Although these two stalls may have appeared unrelated to the casual observer, they were in fact inextricably linked, by the University of Bath and by issues of town planning, development and accountability to the public.
"Who gives a [tick] about Swindon Town Centre?" - Swindon Civic Trust's stall
Panoramic view from Regents Circus - current
Panoramic view from Regents Circus - Swindon Civic Trust's artist's impression
2) Some background - the New Swindon Company
3) Swindon Civic Trust stall
4) What you can do
5) Related links
6) Related news
===== Swindon Gateway Partnership - public consultation
Upstairs in the Brunel Shopping Centre, employees of local planning consultancy firm DPDS were in attendance at a display of the Swindon Gateway Partnership. Quoting from the newsletter they were handing out,
"The Swindon Gateway Project was initiated in 2000 by Persimmon Homes and Redrow Homes, who decided to promote the site as a sustainable urban extension to the Swindon built-up area. Subsequently, the Swindon and Marlborough NHS Trust expressed an interest in expanding the Great Western Hospital, and the University of Bath identified the site as its preferred location for an 8,000 student undergraduate campus."
Translation: Persimmon and Redrow have been itching to get their hands on this section of Swindon's green belt land for years, the new hospital which was built in the corner a few years ago is still too small to cope, and the UoB (University of Bath) have been prevented from expanding onto Bath's green spaces and are trying their luck here in Swindon where Persimmon and Redrow will give them a free campus in order to be able to build profitable houses.
This only became possible in October 2003, when the Swindon Borough Council Local Plan to 2011 was amended to include a whole new Development Strategy policy (known as DS3), identifying the area known as Coate (between Coate Water Country Park, the Great Western Hospital and the M4 junction 15), previously classed as rural buffer, as housing and employment land. When some local environmentally-conscious people noticed this amendment and assessed its potential impact on the SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) at Coate Water Country Park, the Save Coate campaign was formed to oppose the change. The petition calling for a kilometre of undeveloped buffer zone around the Country Park has now attracted over ten thousand signatures - this level of opposition may be one factor in the decision to re-brand the site as the "Gateway", in an attempt to disassociate it with the name of Coate.
The stated purpose of this stall was to hold a public consultation on the plans - one of three held over the weekend from 17th to 20th September. However, the limits of the consultation were clearly circumscribed. Again, quoting from the newsletter,
"Consultation is being undertaken in respect of the issues, constraints and opportunities relating to the proposed development of the Gateway site to determine how the local community would like to see the Master Plan evolve if development takes place on the site. This consultation is not about whether or not the site is released for development; that decision will take place as a result of the Structure Plan and Local Plan Review process which is now well underway and should be concluded by 2005/06."
Translation: This isn't about whether or not Coate Water (voted as Swindon's favourite place in a Civic Trust poll last year) and its nature reserve are threatened by being surrounded with concrete; it's more about the colour and texture of the concrete.
The decision on whether or not to build is now apparently out of the public's hands, although the council received my objections and hundreds more to the Local Plan changes during that consultation period. In a manner which is now becoming familiar, the plans are being presented to the public as a fait accompli with only the minor details to be tweaked.
The newsletter acknowledges the sensitivity of the SSSI at Coate Water Country Park,
"Coate Water is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It is important to include a buffer zone to protect wildlife interests and maintain the setting of the SSSI."
but the map accompanying it (which I am reluctant to reproduce here as it is subject to Ordnance Survey copyright) falls short of this claim. True, there is a strip of hatched green running along the northern edge of the nature reserve, and round the eastern end. However, the remainder of the eastern perimeter of the Country Park is immediately adjacent to the area earmarked for development. Even where the buffer is marked, there is no indication of its width (the map is labelled as "not to scale") or its nature (some campaigners have speculated that it may be no more than a front lawn for the proposed UoB campus, leading down to the Country Park - not really a buffer at all). It certainly does not seem to satisfy the Save Coate campaign's call for a kilometre of undeveloped buffer.
One of the panels on display, on the subject of public transport, caused me a moment of bemusement:
"The existing sustainable transport links provided by fast and efficient bus services, which integrate the area with the town centre and the Great Western Hospital, will be maximised and enhanced. A fast and efficient bus service will also be introduced within the site along with dedicated routes restricting car access."
