The cut and run approach to regeneration

It seems that far from being a fresh start for Swindon’s economic and physical regeneration, Forward Swindon, the reincarnation of the New Swindon Company, is, as I’ve noted before, repackaging failure. And it goes right to the top of the organisation. Mr James, erstwhile chief executive of The New Swindon Company, cut-and-ran when the going got tough. It was rather a habit for him. In as much as she is, for the moment, considerably more circumspect in her comments, the new chief executive of Forward Swindon, Karen Walker, is an improvement. But like her predecessor, her record for seeing the job through to its end is not good. Indeed, so successful was the last regeneration company that she led, in Sandwell, that all three of its public-sector backers pulled the plug on its funding last year.

Given the current state of Swindon Borough Council’s finances, Ms Walker might find a greater sense of ‘continuity’ between her old and new jobs than she was expecting.

Fun and arms

Fun and force in the park. Photo © komadori.I find the Family Fun Day in Faringdon Road Park on Armed Forces Day a rather odd event. Now in its second year, the event seems to have replaced the only recently revived Children’s Fete held in July. It’s not that I have anything against Armed Forces Day, just that this particular event is a rather odd combination.

Guess where the Deputy Mayor shops. Photo © komadori.The Children’s Fete was, as its name suggested, very much an event for children, with games and competitions run in the centre of the park and a fun fair round the edge on the Faringdon Road side of the park. For the adults, there were some municipal, charitable and craft stalls on the Park Lane and Church Place sides of the park. The family fun day is similar, but the events seem aimed at slightly older children, and in place of the stalls there is assorted military hardware and military charities. Thus today we had an “It’s the knockout” type event, with much water thrown around, whilst the local civic dignitary inspected military vehicles.

Games without frontiers” surrounded by those that enforce frontiers doesn’t quite work.

Swindon Tories back socialist town centre

The boys in Bluh ensconced in Swindon Borough Council are rapidly becoming the least conservative Conservatives in the country. What other Conservative controlled council would go for a government funded, local-government owned town centre regeneration? So far the only part of the regeneration of Swindon town centre to be privately funded is the rebuilding of the BHS store — which was never part of the New Swindon Company’s grand scheme. The big screen in Wharf Green belongs to the BBC. Repaving of Canal Walk and Regent Street is funded from government grants. Now the council is propping up the Union Square development by buying a car park for over £14M from developers Muse.

Last November, we were told that work on Union Square would be ‘starting on site in summer 2010’. As I said back then, never believe a project plan based on the seasons. Summer 2010 is here, but nothing’s happened, not even a planning application. As recently as December, Mr Bluh told usWe have the Union Square development going ahead’. As is so often the case, the easy way to tell whether Mr Bluh is spouting ignorant twaddle is to see if his lips are moving.

Last week, buried in a cabinet report ostensibly about lowering the charges at the council’s town centre car parks were options for splurging more of our money. The report makes it clear how ill-informed Mr Bluh’s earlier comments were.

It is clear that if the Council is unable to take up an option on the car park, the development would remain unviable in the current market. MUSE have indicated that they would mothball the project and unless there is a significant improvement in the economic situation, there would be unlikely to be any redevelopment for the foreseeable future.

And thus it is that the residents of Swindon once again find themselves at risk of picking up the financial tab for one of Mr Bluh’s grandiose schemes.

Hat-tip: Bogomil on TalkSwindon.

Closing the Gateway

With the recent pronouncement that the housing targets of the Regional Spatial Strategy should nolonger be a material planning consideration, the Swindon Gateway Partnership may feel they’ve wasted their money submitting yet another planning application. Like its predecessors, the new application depends heavily on the targets of the Regional Spatial Strategy to justify concreting over much of Commonhead, near Coate Water. Lets hope that the dying Regional Spatial Strategy will take this development proposal with it to the grave.

Now, the developers may, rightly, point out that the development area in the new plan is little more than that identified in the Swindon Borough Council’s Core Strategy. But it is more. The development area in the new application extends slightly further south than the area the council identified for possible development. The developers also want to squeeze 960 little boxes houses into an area the council believes can only accommodate 750. More importantly, the Core Strategy was written to meet the targets in the Regional Spatial Strategy and at the moment is still only in draft. With the Regional Strategy now being hurriedly buried, the Core Strategy’s housing targets should also be seen as immaterial.

