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Opinion: Open Up Our Great Guildhall to the People, Says Former Mayor

Published on: 25 May, 2020
Updated on: 30 May, 2020

Guildford’s iconic Guildhall – Photo Wikimedia

by Gordon Bridger

hon alderman and former Mayor of Guildford

The Guildhall with its splendid facade, and the famed 1683 John Aylward clockface thrusting out into the High Street, is a feature of the town which projects the High Street as the finest in the south-east of England.

Since the Middle Ages, the Guildhall has been the centre of our political and social life. The frontage is truly iconic and whenever anyone wants to evoke Surrey a picture of the Guildhall and the Guildford High Street represents the county.

Within, it has a fine 16th-century Tudor hall which makes it an attractive and interesting meeting place. Its upper floor contains an elegant 17th-century chamber, overlooking the High Street, a chamber that can make a splendid venue for social events smaller meetings and dining events.

…this jewel of a building, which should be the centre of social and cultural life, is barely open to the public

Yet this jewel of a building, which should be the centre of social and cultural life, is barely open to the public. Its austere, wooden, ground level doors are almost always closed and only by paying quite large sums for access can the people enjoy their most valued public building.

There are only some 50 charity or community uses per year, yielding a meagre £10k per annum (at £200 per time, one can see why). A similar number of commercial bookings yields a further £25k per year (at £500 per rental it’s not very popular).

The main hall at the Guildhall, used as a courtroom well into the second half of the 20th-century. Photo GBC

But it was not always thus. In the years surrounding my time as Mayor (2003-4), it was a popular venue for musical and social events. Thanks to its full-time custodian, Rowland Sidwell, its doors were always open.

One could always drop in for a chat with this gregarious retired opera singer, who made every effort to encourage its use. Visitors were always welcome and public use encouraged.

The upper chamber, where council meetings were held until 1931.

There were regular concerts and popular groups, such as the Guildford Society and many others, used it as a magnet to get members to attend.  As Mayor, with Rowland’s help, I organised free lunchtime concerts using the excellent recording facility, inviting residents to choose their popular recordings.

The decision to do away with a full-time custodian for meagre financial gain was a tragic mistake, but one to which we have been accustomed.

We have also seen the departure of the Surrey Archaeological Society from the Museum, because the council was dilatory in arranging a proper agreement, and worse still, the tragic loss of Burchatts Barn which had been left to the community in perpetuity but became largely unused when rental rates were increased by 300 per cent. This is a practice we need to reverse.

A policy review of the Guildhall in 2014 sought to maximise its income by raising commercial rates and “generously” allowed a 50 per cent reduction to community users. This means the former pay more than £500 for its use and charities more than £200.

There are few societies willing or able to pay that for one evening’s use and alternative sites such as Holy Trinity Church and the Guildford Institute offer several hours’ use for under £100. While all would dearly like to use the Guildhall this insensitive, over-expensive charge (even worse under present financial circumstances) has been counter-productive. It almost certainly causes less use, yielding less income.

An example of this managerial inflexibility is the requirement that the organisers of the Pancake Race, held to raise funds for cancer relief, had to pay some £70 for a couple of hours’ use of the Guildhall. This means, of course, that cancer sufferers get less.

But the situation gets even worse. There is no custodian on-site to advise and encourage its use. The officer in charge is only part-time and marketing it is now the responsibility of GBC’s Marketing Department.

So what can be done? The first, and by far the most important step is to appoint a full-time custodian whose main task, apart from management, would be to encourage more community use.

To encourage more use would require a review of the charging policy. A reduction in commercial rates would almost certainly generate greater use (it should not be used for activities which challenge local traders) and community use charges should be based on marginal or variable costs (ie overtime rates) for community activities and free use by reputable local charities.

It may be asked, is such a policy reasonable in a situation faced by the council, with probably one of the greatest financial deficits in its history, requiring it to use reserves to cover much of its annual expenditure?

Well yes, it is. The present budget records that the Guildhall, which never appears to be open during the day, has a net income of only £35k and surprisingly high employee costs of £87k and makes a total annual loss of £145k per annum.

A full-time custodian might cost £45k (including overheads) but should be able to provide free day use for charities at no cost. Evening use would incur marginal overtime cost but would scarcely exceed some £10k /£15k per annum.

The fireplace in the upper chamber

There should plenty of activities which would attract visitors to the unique building as part of a policy of enhancing the visitor experience. What a place for a school history lesson or venue for Matthew Alexander’s splendid local history courses.

Schools and local groups should be encouraged to put on free musical events (as the Guildford Institute does), the ACM and Guildford Shakespeare Company too, and volunteers should show visitors around our unique heritage asset.

The Mayor needs to play a role which has been greatly reduced by administrative fiat. Historically, it was the Mayor’s building used to support local charities and events. Now the Mayor actually has to pay for its use even for charity events while the Guildford Freiburg Association is allowed one free meeting per year.

Another potential use would be as a historically wonderful location for dinners and social events with outsourced catering.

I hope our borough councillors will open up, at last, this grossly underused facility but please do not set up a committee to consider what has to be done. Just appoint a really good custodian and get on with it.

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test One Response to Opinion: Open Up Our Great Guildhall to the People, Says Former Mayor

  1. Nick Bomford Reply

    May 30, 2020 at 9:00 am

    Good that Rowland Sidwell gets a credit at last, long overdue since it must be eight or nine years since Guildford had proper concerts.

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