Hang on, is this still Swindon we're talking about here? Did we suddenly get some "fast and efficient bus services" while I wasn't paying attention? Although public transport in Swindon is arguably much better than that available in the smaller towns and villages in the surrounding area, it is still very poor for a town of this size, and is not widely seen as a viable alternative to getting around by car except by those who don't own cars. This panel was evidently written by someone whose only contact with Swindon's public transport network is via a glossy brochure or executive summary produced for corporate consumption.
"Sustainable transport measures will be investigated and implemented as a priority to discourage the use of the private car and offer genuine alternatives to it."
Yes, that sounds like a very good idea. It would be an even better idea to do that bit first, for the rest of the town, rather than expanding the town first and then thinking about what to do with the traffic jams. On the whole though, this panel, much like the rest of the display and the newsletter, came across to me as yet more corporate green wash, with plenty of pictures of trees and liberal use of words like "sustainable", but nothing concrete to reassure me that the top priority in the project is anything other than making piles of cash for the house building companies and the consultants, and a free campus for the UoB. The integrity and beauty of Coate Water Country Park and the needs of the people of Swindon seem to be some way down the list.
To be fair to the DPDS stall, they had questionnaires for the public to fill in, consisting of boxes for your contact details, and one big box for "what do you think (continue on other side if required)", and rest assured, I did continue on the other side! Whether any notice will be paid to my impromptu essay I do not know, but I'm not holding out much hope.
===== Some background - the New Swindon Company
The New Swindon Company, an Urban Regeneration Company formed in 2002 by the South West Regional Development Agency, published a newsletter in July identifying seven areas in the town centre for redevelopment. One of the initial reactions to this was that it sounded more like a theme park than a town centre, mainly due to the New Swindon Company's decision to brand these areas with cheesy names, complete with cheesy descriptions and arty illustrations which probably don’t resemble whatever ends up being built. It may be valuable at this point to digress from my report of the two contrasting exhibitions and examine some of these areas more closely:
* "The Campus - offering the benefits of out-of-town office developments but with connectivity to the town centre"
It may be named like a potential central location for the University of Bath's new campus, but no, it is actually a "campus style business park". I wonder what those benefits of out-of-town office developments are? I suspect car-parking may be one of them, as this is an oft-cited reason why all that empty office space in the town centre is so difficult to rent out, so does this mean more car parks? And do we really need more speculative office development when there is so much empty office space already?
* "The Hub - the transformation of Swindon's retail centre"
Apparently "the retail therapy experience in Swindon will be second to none". Go on, get spending, max out those credit cards, it's your patriotic duty to spend as much money as possible, keep the money circulating so the rich can keep creaming off their percentage as it flows past.....
* "North Star Village - a new and vibrant residential area in central Swindon"
This area is currently known as the Oasis leisure centre (with its landmark glass dome) and the Clares Equipment industrial unit, adjacent to the North Star campus of Swindon College and the Research Councils. Houses are very profitable to build, you know. This one promises to be "vibrant". Very handy for the Oasis leisure centre, oh hang on a minute, we knocked that down to build the houses...
* "The Exchange - responding to the need for better office facilities"
Oh, it's not that we need more office space, it's just that all that existing empty office space isn't good enough for the modern image-conscious company? This area currently consists of the bus station, the three fifteen-year old high-rise Tricentre offices built for Allied Dunbar (now part of Zurich), the now-closed Fleming Way post office, the Carfax Street health centre and the Salvation Army building.
* "The arena - a new focal point, giving people the heart that many said Swindon lacked"
Apparently this area will be "vibrant" as well. Must be a good idea then. It centres on the area of Fleming Way where half of the town centre bus stops are, and will "consist of a mix of retail, commercial and recreational facilities", and a "piazza". No doubt with every installation somehow protected against skateboarders and those anti-social people who like to sit down on something mildly comfortable when their feet are hurting from all the retail therapy.
The newsletter omits to mention where we will catch the bus from once Fleming Way and the Bus station have gone.
* "The promenade - providing a new cultural centre for Swindon"
"Better cultural facilities are one of the top five most important factors raised by members of the public for revitalising the town".
Swindon has the Wyvern Theatre, which has recently hosted performances and appearances by such notables as Tony Benn, Jo Brand, the Reduced Shakespeare Company, Ross Noble and many more. There is also the Arts Centre in Old Town which regularly hosts nationally-known contemporary comedians as well as musical and theatrical performances and film shows, but with a much smaller capacity than the Wyvern. The central lending library however, has been in a temporary building for as long as I can remember. This area includes the current Regents Circus campus of Swindon College, which is ideally located for the bus-travelling full-time worker doing evening classes, but no provision is made for a replacement Swindon College site.
