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Swindonians are still Together On Planning

Simon | 10.04.2005 14:53 | Ecology | Social Struggles

Bright sun and a chilly wind greeted the people of Swindon as they assembled in Faringdon Road Park on Saturday 9th April 2005 for the second STOP (Swindonians Together On Planning) march. Placards spoke out against various unpopular planning decisions in and around the borough of Swindon, and many different signs were in evidence which made use of a subverted version of the orange Swindon Borough Council logo. The protestors marched through the Railway Village, past the Mechanics Institute, through the town centre to a rally outside the Civic Offices.

Wait for the results of the public inquiry
Wait for the results of the public inquiry

Rules for preserving an authentic railway village
Rules for preserving an authentic railway village

Assorted placards
Assorted placards

National stage of culture?
National stage of culture?

Activists of the future
Activists of the future

Marshals get organized while the Lib Dem block pose for a photo
Marshals get organized while the Lib Dem block pose for a photo

Posing for a mass photo before marching
Posing for a mass photo before marching

Just one of the empty office buildings in Swindon centre
Just one of the empty office buildings in Swindon centre

Julia Drown, Swindon South MP
Julia Drown, Swindon South MP

Mark Wheaver of Save Coate and Friends of the Earth
Mark Wheaver of Save Coate and Friends of the Earth

Terry King of Front Garden Action Group
Terry King of Front Garden Action Group

Dr Chris Barry of Chiseldon parish council
Dr Chris Barry of Chiseldon parish council

Richard of Purton P's and Q's
Richard of Purton P's and Q's

Charmian Spickernell of CPRE
Charmian Spickernell of CPRE

Rally outside the Civic Offices
Rally outside the Civic Offices

Villages united against planning
Villages united against planning

Planners make progress - resign
Planners make progress - resign

A small forest of STOP signs outside the Civic Offices
A small forest of STOP signs outside the Civic Offices

One placard showed an arial photograph of the Railway Village, amended to show what the beautiful but empty and dilapidated Mechanics Institute building would look like if it's present owner were to get his way and convert it into a hotel. The Railway village was built in the nineteenth century to house workers at the Great Western Railway's new engineering and train-building works, making it one of the oldest parts of New Swindon and an area of heritage value, and is subject to special planning restrictions as a result. As another placard put it:

Rules for preserving an authentic railway village
Rotary washing lines? ..... Swindon Council say no
Television ariels? ..... Swindon Council say no
Small satellite dishes? ..... Swindon Council say no
Ten storey modern building in centre of village? ..... Swindon Council say yes???

The Save Coate logo was also present in large numbers, representing the fifteen thousand (and counting) people who have so far signed the petition calling for a kilometer of undeveloped buffer land around Coate Water Country Park, as opposed to the Gateway Partnership's plan to build 2,500 houses and a university campus at Coate (the land next to the Country Park).

Coate Water Country Park currently forms a natural boundary to the south-eastern corner of the Swindon urban area, but a revision of the local structure plan in October 2003 redefined the urban area so that it leap-frogs the Country Park and includes all the farmland and countryside to the south and east of the park, right up to the M4 motorway, junction 15, the A149, and the hospital that they promised wouldn't set a precedent for building there. Just to avoid confusion, that's the area called Coate, that's where the building is planned, and no-one is planning to build on Coate Water Country Park itself (although several times detractors of the Save Coate campaign have falsely accused them of trying to give that impression). No, they're just planning to surround this Site of Special Scientific Interest, voted Swindon's favourite place, with concrete, noise, light pollution and all the other things which come with changing land from countryside into town. This would entirely change the character of the Country Park, ruining the views from the park of the downs and Liddington Hill, and would devastate the wildlife habitats within the Country Park.

The latest plans submitted by the developers include 17-metre high buildings as close as 100 metres from the fence marking the edge of the Country Park. These buildings won't be hidden in the landscape like the Great Western Hospital is (if you stand in the right place, that is). Instead it seems that the horizon will be permanently hidden behind these buildings.