Swindon may well need many more houses to be built, but squeezing almost 1000 of them into this particular space at Commonhead is not the way to do it.

The weekend’s big sporting event

The quack 8000. © komadori.For those either disappointed or just not interested in 22 men kicking a ball around, today had the highlight event of Swindon’s sporting calendar — the duck race. On an overcast day, attendance was good (the event was washed-out a couple of years ago). It was even graced with the presence of a councillor, the cabinet member for children’s services, Mr Renard, seemingly trying to go incognito by donning a pair of sunglasses.

Duckwise, it was, apparently, a bumper year, with over 8000 entries, all of which were plucked from the water once the race was over. Despite there being two clear front runners at the halfway mark, they tired towards the end, with the race being an almost dead-heat between several hundred ducks.

Dial-a-cut

I’d not been aware that social and community transport is a hotbed of international competition, with companies from other EU countries queuing up for a piece of the action. Indeed, given the strength of the UK’s bus industry — Stagecoach, First Group and National Express are all international operations with the only strong overseas presence in the UK being French state owned Transdev and imminently German state owned Arriva — and community transport being almost by definition transport services that are highly unviable commercially, it would be amazing if that ever were to be the case. However, Swindon Borough Council seems to believe that European community bus operators will be queuing out the door if they put out to tender the service currently provided by Swindon Dial A Ride.

’Tis odd that Swindon Borough Council is happy to apply European competition law to a small non-commercial transport operation, yet elsewhere claims it’s irrelevant to giving almost £½M to a company launching a service in what’s already a highly competitive industry.

Update, 22:11 Thursday 27 May. Apparently, the EU regulation being used by the council is one specific to public transport rather than the general competition-related regulations originally thought. But it’s a regulation that specifically defines ‘public passenger transport’ to exclude services such as social dial-a-ride services.

Regenerating

Photographs from newly renovated Canal Walk in Swindon town centre. The effect is far better than I’d anticipated.
Canal Walk looking towards Wharf Green
Canal Walk looking towards The Parade
’Tis unfortunate that MacDonald’s are flouting the arrangements for the regeneration by placing their advertising board as an obstacle in the middle of the street.
Spot the stray advert
The only less successful part of the regeneration of the street scene is the new fountain, which has a tendency to dribble.
The Golden Lion eyes up its usurper
All photographs © komadori.

Fountain or folly?

I’m sure that, on paper, the new fountain at the crossroads of Canal Walk, Bridge Street and Regent Street was a good idea. I’m sure that, in model form, the water cascaded nicely down what is now almost £¼M of curvy metal and into the drains below. But the reality is somewhat different.

I passed the fountain this morning. There were no children playing around the fountain then, but the flow of water was just a trickle, and what little water there was was mainly splashing on the paving rather than running through the drainage grills. Come the winter, just how long will it take for Swindon Borough Council to be the recipient of an insurance claim for a fall on ice from the fountain? It could be better; it should be better; perhaps with a few tweaks it will be better, but for the moment the fountain looks like an expensive folly.

Whose bus service is it anyway?

Others have already covered in some detail the buck-passing that has followed the re-routing of Stagecoach Route 54 away from Freshbrook. They’ve already noted that there’s been a certain amount of uninformed Braying going on. Quite why, given his political affiliation, Mr Bray is disappointing with the functioning of market forces puzzles me. But then, given how poor Mr Bray’s memory is, perhaps that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Over 400 members of the travelling public have signed a petition requesting the service be reinstated. They and I believe it will attract many more customers if it is properly advertised, unlike its arrival out of the blue in 2007.

Now there are many things that Stagecoach might reasonably be accused of, but being publicity-shy is not one of them. I’m not sure how much publicity it would need to get Mr Bray’s attention, but Routes 54 and 55 and the TransWilts Express all received extensive publicity — to accompany new buses and a more frequent service — when they were revamped in 2007 with the aid of a part-funded government scheme.

And just as in town planning, a petition is worthless. What matters is the number of passengers. If the majority of passengers are travelling from Wootton Bassett to central Swindon — as Stagecoach clearly believe — then a fifteen minute detour round the suburbs of west Swindon is no incentive to leave the car at home and take the bus instead.