that housing estates, offices, shops or even a Norman Cathedral.

This time round, there is the real possibility of significant change over a short period of time. Silver Hill, Barton Farm and possible development at sites such as Station Approach or Chesil surface car park are either happening or on the cards for the next few years. Together these amount to a step-change.

So the real debate is whether we want a city that accepts and embraces the challenge of providing jobs, homes and retail space for our future, or whether we’d rather put up the barriers to that change. The outcomes of each choice will be very different.