All this so that the University of Bath (UoB) can get a campus in Swindon for free. The building companies Redrow and Persimmon, who along with the UoB and the Swindon & Marlborough NHS trust make up the Swindon Gateway Partnership, have offered the UoB free land for their campus at Coate if they can get planning permission to build lots of profitable but unnecessary houses there. The Gateway Partnership has been hard at work promoting the benefits of having a university in Swindon and insisting that the only place it could possibly be built is at Coate. They still choose to ignore the Swindon Civic Trust's vision of a campus spread across the town centre in a whole swathe of buildings which are either empty and being demolished, or will become empty over the next decade or so. Of course there's less profit in redeveloping the town centre than in building on a greenfield site.

Several children were handing out small STOP signs based on a subverted version of the Swindon Borough Council's orange logo. These signs had been mounted onto wooden skewers for people to "plant" in the lawn outside the Civic Offices.

Another placard proclaimed "Democracy!! SBC should wait for the results of the public enquiry, not pre-empt it with undemocratic decisions". Sounds sensible, but apparently that's not how Swindon Borough Council works.

Although the march had been called as a non party political event, there was a definite Lib Dem block present, including Swindon South candidate Sue Stebbins. Not in an obtrusive kind of way, but it was clear by looking at them that they were Lib Dems and that they supported the Save Coate campaign. The only other election candidate I spotted was Andy Newman, the Socialist Unity candidate for Swindon North, although if you didn't know him, you probably wouldn't have known he was standing for election just by looking at him.

The marchers were called to order by Terry King, who gave some sensible advice on having a safe and peaceful march and asked everyone to assemble for a big group photo for the press. That done, and the march was off. Out of the park, through the historical railway village, past the Mechanics Institute, up Commercial Road and then into the pedestrianised shopping area of the town centre.

At this point, I took a diversion from the STOP march and joined the event known as "the ring around the clock" which was also taking place that day to promote the Make Poverty History campaign. This is an entirely separate event, and is the subject of a separate report, however it meant that I didn't arrive at the Civic Offices for the STOP rally until Julia Drown was half-way through her speech.

===== Julia Drown (soon-to-be-ex-MP for Swindon South)

Although I missed the beginning of Julia Drown's speech, it was clear that this was not just a full-time politician seeking to jump on a popular bandwaggon. Julia, who also addressed the first STOP rally last June, made no reference to the Labour party or to the (strangely absent) Labour candidate standing in South Swindon in her place. Instead, she was using her last public appearance as South Swindon's MP to point out flaws in the arguments for building at Coate, and to speak passionately about insults to our intelligence.

The University of Bath claim that a campus spread across a town centre could not possibly work, she said. What about Oxford? What about Cambridge? She pointed out the way the latest plans for Coate show that the health faculty would be next to the hospital, another reason the Gateway Partnership give for the campus needing to be at Coate, but the rest of the campus on the other side of the development area. So students going from one university site to the other would still need to make their way through lots of non-university area, just as they would in a town-centre campus!

The unholy alliance planning to build at Coate even had the cheek to claim in their original press release that they would improve Coate Water, she said. She quoted from the developer's own environmental impact report: "Most of the farmland currently attractive to wintering waders and water birds will be lost. Overall, impact on waders and water birds are predicted to be of major significance." Improving the environment at Coate? It's an insult to our intelligence!

There is plenty of room in the town centre for a university, she said, her conversations with the New Swindon Company (responsible for planning the future of the town centre) have indicated that it can happen, but there is no willingness on the part of the UoB to negotiate.

"You are just the tip of the fifteen thousand people who have care about this - and more", she told the rally.

"Shout loud, shout long, preserve our green fields, get the investment that our town centre needs. Councillors, planners need to look at it again. Swindon deserves better", she concluded.

===== Mark Wheaver (Save Coate and Freinds of the Earth)

Mark opened by explaining that (like me) he had been dividing his time slightly between Making Poverty History and trying to make the poverty of ambition in Swindon history. He admitted to not being an experienced public speaker, and he started by exploring the question:

Why do we need more houses in Swindon?

