East Wichel up close: an essay in little boxes part 23

Victoriana with a barnRecently I went for a wander along the recently built streets of East Wichel. Despite the intentions of the developers to make it look ‘vibrant’, the main impression is of row upon row of terraced housing; little Victorian-style boxes which, although all different, look drab and monotonous. The only thing to break the monotony are the barn-like blocks of flats: they just look out-of-place.

I’ve also been in receipt of some sales spin from one of the developers.

[T]he town has been inhabited since at least the Saxon times, evolving from a small market town with the arrival of the industrial revolution into the thriving residential and commercial centre that it is today.

Let’s just forget the damage that the current — thriving even — recession has done, shall we?

For sheer variety, Swindon’s extensive range of amenities is hard to beat.

The copy writer must have lead a very sheltered life.

From the quirkiness of the Old Town to the more contemporary retail parks and a designer outlet, shoppers are exceptionally well catered for, with numerous cafes, bar and restaurants to choose from.

No mention there of shops nor of the town centre. Lots of well fed ‘shoppers’ with nothing to buy then. They’ve thought of that though: they have a fitness plan.

In addition to a cinema and arts centre, the town boasts two leisure centres and a golf course.

Just two leisure centres? What’s happened to the other eight?

[T]he ideal base from which to explore many of the museums and historic places of interest which enrich the region.

And what about Swindon’s own museums and historic places? Aahhmmoops!

Planning decay

You could be forgiven for thinking that Swindon Borough Council now has an obligation to find alternative uses for the Mechanics Institute. That’s certainly the impression that the Adver’s report gives.

A Planning Inspectorate report on the Swindon Central Area Action Plan says it has seen no evidence that other sources of cash have been explored to restore the building as a centre for learning, cultural and social activities. It says the council must demonstrate alternative ownership and a cultural learning centre is not feasible before it can look at other uses of the building.

It’s not true: the council doesn’t have to demonstrate anything. The planning inspector’s report on Swindon Borough Council’s Central Area Action Plan is very careful not to point at who has that obligation. These are some of her comments.

The Mechanics Institute is privately-owned. Although there is strong support to bring the building back into public ownership, the ongoing revenue costs of maintaining the building would impose a substantial financial burden on the Council. Consequently, the acquisition of the building by the local authority was discarded as an option in favour of working with the owner to deliver a sensitive re-use of the building that would secure its long term survival….

Whilst public ownership of the Mechanics Institute does not appear to be a viable option, there is no evidence that other sources of funding to help restore the building and reinstate its historic use as a centre for learning, cultural and social activities have been considered, or other ownership options have been explored…. The policy is not framed with such options in mind. Moreover, as drafted, it fails to encapsulate the important place of the building in the heart of the local community, both physically and emotionally

The changes she has made to the plan and its policies as a result also make no reference to the council.


Before alternative uses are considered, the availability of grant assistance and the option of charitable or community ownership should be explored in order to establish whether it is feasible to reinstate the historic use of this listed building as a centre for learning, cultural and social activities.


If it is demonstrated that reinstating the historic use of the Mechanics Institute as a centre for learning, cultural and social activities is not feasible, then other options for the future use of this listed building will be considered. Such uses should be sympathetic to, and compatible with, the historic character and role of the building, deliver public access to, and use of, the building’s main rooms as far as possible, and be of a nature that would not adversely impact on the amenity of Railway Village residents

That reads to me like it’s for the owner, Mr Singh, to demonstrate that his proposals are the only viable option… and for those who oppose his plans to demonstrate that they aren’t. Swindon Borough Council is the pawn in the middle, running the planning process. While the arguments rumble on, the Mechanics Institute continues to decay.

On the wrong track

One of the common features of pressure groups and campaigns is their one-tracked pursuit of their goals, impervious to whether the approach they are taking is so inappropriate as to actually prevent them being taken seriously, ultimately reducing the likelihood of them achieving their goals. So it is with the New Mechanics Institution Preservation Trust. They will be making representations to the planning inspector who is currently assessing Swindon Borough Council’s Central Area Action Plan. The plan covers many things and the Railway Village is a relatively small part of that… and the Mechanics Institute an even smaller part still.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s perfectly appropriate for the Mechanics Institute to be a topic for discussion during the inspector’s examination of the action plan, but her remit is limited to issues of planning policy and strategy. Who owns individual properties is not a planning policy matter. Using the examination, as they are, as a means for yet again peddling the Preservation Trust’s view that the Mechanics Institute should be in their their ‘community’ ownership for community use is way beyond what inspector’s remit. Wasting everyone’s time making arguments that aren’t relevant just annoys and detracts from the small smattering of arguments in the Trust’s case that the inspector can consider.

If they want to yet again be labelled as vexatious, the New Mechanics Institution Preservation Trust seem to be going the right way about it.


That’s the opinion of the council officer commenting on the New Mechanics’ Institution Preservation Trust’s submission on a licensing application from Forefront Properties. It is the latest bout in the saga of the GWR Mechanics’ Institution building. As reported in the Adver, the council officer’s view is that

The overall sentiment of the letter from the Trust appears to be that no-one other than the Trust should be permitted to bring the Mechanics’ Institute into use.

However, we only have the council officer’s opinion of that as, in the papers for the licensing panel meeting, they have edited out everything they view as inadmissible. The sentiment expressed in what little is left, seems significantly more restrained than that described by the council officer. It seems a bit odd that the panel are being asked to make a judgement on whether the submission was vexatious, without being given the evidence.

A tale of two stones

I’m not sure which I find more ridiculous: the leader of the New Mechanics Preservation Trust, bewailing the loss of some sarsen stones at Wharf Green, that were barely noticeable to most shoppers. (She does seem to have a fixation with large stones in parks.)

In trying to create new Swindon they are trashing old Swindon. I feel quite sad and disappointed this has happened. Apparently they were too heavy to move. They are a local material and they had tremendous presence. They could have been used in a car park or put in a park.

Or our council leader, eulogising on the return of the facade of the Baptist Tabernacle that will be nothing more than an out-of-place token gesture to the past in a modern development.

It is nice to see the stone back. I did see the stones all jumbled up in Northampton. But to see them here, sorted, in boxes, and being put into slots, has been quite a moment for me. Of course now it’s just a gigantic jigsaw puzzle for someone to start putting back together. I wanted to get the stone back because I thought it could be an important symbol in the regeneration of Swindon, but all along I have thought that to bring this off would be nothing short of a miracle.

Between them, they illustrate why the preservation of Swindon’s industrial past has fared so badly.