Shaw Forest - saved!
How could they want to build on this?
There's a forest here somewhere but I can't see it cos the trees are in the way
Currently flowering in meadows in Shaw Forest
Queueing to get into the civic offices
The Evening Advertiser were there
And a couple of TV crews
The motion being debated by the Swindon Borough Council
Listening to the proceedings via BBC Radio Swindon and a car stereo
Public address system(!) in reception of civic offices
Foreground: Coate Water Country Park. Background: Coate
Prior to the council meeting, representatives of the Swindon Forest Protection Group presented a petition of 4,000 signatures to Swindon mayor Peter Stoddard, calling on the council to reject any plans to build on the Community Forest.
Around 200 members of the public had turned up to observe the meeting. As there were only 40 spaces inside the council chamber for members of the public, most of these people listened to the proceedings from the car park, first on a small portable radio, then on the stereo of one of the cars, and finally from the reception area of the civic offices during some torrential rain, where a security guard had set up a radio. Fortunately, BBC Radio Swindon's reporter was inside the council chamber and was broadcasting the meeting live on the radio, otherwise I wouldn't be writing this report.
At the start of the meeting (the only time when members of the public are allowed to say anything), one member of Trust STFC spoke against the motion, saying that it was too early to close down the debate about a future site for the football club's stadium. However, he was the only speaker against the motion, with councillors from all three parties trying to out-do each other in making the speech that was most supportive of the Great Western Community Forest, Shaw Forest in particular, and also the football club. Unfortunately, many of them also succumbed to the temptation to take party-political pot shots at whichever political groups they were not part of, but I guess that's party-politics all over.
Some points raised by various councillors during the debate:
* It's a question of trust - how are the people of Swindon supposed to trust the council given their previous record of promises? - promising the Front Garden is safe in their hands (the Front Garden is now officially known as the Southern Development Area although to my knowledge no applications for planning permission have been made) - promising that Coate is safe in their hands and that there'd be no development there other than the Great Western Hospital (Coate was re-designated from environmental land to housing and employment land in the October 2003 revised draft deposit of the local structure plan, with Bath University hoping to obtain free land for a campus from the developers who stand to make profits from building houses).
* Many councillors voiced the need for a new stadium for Swindon Town FC, but stressed that Shaw Forest was completely the wrong site for it.
* One complained that developers were not consulting the council properly about their plans before announcing them, and that councillors were needing to read the Evening Advertiser to find out what was being planned.
Eventually, the vote was taken. No votes against the motion, one or two abstentions, and everyone else voted in favour, with a couple of apologies for absence (this is by eyewitness report only - the numbers of votes were not announced, only the fact that it had been carried). This prompted cheers and clapping from the supporters of the Community Forest in the public gallery and in the reception area, who then posed for a victory photo on the steps of the civic offices. Shaw Forest had received a vote of support from the Council, but the campaign wasn't over yet - the real decision would be made when the stadium plans were submitted formally for planning permission.
However, the following day (Friday 24th July), the Evening Advertiser and BBC Wiltshire reported that STFC had abandoned its plans to build on Shaw Forest entirely. Having originally proposed to build on all three phases of the forest, the public reaction to the plans was so hostile that STFC later revised their plans to building on just phase 3 of the forest, which is still scheduled to be landfilled for the next 4 years, but which will eventually hold the greatest density of trees, with over 100 thousand due to be planted. The petition and the council motion seem to have been the final straw, persuading STFC that they could not possibly build on Shaw Forest and come out smelling of roses.
Speaking to the Adver, Bob Holt, a Swindon Town director, said "If you're not welcome at a party it's best you take your bottle elsewhere". Both the Adver and the BBC reported the decision as a disaster for STFC, implying that the club may go out of business if they are unable to build a new stadium, and failed to see it as a victory for the Community Forest.
On Saturday, while neighbours of the forest, wildlife enthusiasts, environmentally conscious people, and others around the town celebrated this victory, a less welcome angle to the story emerged. The Evening Advertiser reported on most of page 2 (although strangely not on their web site) that "Swindon Town would consider building its new stadium at Coate".
The Save Coate! campaign, which started in October 2003 as a response to the de-designation of the farmland between Marlborough Road, the A419, the M4 and Coate Water Country Park, has already collected over 8,000 petition signatures calling for a kilometre of undeveloped buffer zone around the Country Park, to preserve its wildlife, Site of Special Scientific Interest status, and value as an environmental and recreational space for the residents of Swindon (and beyond). Hundreds of objections to the re-designation were submitted to the council during the consultation period.