Maybe it's to provide for all those people who can't get on the housing ladder - some sort of social housing project? No, he doesn't think that's the reason.
Maybe a bigger town would have less crime, drug abuse etc. No, he doesn't think that's the reason either.
Maybe a bigger town would have economies of scale in terms of infrastructure and public services? No, that sounds a bit like a financially struggling family deciding to adopt a load more kids.
Maybe it's some sort of bizairre experiment to create a green-free zone in Swindon with ever more employment land, and depopulate the north of the country completely to turn it into one big Country Park.

He said that the pattern of development in Swindon reminds him of a sort of parasite which eventually kills its host. One of Swindon's biggest assets, and a reason people want to live here, is the nearby coutryside. Concrete over too much of it and you've lost that assett.

He mentioned some presentations he'd seen about the future of cities generally, and said that the most forward thinking cities had farming areas planned into them, to ensure self-sufficiency. By contrast, Swindon is literally eating the land that feeds it.

Coate is important to Swindon, he said. It has high-quality agricultural land, it's a Site of Special Scientific Interest, there are archealogical remains. Developing it would blind the views to and from an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It's Swindon's favourite place. Each of these reasons alone should merit Coate for protection from development, but apparently not.

What we need now, he concluded, is for everyone here to tell ten friends and for them to tell ten friends, and for everyone to write to their councillors so that they can be in no doubt that we need to re-think development in Swindon, and in particular we need to Save Coate.

===== Terry King (Front Garden Action Group)

The Front Garden Action Group, who have held up development of the Front Garden for seven years, were also present at the march and rally. The Front Garden (known by the planners as the Southern Development Area) is the strip of land between the southern edge of Swindon and the M4. Terry said that if the Front Garden Action Group had not been formed, there would probably be three to four thousand houses built there already.

He pointed out that the decision to build on the Front Garden had not been taken yet, and that it had many more hurdles to overcome, not least of which is flooding. The whole area is at risk of flooding, and with insurance companies always looking to cover their backsides, anyone who moves into a house built in an area at risk of flooding may find themselves unable to insure it. He also asked what idiot would build houses right next to a motorway. He had done some research and found that houses built close to the M4 and M25 had a very high occupancy turnover because people get fed up with listening to a motorway 24 hours a day.

He reported that Thames Water and the sewage authority have said that they will not be able to meet Swindon's growing needs beyond 2011, although the plans for the Front Garden show houses being built right up to 2022. Where will the extra capacity come from? He also pointed out that the Northern Development Area was meant to have been finished years ago, but four to five thousand of the planned houses for that area haven't even been built yet, because the ones which have been built just aren't selling as quickly as expected. "Let them finish the Northern Development Area, let them build up to eight thousand dwellings on brownfield sites, before they pillage Coate, the Front Garden and so on", he continued.

He branded as "lunacy" the plans for a road which would link the Front Garden to the rest of Swindon by first heading away from Swindon, going under the motorway, turning back towards Swindon and then joining junction 16 of the M4 - a bad traffic spot at the best of times. He said that if such a road was needed, it should go over or under the railway and join Great Western Way, getting people into Swindon in two miles instead of six miles.

He said we should write to our MPs and councillors, some of whom are sympathetic and some are not, and also write to the Evening Advertiser, to keep the pressure on.

Finally, he offered to collect any placards and banners which people didn't want to take home, for re-use at the next event.

===== Dr Chris Barry (Chair, Chiseldon Parish Council)

"Thank you for tearing yourselves away from That Wedding", started Dr Barry.
"It was easy", shouted back someone in the crowd.

Dr Barry explained that Coate is technically part of the parish of Chiseldon, so the parish council need to be consulted on all planning issues, although their views are normally ignored. They have sumbitted twenty seven objections to the amendments to the Local Structure Plan which redesignated Coate as housing and employment land, and Swindon Borough Council have disagreed with every single one.

When planning permission was given for the Great Western Hospital right in the corner of Coate, it was with a promise that it would not set a precedent for development of the whole area, which Swindon Borough Council have since wriggled out of based on a technicality of wording. Shame on them for doing that, he said.

The planned Coate development has nothing to do with planning for the needs of Swindon, he said. It's about planning for developers. They [the developers] have offered the University of Bath free land for a campus, and that's why it's all happening.

He noted that Swindon Borough Council have dropped the word "Country" from the name of Coate Water Country Park in their literature. "Shame on them again," he said, "it's our heritage, we are its custodians. Once it's gone we can never get it back."

