Homogenous Townscapes: The case of Guildford’s Picture Palace

Having spent the last few years studying cities and extolling the virtues a more inclusive, democratic and less hegemonic urban environment, it was with a certain amount of exasperation that I recently heard some sad, and quite frankly, bewildering news concerning my home town of Guildford. For years now, there has been (essentially, a one-man) campaign to get an independent cinema built in Guildford. Mark Gudgin has lobbied the local government for well over a year (as far as I know anyway, it may well be longer) in order to get planning permission for various sites in the town centre to be converted into The Guildford Picture Palace. To cut a long story short, last week, the local council decided that 170 High Street, the site that Mark and his supporters were hoping to convert, is to be rented by a “fashion retail outlet that does not currently have a presence in Guildford”.

Personally, I think a slow hand clap is in order. Just weeks after a New Economics Foundation report came out that criticised the homogenisation of UK High Streets, Guildford Council decide to let the space to a shop that panders to the wealthy, middle-class local shoppers by slapping another chain store on our beautiful High Street. Despite the excuses offered by the Council – “a High Street is not a place for a cinema” – it is clear that the motivation for their decision has been purely a financial one. I believe they are wrong for 4 reasons:

First, a High Street can most definitely be a place for a cinema, particularly one that will have a vibrant, cultural and no doubt sophisticated atmosphere. The High Street is fairly empty at night, it is mainly a thoroughfare from one end of town to the other with the occasional pub tucked away off the side streets. A local cinema would be a focal point – a place where people can consume culture in the iconic part of the town. What I suspect the Council mean is that the High Street is not a place for a multiplex – which is true. But this would a world away from those over-priced kitsch-generating, Hollywood-coffer-stuffing eyesores.

Second, the same demographic that the council are so keen to shake by the ankles until every penny drops out by opening more fashion chain outlets, are the same demographic that would benefit from a vibrant, independent cinema. Guildford is (annoyingly) awash with swanky wine bars, but to the town’s credit, it has its share of ‘subcultural’ provisions – a young vibrant music scene (with the Boiler Room and the new Backline Studios), a small but dynamic theatre and of course a sizeable student population at the University of Surrey. I would have thought that an independent cinema would be exactly the kind of cultural institution that would fit the fabric of the town and its inhabitants – I certainly believe it would be successful. Mark organises film nights in Guildford which are always over-subscribed which gives an indication that the local people would come and pay handsomely to watch good films in a comfortable, non-multiplex environment.

Third, simple economics. The Council clearly want the financial benefits that a chain fashion store brings. But where is it head-quartered? Who will reap the most profit? Where will they spend it? What are the possible externalities from it? You can see where I’m going with this. Nationalised chain stores pay massive rents, but the money is centralised to the company and the council. There is no ‘breadth’ to the spending, and the multiplier effect is minimal. With an independent cinema, run by local practitioners, the money will stay local, and hence get spent locally. Nearby bars and pubs will be frequented more (particularly the independent ones), profits stay in the town; 1 over 1 minus the MPC is clearly something the council’s economists were never taught.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, decisions like this, i.e. to narrow the cultural provisioning in a town by homogenising our High Streets have qualitative and tacit negative effects. By bringing people to a town centre purely to shop at the same shops, eat at the same restaurants and sit in the same uncomfortable, popcorn-ridden seats, reduces a town’s cultural appeal in the long term and creates a stale atmosphere which can lead to boredom and potentially to suspicion and animosity. Jane Jacobs’ work is highly relevant here – community is being ignored in favour of (short-term) profit. Councils will argue that the profit will go back into the town’s provisions and hence benefit the community, but if we have more locally-orientated provisioning (of which independent cinemas are just one example), then the money is the community in the first place. An independent cinema would be a focal point for a diverse group of people to connect, chat and generally socialise. Diversity promotes tolerance, localism promotes community spirit. Tolerance and community spirit together equal the right kind of growth.

So, needless to say, I utterly oppose this decision, and I will be supporting Mark’s continued campaign as much as I can. But of course, we need help. So if you are from Guildford, or even if you’re not – please circulate this blog post, join the Facebook group, follow Mark on Twitter, sign the petition and spread the word – let’s make this another social media-led success story.


  1. Neil · October 5, 2010

    Mark used to be our neighbour in Guildford before we moved to Godalming and I can attest to his passion for this venture, and also to the need for something like the Picture Palace he proposes as a counterpoint to the Bridge street drunks and the “who cares what town I’m in they all have the same shops” creeping homogeneity

  2. Andy Vale · December 6, 2010

    Agreed. I was livid when I found out about the Council’s decision. It could’ve been a very important cultural addition to the town.

  3. Pingback: Life in Pruitt-Igoe «

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