You can read the newsletter (July 2004) containing these plans, complete with a map, in PDF format at the New Swindon Company's web site - http://www.newswindon.co.uk/
===== Swindon Civic Trust stall
By an auspicious coincidence, the Swindon Civic Trust had booked a stall on the same day as the Gateway Partnership, and just down the stairs in the Brunel Centre, to promote their idea of how the centre of Swindon should be redeveloped / regenerated, and to seek the views of passing members of the public on what form and direction this should take.
Swindon Civic Trust is a charitable organisation run entirely by volunteers. Its objectives are:
* To promote high standards of planning, environmental sustainability and architecture in or affecting the area of benefit
* To research, inform and educate the public in the geography, history, natural history, architecture, the built environment and the process of government of the area benefit
* To secure the preservation, protection, development and improvement of features of historic or public interest in the area of benefit
At the end of July, the Civic Trust organised two presentations and discussion forums at the old railway museum to put forward their alternative to the New Swindon Company's plans.
Taking the same map as the New Swindon Company, they identified open spaces, areas for retail, local authority buildings and heritage areas, and found a huge area of land suitable for a town centre University including facilities which can be shared with the residents of Swindon. Running from Swindon College's current Regents Circus site in the south, north along Princes Street, Corporation Street, and ultimately including Swindon College's North Star site, the Oasis, the British Telecom office and the Hawksworth industrial estate, this area consists of buildings which are already empty (and in one case currently being demolished), will become empty or are scheduled for redevelopment in the future. (This puts the lie to UoB's claim that they need to build a campus at Coate on the grounds of insufficient space in the town centre, however they still appear to stand by their statement that "it will be built at Coate or not at all".)
At these forums, the idea of a town centre university turned out to be very popular, with many feeling that it would be very beneficial in driving the transformation of the town centre.
The issue of the Wilts & Berks Canal was also raised. The original route of the canal was broken when the Great Western Railway chose Swindon as the location for a major engineering works, and now it reaches into Swindon only as far as Kingshill behind the Esso garage. The Wilts & Berks Canal Trust are working on restoring the canal to make it navigable again, and one of their aims is to restore the link between the Cotswold Canals, the Kennet & Avon Canal and the Thames and Severn rivers. Some feel that the original route, running through what is now the centre of Swindon, should be restored if possible, as an alternative to following a new route round the western edge of the town, however this proposal has turned out to be quite controversial, with some expressing concern that a town centre canal would quickly fill with litter.
Swindon Civic trust have not taken a fixed position on issues such as whether a canal should go through the town centre, instead they are trying to hold a genuine consultation to determine how the people of Swindon feel. This was demonstrated by the polling cards they were asking people to complete at the stall on the 18th September, including questions such as whether the town centre is the best location for a university, and whether there should be a canal through the town centre. This makes a refreshing change from most consultations (such as the one being held upstairs by the Swindon Gateway Partnership) which feel more like a presentation of what's going to happen whether you like it or not. Indeed, some members of the public were slightly confused and asked the Civic Trust volunteers which box they were meant to tick, resulting in explanations that there wasn't a right or wrong answer to each question, only the answer that each individual felt was right.
Amongst the questions posed for passers-by to think about, were these four questions - Why can't the University of Bath....
1) ...begin to build at the Regent Circus Swindon College site?
2) ...use the Whale Bridge roundabout corners for a beautiful gateway to Central Swindon?
3) ...evolve into the North Star sites as time goes by and these sites become available?
4) ...be linked by a modern tram system?
There was quite a lot of public interest in the plans, with passers by stopping to peer at the maps and artists impressions before being engaged by Civic Trust volunteers to talk about what they want for the future of Swindon town centre. Many polling cards were completed, and quite a few signatures signed on the Save Coate petition, although a lot of those invited to sign had already signed it - there are over 10 thousand signatures so far, after all!
Local media were also present, with a man from the Evening Advertiser discreetly interviewing people at both the Gateway Partnership and Civic Trust stalls. A man from BBC Radio Swindon was also interviewing, but was summoned to the Centre Manager's office and told not to do any filming (even though he was under the impression he'd already obtained permission). Unfortunately, the Brunel Centre isn't a public space, it was sold to private interests in order to fill some of the black hole in Swindon Borough Council's pension fund, so now it is patrolled by people in red jackets from the Westfield shopping centre management company, who don't tend to like people promoting campaigns on their property.