He observed that only two Swindon Borough councillors had turned up to the rally, where were the others?
"Where's the leader?", shouted someone in the crowd.

"I'm a doctor", he said in closing. "My job is to listen to people, and, with their permission, to do what's best for them. Is Swindon Borough Council listening?"
"No!" said the crowd.
"Are they foing what's best for Swindon?"
Do they have our permission?

===== Richard (Purton P's and Q's)

Representing an environmental community group based in Purton, one of many smaller towns and villages outside Swindon which could find themselves being surrounded by Swindon if the long-term regional building plan for Swindon goes ahead, Richard noted that Thames Water have put up water bills specifically because new housing development has outstripped the capacity of their water and sewerage systems.

He spoke of the way in which Purton is starting to be used as a high-speed shortcut to the Northern Development Area as they'd predicted, and also of the way that Purton is being used as an informal park-and-ride. Park-and-ride is all very well, he said, but you need somewhere for people to park.

We have a chaotic planning system, he said, poorly managed, although he wasn't sure that "managed" was even the right word. It's also degrading the villages around Swindon, because people in Swindon need Purton and the surrounding villages to play in, and the people of Purton need Swindon to go to to shop and work and enjoy.

"Most of all," he concluded, "Swindon needs to listen to its people."

===== Charmian Spickernell (Campaign to Protect Rural England)

Charmian opened by thanking Alan Hayward for organising the STOP march and rally and for all the work he's done. She then encouraged people to go to the portion of the local plan inquiry dealing with Coate, which is being held on the 19th, 20th and 21st April at the Pilgrim Centre at the top of Regent Street. Although members of the public cannot take part, their presence will be noted by the inspector.

She also pointed out that Swindon Borough Council were planning to sign the legal agreements for development wilst the local plan inquiry is still ongoing. CPRE have written to Swindon Borough Council seeking assurances that legal agreements will not be signed until the outcome of the local plan inquiry is published. Swindon Borough Council will not give them that assurance. Apparently this will be the subject of a debate in Council on 21st April, so if you want to know which councillors are in favour of democracy and waiting for the inquiry to report on objections to the local pan, and which are in favour of ignoring the will of the public, then the public gallery of the council chamber will be the best place to be on 21st April.

She closed by asking "If a local planning authority doesn't wait for the outcome of a local planning inquiry, is it behaving responsibly?"
"No" responded the crowd.

===== Alan Hayward (Swindon's Che Guevara)

Master of Ceremonies Alan, who played a prominent role in the successful campaign last year to protect Shaw Community Forest from plans to build a football stadium, brought the rally to a close. He reminded us that Shaw Forest was safe from development for now, saved by people power. People power can save Mechanics Institute, it can fix the town centre, it can save coate, it can save the Front Garden and it can save the surrounding towns and villages. Save these places for our children and for our children's children, he said.

"Let's get phoning, writing and e-mailing." he said in closing.

===== Related links

STOP (Swindonians Together on Planning):
Save Coate:
Swindon Civic Trust:

===== Previous articles and photo reports on Swindon development issues

May 2004, A campaign springs up out of nowhere to oppose plans to build a football stadium on Shaw Forest, and before you know it, ordinary citizens are out obstructing the traffic in protest:

June 2004, the first STOP march and rally unites Save Coate, the Shaw Forest campaign and many others to highlight the overall state of planning in Swindon:

July 2004, Swindon Borough Council debate the sticky situation regarding Shaw Forest and Swindon Town Football Club, and vote overwhelmingly in favour of a motion protecting Shaw Forest for future generations:

September 2004, Swindon Civic Trust present their vision for Swindon town centre, while the Gateway Partnership present their greenwashed picture of Coate under concrete:

November 2004, the Save Coate campaign pull off an original publicity stunt by collecting over a thousand cardboard cutout hands, each with someone's message about why they value Coate, attaching them to a very long length of string, and getting people to hold this string of hands up around the edge of the lake in Coate Water Country Park:



Display the following 2 comments

  1. Name checks & new date for Coate inquiry — Simon
  2. STOP — Keith
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