In an move which displays an amazing lack of a grasp of local opinion, STFC and the developer St Modwen, having backed down in the face of a 4,000-signature petition and a motion in Council, would consider building a stadium at Coate, an area which is already under threat from companies wanting to build houses for profit, who are prepared to give the University of Bath free land for a campus in order to get permission to build their houses. They may be prepared to give the money to the skint football club instead for a stadium rather than a University of Bath in Swindon.
The Adver report only says that the football club have not ruled out Coate as a location for the stadium they seem to want so badly, not that they are actually planning to build there. They would be well advised not to plan to build a stadium there unless they want to further increase their unpopularity rating amongst local non football fans. Meanwhile, many STFC fans have an attachment to the County Ground, their team's home for over 100 years, walking distance from the bus and train stations, and without any hostility from their neighbours. They are asking why STFC even need to move at all.
===== Related links
Swindon Forest Protection Group http://www.sfpg.org.uk/
Save Coate! campaign http://www.savecoate.org.uk/
24th July 2004
Forest Win. Stadium plan blocked.
23rd July 2004
Evening Advertiser letters
23rd July 2004
Think of the fans
WHY can't Swindon Town Football Club stay at the County Ground? Being centrally located means at present a large number of supporters can walk to matches. Moving out of the town centre means that only those supporters with cars will be able to get there. If they move to an out-of-town site a lot of Swindon fans will be disappointed.
BBC Wiltshire Sport
23rd July 2004
Stadium plans blocked
Plans to build Swindon Town's new stadium, in the west of the town, were effectively blocked on Thursday night.
===== Full text of the motion passed by Swindon Borough Council on 22nd July
In 1991, Thamesdown Borough Council and 4 other local authorities joined in a partnership with the Countryside Commission and the Forestry Commission to develop a community forest around Swindon. The Great Western Community Forest, as it was named, became part of a family of 12 forests in England.
In 1994, following 3 years of public consultation the Council confirmed along with the other partners its support for a Forest Plan. This plan set out a 30 year vision for the Forest indicating possible future sites, where, in partnership with the community and other bodies they would be developed for woodland and open space.
This Council reaffirms, and will continue, its existing policy of support for the Great Western Community Forest plan, and specifically council owned land at Shaw Forest Park (which includes Phases 1, 2 & 3), and resolves that these sites should be protected and retained as Community Forest for future generations.
===== Text of Evening Adver article - CLUB EYES COATE AS STADIUM SITE
By Andy Tate - Evening Advertiser 24th July 2004
Swindon Town would consider building its new stadium at Coate.
Fresh after Swindon Council stamped on the club's dream for a sports complex at Shaw Forest, club director Bob Holt said nowhere was off limits.
And the picturesque Coate area of south Swindon will be one of the sites up for discussion.
"We will look at everything and anything" said Mr Holt.
"If anyone has got any suggestions they should submit them to us and we will investigate every proposal thoroughly.
"If we can come up with a big enough plot and the owner is up for it we would be over the moon" he said.
St Modwen, the developer working with Town to build a new stadium, says it is open-minded about its location.
Senior development surveyor Rupert Joseland said: "we need to do some more work before we know whether we can find an alternative, but will consider all sites"
On Thursday night, councillors of all parties united to vote through a motion supporting Shaw Community Forest - thereby ending any hope the club had of building a sporting village on the land.
After losing the battle over Shaw Forest, Town bosses would be brave to push for a new stadium at Coate as plans to build a university campus there have already sparked a campaign of opposition by environmentalists.
The developers who have options to build on the land - Redrow and Persimmon - have offered to give the University of Bath 150 acres for free in the hope of winning planning permission for houses and offices alongside it.
Before the proposals can be sealed and signed they require the thumbs up from a planning inspector, who is due to open a public inquiry in November.
If the developers were to offer the land to the cash-strapped football club instead, a stadium at Coate could become a serious proposition.
Redrow and Persimmon were unavailable for comment.
But environmentalists expressed horror at he possibility of a football stadium near Coate Water, which if a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Jean Saunders, of the Save Coate campaign, said "The impact of a stadium on the landscape and nature reserve would be enormous.
It would be just as bad as a university campus.
"It's the open countryside feel of the place that is particularly precious, so any type of development that blots the landscape will obviously be opposed by ordinary people, and from an environmental perspective totally unacceptable."