A Civic Trust volunteer reported that at one point the Westfield staff attempted to evict the Swindon Civic Trust stall from their shopping centre, apparently on a request from one of the planning or development companies. However, a phone call to Julia Drown MP (who is currently earning more and more respect from me every time she does anything, provided you don't mention her support for the invasion of Iraq) soon put a stop to that, and the Trust volunteers were able to proceed with their consultation unmolested, on the condition that they did not carry out disruptive activities, such as distributing leaflets on a mobile basis.
On the whole, this was a very good day for the Swindon Civic Trust and the Save Coate campaign, with the average level of awareness of planning and development issues in the minds of the public raised a notch or two, and links starting to form in those minds between the various developments being proposed around the town, their impact on quality of life, and the way in which it is being driven by money rather than by the needs of the people of Swindon. Consequently, it wasn't such a good day for the New Swindon Company or the Swindon Gateway Partnership.
===== What you can do
* Write to your MP
Your MP cannot take an issue forward on your behalf unless they have letters and/or e-mails from their constituents to prove that it is an issue of public concern. Don't forget to include your name and postal address to prove that you are one of their constituents.
Michael Wills (Labour, Swindon North) - bloorl at parliament.uk
Julia Drown (Labour, Swindon South) - juliadrownmp at parliament.uk
Both can be also contacted by snail mail at
House of Commons
London SW1A 0AA
* Write to your local councillors
Your councillors may not even be aware what is going on unless you tell them! One councillor stated during the debate prior to the vote on whether to preserve Shaw Forest as a community forest for future generations that the elected arm of the council was often not kept informed, and was more likely to find out about things by reading the local paper than by being told by other sections of the council. Even if they are aware, they won't know what you think unless you tell them, and the Shaw Forest campaign demonstrated that councillors can be swayed by public opinion after all.
If you live in the area covered by Swindon Borough Council, you can find out who your councillors are at http://www.swindon.gov.uk/yourcouncil/yourcouncil-swindoncouncillors/yourcouncil-wards.htm
While you're at it, you can also write to Mike Bawden, leader of Swindon Borough Council.
* Write to the planning consultants DPDS telling them what you think of the plans to build on Coate
The Swindon Gateway Project
c/o DPDS, Old Bank House
5 Devizes Road
swindon-gateway at dpds.co.uk
(01793) 501614 during office hours
* Download & print the Save Coate petition
You can download a printable copy of the Save Coate petition from http://www.savecoate.org.uk/ - keep those signatures coming in!
* Hands around Coate
Make a cut-out of your hand from a cereal box or similar (don’t forget to include some wrist), write your name and a dedication to Coate on it, and send it to:
Hands Around Coate
These will be photocopied and the copies stored in a book of remembrance, and the originals will be used at the Hands Around Coate event at 2pm on Saturday 13th November at Coate Water Country Park.
* Sign Save Coate on-line petition
* Contact the Swindon Civic Trust to let them know what you want from the regeneration of the town centre, or to volunteer to help
Swindon Civic Trust
The Former Railway Museum
mail at swindoncivictrust.org.uk
The Trust are working on a web site - the domain name has already been secured, but Ordnance Survey copyright is currently a stumbling block. It seems almost impossible to publish any sort of detailed map (as one must do in order to explain plans for regeneration of the town centre) without handing over a large pile of cash - not an easy task for a charity!
===== Related links
Save Coate: http://www.savecoate.org.uk/
Wilts & Berks Canal Trust: http://www.wbct.org.uk/
Swindon Forest Protection Group: http://www.sfpg.org.uk/
New Swindon Company: http://www.newswindon.co.uk/
Swindon Gateway Partnership: http://www.swindon-gateway.co.uk/
Swindon Borough Council: http://www.swindon.gov.uk/
===== Related news
The STOP march (Swindonians Together On Planning): http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2004/06/292860.html
Shaw Forest saved, but new threat to Coate: http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2004/07/295296.html
(Note on this story - it was written just after Swindon Town Football Club had pulled out of their plan to build a stadium on Shaw Forest, and the Evening Advertiser had printed a story speculating that they might try to build it at Coate instead. This turns out to have been a red herring, and STFC aren't actively planning to do that - I'm sure they're not that stupid!)