Disconnecting People, Disconnecting Places

Whose tent is this?Yesterday I went to Swindon Borough Council’s central area Connecting People Connecting Places event in Wharf Green and the Parade. It was, to be generous, a waste of time.

Connecting People Connecting Places is Swindon Borough Council’s take on the government’s Communities in Control: Real People, Real Power policy. The alleged aim is to get people more interested in local government by taking power — not that there’s much left with all the centralisation and target setting by the current government — from local councils and giving it to groups of local people. Naturally, the thought that a better approach might be to take power from central and regional government and give it to local councils never crossed their mind.

With that poor and illogical reasoning behind its creation, Connecting People Connecting Places is never likely to do well. But the council and most councillors clearly aren’t trying hard either. Today’s event in the town centre had very little advanced publicity: just a page on the Swindon strategic partnership website and a news item on the Council’s website since last Thursday. The ‘cluster chair’ seemed quite unapologetic when this was lack of publicity was highlighted on the TalkSwindon forum. But given how poor the event was, I’m almost ashamed to have tried to publicise the event myself.

What was promised sounded fairly impressive.

Ward members will be on hand between 11am and 2pm at both locations with officers from Swindon Borough Council, the Local Neighbourhood Policing Team, Wiltshire Fire & Rescue Service and other volunteers to hear residents’ opinions.

There was no missing the police presence: it seemed as though every member of central Swindon’s police teams was on hand, particularly at Wharf Green. Anyone would think they’d nothing better to do, such as controlling crime. The fire service was also at Wharf Green and inSwindon in the Parade. Less visible were the ward councillors. I saw just two, both dressed in anonymous suits with nothing to identify them as councillors. In fact there was virtually nothing to identify this as a council event at all. It was more a ‘meet the police’ event than a ‘connect with your council’ event.

Council officers will use people’s favourite places in the centre of Swindon to create a virtual Google map. The map will also be used to chart areas where there are problems.

I saw paper maps and post-it notes.

In principle, using different approaches to engage with residents in sensible; but not when it’s as poorly thought out and executed as this was.

Fantasy worlds

It’s difficult to decide which is least believable. First there’s LDA Design making over-the-top claims for Wharf Green (You can either read the original press release, or its recycled form in the Adver).

The square has given a real boost to the town centre and its ambitious long-term plans for regeneration.

Or the even more ridiculous claims in their submission to The Civic Trust’s awards.

Wharf Green provides a first impression for many visitors, and this scheme has redeveloped the area to provide a new town centre square, meeting and public performance space. A large scale timber façade serves to both integrate a large TV screen and conceal an unattractive car park, making the area more welcoming. The landscaping has softened a large space and encourages people in to make use of this improved public space.

The only visitors for whom Wharf Green would provide a first impression of Swindon are those arriving by parachute, blindfolded. And in what way has digging up the old flower beds and replacing them with an uninterrupted expanse of paving stones ‘softened a large space’? Developer hyperbole, one; reality nil.

But move to the edge of town and the claims, this time by the campaigners, are no more realistic. There, the Jefferies Land Conservation Trust has wild claims for the potential that a few stones indicate for the area near Coate Water.

There is a real chance here to create almost a mini-Avebury…. Whilst not on the scale of Avebury, it is so exciting to know that Coate is steeped in similar pre-history…. It would be criminal to surround these ancient relics of the past with modern buildings.

That’s not on the same scale as Avebury in the way that Swindon isn’t on the same scale as London, or that Coate Water isn’t on the same scale as Lake Windermere.

Developers and environmental campaigners are often opposed to each other, but when it comes to having a grasp on reality, both are equally out-of-touch.

A remembrance too many

Perhaps it’s just been poorly presented, but the plan by the inSwindon company to run a remembrance event in Wharf Green at the same time as the main remembrance ceremony at the memorial in Regents Circus seems inappropriate. If it is, as inSwindon claim ‘a very simple event’ then it might be reasonable — an opportunity for busy people to take some time to remember, without the formality of a normal remembrance ceremony. But that’s not the way it appears. An event with bagpipes, poetry readings and a parade is beyond being ‘very simple’.

Remembrance events should be primarily for remembrance, not to promote the latest town centre redevelopment.

Big screen, small crowd

As mentioned in the comments to the Adver’s story and as apparent in the Beeb’s photo gallery of the launch of the big screen in Wharf Green, the crowd was small. Some may say that’s because of the timing (Friday afternoon) or the lack of publicity. However, both the small crowd and lack of publicity suggest that the town’s people have not been deceived by the hype that continues to follow the big screen.

This will instil a sense of civic pride in the people of Swindon.

There are many that criticise Swindon and its people. The lack of interest in this event shows that the aspirations of the people of Swindon and their perception of what would instil civic pride are above what the Beeb’s Mr Burnett-Godfree, and others who have over-promoted the big screen, would have us believe.

I also note from the comments to the Adver’s story that someone with pretensions (albeit fanciful) to represent South Swindon in parliament, has obviously not visited the town centre for a long time, nor followed the local news on which he chooses to comment.

There’s something on the telly!

The BBC Big Screen Swindon in Wharf Green has now been switched on, with workmen busily filling in the remaining gaps in the paving. This must now be one of the most inappropriately named places in Swindon, being named after a wharf that disappeared almost a hundred years ago, and now bereft of almost all greenery. As for the screen itself, the newly planted row of trees (to make up for some of those cut down last year) help obscure it from Canal Walk. Having now seen the screen working, I remain of the opinion that it will not live up to the hype. It’s a welcome addition to the town centre, but nothing stunning.
There’s something in the way!That’s a lot of wood there


I find the level of enthusiasm exhibited by Swindon Borough Council’s leader Mr Bluh and the New Swindon Company’s chief executive Mr James in their video interview with SwindonWeb quite remarkable, commendable… and cringe-inducing.

The big screen will be a major attraction for Swindon, the only one in the south of England…. You get that feeling when things are right, and this feels right for this location.

Hmm… Mr Bluh may have that feeling but the feeling I get is distinctly different. I just cannot believe that a big BBC screen in Wharf Green will be a popular meeting point for visitors to Swindon, as Mr James seems to think. An attraction maybe, but a meeting point?

[We’ve got to] make a place that people can meet and sit down and say, well lets meet at Wharf Green, by the big screen, because we understand there’s something going on there.

One other thought. Is SwindonWeb’s Ms Heber-Smith not subject to health and safety laws? I see that she alone is not wearing a high-visibility jacket in the interview on what is a construction site.