A project for the people: the regeneration of Woking town centre

Rob Bentley

Contact Rob Bentley, Director

As lead design consultant on an extensive redevelopment scheme for Woking, Benoy is helping to engage local people and bring a town centre to life. Delivering two new public squares, including retail, residential and public realm, the programme is providing a boost to community confidence and enhancing Woking’s commercial prospects.

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In recent years, Woking has gained a reputation as an economic and cultural hub, with an expanding business area, burgeoning arts scene and busy retail centre. Under the visionary leadership of the local authority, the town has been the focus of a major regeneration programme which, as it nears completion, looks set to accelerate Woking’s upward trajectory and help realise its commercial potential.

A joint venture between Woking Borough Council and Moyallen, with Benoy as design consultant, this extensive intervention comprises a town centre masterplan and phased redevelopment scheme. Its goal is to stimulate investment, catalyse further development and make Woking an attractive place to live and work. As Rob Bentley, who is leading the project for Benoy, explains: 

The regeneration of Woking is all about improving local infrastructure and the public realm to create a vibrant town centre where people want to be. It’s about attracting third-party investment while ensuring that Woking, far from being just a gateway to other areas, becomes a destination in its own right.”

Positive groundscaping and greenspace

As a project consultant since 2008, Benoy is delivering a critical stage of the Woking masterplan: the town centre’s Victoria Square, which will provide a new mixed-use retail, residential and hospitality development a stone’s throw from the main train station. 

Specifically, Benoy’s work includes a retail podium supporting two residential towers, 29 and 33 storeys high, which together will provide 429 one- and two-bedroom apartments for the build-to-rent market. Meanwhile, a third 22-story tower will accommodate an international four-star hotel. 

Encompassing an area of approximately 76,000m2, Victoria Square will also be home to a new flagship M&S store, which as Bentley explains is a significant achievement in today’s retail market: 

Welcoming M&S back to the town delivers a strong message that the regeneration programme is working. It’s a huge boost, given the current climate. The M&S store will anchor the retail extension, reinforcing the high standards already set by new retail and restaurant brands in the town centre.”

In addition, positive groundscaping and greenspace have been key elements of the regeneration scheme, with the Benoy team enhancing the public space in and around Victoria Square. All three towers will provide access to rooftop gardens and amenity areas, while new public realm will be applied to all pedestrian routes into nearby Jubilee Square. 

In this way, the project aligns with the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful agenda, which underscores the importance of creating beautiful urban areas to help enhance public health and wellbeing. Launched in November 2018, the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission focuses on a range of urban issues, from design and style to community consent. But it has one central theme: how to find ways to raise the standard of new homes and places across the country.

Through focused redevelopment and enhancement, Victoria Square embodies the ethos and objectives of Building Better, Building Beautiful. As Bentley observes: 

While we want to reaffirm Woking’s status as a prime residential and business location, we’re also looking to improve quality of life through the built environment. It’s been shown that increased greenspace and progressive architecture can have a positive impact on people’s health and happiness. As masterplanners, we have a responsibility not only to the commercial viability of a place, but to the needs and wishes of those who live and work there. It’s about giving local people what they want. But in order to do that, you have to listen to them.”

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“The regeneration of Woking is all about improving local infrastructure and the public realm to create a vibrant town centre where people want to be. It’s about attracting third-party investment while ensuring that Woking, far from being just a gateway to other areas, becomes a destination in its own right.”

Community consent and consultation

From the outset, stakeholder engagement has been integral to the Victoria Square programme. Committed to promoting inclusive urban design, the borough council has worked closely with Benoy to consult local people and reflect their views in the masterplan. 

As a result of this process, the teams have incorporated specific features into their designs. From dementia-friendly public toilets, to build-to-rent models for the residential towers, the scheme has flexed to ensure the local priorities and preoccupations are met. 

In the current market, house purchase is not a particularly attractive proposition,” says Bentley. Build-to-rent in a managed space was the preferred option. So, we revised our original plans and transitioned to a build-to-rent arrangement. I guess it’s what sets Benoy apart in regeneration; we listen. We don’t come in and simply impose our designs on a place. We listen to local residents so we can understand their aspirations. We then look at how we can realise or enhance these aspirations by challenging the brief, exploring other options, and bringing our international masterplanning experience to bear. In this way, the Woking regeneration has been a project for the people.” 

In addition, to minimise impact on the Woking skyline, Benoy has developed a tall buildings strategy. This has helped to both assuage local concerns and reassure future developers there is an established protocol for these structures. Similarly, through major infrastructure developments – district cooling system, public space creation, roadscape adjustments – the team has ensured the project will benefit future developments in neighbouring plots. So, not only will the work enrich and enhance the Woking town centre and community, it will leave a positive legacy for the wider area for many years to come. 

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