Tag: action

Housing a university

Mr Tomlinson seem rather poorly informed about his own council’s plans for the town centre. The University of the West of England has long-term plans for a campus of up to 10,000 students in Swindon. Those plans are very long term according to the university’s Mr Rushforth, quoted in the Adver.

Ideally we would like to see some headway on [a town centre site] within the next year. Obviously within such a short time period that would be in the form of something like a drop-in centre. It would take around three to four years before we could open the site, and we would be looking at around 1,000 students to begin with, rising to five or six thousand. Given our ambitions we would hope over a 20-year or so period to get something like 10,000 students.

Assuming some of those students are local, it would be an equally long time before there would need to be overspill from a North Star campus, which Swindon Borough Council’s Central Area Action Plan estimates could provide a campus for 7,000. At the alternative site near Coate there’s even more space. Even if the estimate for North Star is rather generous, which it seems to be, so are most universities’ estimates of their own growth potential. The University of the West of England’s ambitions correspond to it growing by 33% from its current 30,000 students — not much evidence of modest predictions there.

So why is Mr Tomlinson worrying about the effect a university might have on housing?

I am concerned about affordable accommodation being hoovered up by landlords wanting to attract students. One of the things that makes Swindon attractive… is the cost of housing and I am worried about the effect a university would have on that, and whether we would see businesses leaving Swindon. If they could build a campus for 10,000 students I would have less concern.

That looks like a bad case of compassionate ignorance to me. Being concerned for the socially disadvantaged may be a virtue; ignorance of the plans of an administration that he was, until the end of last week, a member, is not.

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.

The wet approach to traffic management

I’ve heard a slightly different explanation from any given so far of why Swindon Borough Council wants to build a canal along its chosen route. The explanation came from one of the canal trust’s officers.

One of the features of Swindon’s traffic highlighted in the council’s Central Area Action Plan is the high proportion of traffic that passes through the town centre. The plan aims to reduce this, so that most of the traffic left is actually going to or from the town centre rather than just passing through. The aforementioned canal trust officer said the reason the council wants to build a canal down Faringdon Road and Fleet Street is as part of that traffic management scheme. So the potential traffic congestion that our recently elected councillor was complaining of in his election campaign would be intentional rather than an unwanted side-effect.

I’m not sure how good the canal trust officer’s information source is, but it’s certainly a slightly different slant on the possible benefits of a new canal.

Update, Tuesday, 13 May: To clarify, the canal trust officer’s view was that the main reason for building the canal down Faringdon Road was for it’s traffic management effects rather than because, as the council have said, that would be the best place in terms of its civic amenity and tourist attraction value.

Making it up as he paddles along

Some organisations make odd choices for the people they put forward as their public representatives. Take the Swindon branch of the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust for example. Rather than putting forward someone with a robust knowledge of both the canal’s history and the current proposals for its reinstatement, they instead put forward their chairman, Mr Cartwright, whose knowledge of both seems to be distinctly lacking. Consider his comments on the canal history.

From an historical point of view the reason the canal was closed was because of its threat to health.

Err… no. After it closed, the canal was filled-in by the council on health grounds, but reason it closed was because it was a commercial failure, only making money for a short time during the construction of the railway and railway works in Swindon. Despite that short period of profit, neither its original promoters, nor its subsequent owners, recovered the money they invested. But enough history, what about today?

There is no £50m, so if the canal is not built the money will not be available to anywhere else. The regeneration of Swindon has been priced and the canal would add two pence in the pound to the cost.

Again, incorrect. If the canal plans were not there, the council could choose to levy a charge on developers to support other improvements in the town centre. As to the significance of the cost, Mr Cartwright should have a read of the implementation section of Swindon’s Central Area Action Plan. That identifies the cost to the council of developments in the town centre as £145m. That makes the cost of the canal thirty four pence in the pound, rather more than the two pence that Mr Cartwright suggests. Even adding in the boroughwide costs of the town centre redevelopment only brings the proportion down to fourteen pence in the pound.

If even its most ardent enthusiasts cannot make a coherent argument in support of reinstating the canal, is it in any wonder that so many in Swindon remain sceptical?

A future from the past

I went along to the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust’s new information centre in Regent Circus today, where, amongst other things, they are promoting their hopes and the council’s plans for a canal through Swindon town centre. Whilst, not surprisingly, some of the volunteers there were very knowledgeable about the canal proposals, what was rather alarming was how poorly informed they were about the Council’s plans that would support their aspirations — the Central Area Action Plan. Alarming, because it is the developer contributions from the central area development which Swindon Borough Council says will pay for the canal, and because the plan says quite a lot about the canal and some of it contradicts what those from the Canal Trust are saying. But then, some of what they were saying is well into the realms of fantastic optimism over realism — trams and mass pedestrianisation in Swindon? I don’t think so! (Further pedestrianisation has already discounted in an earlier draft of the plan).

I’ve also adjusted the level of concern I would feel if I lived in Erin Court or Shire Court from ‘a little worried’ to quite worried. The new draft of the Central Area Action Plan incorporates a Gateway at Kingshill.

The Gateway at Kingshill
The buildings in the Shire and Erin Court area are visually poor. This area is, however, effectively a gateway into Central Swindon and as such is identified as redevelopment opportunity area on the Proposals Map.
The redevelopment of this area would remove the potential need for an awkward ‘S bend’ and would allow for the canal to be designed along a straighter alignment. The final alignment of the canal route through this area would be detailed at the design stage of the Shire and Erin Court redevelopment.

That sounds to me like compulsory purchase and demolition on its way. No other properties seem to be so clearly identified in the plan for long-term planning blight as these are.

I also see that the ghosts last sighted outside the Falcon pub have now appeared in the action plan outside the old GWR hospital, with one of them wearing a Brunelesque top hat. So much for this being ‘forward planning’….

Your caring, sharing, local development company

I’ve been reading through the comments and council responses on the preferred options draft of the Swindon Central Area Action Plan, which was considered at at last Thursday’s council meeting. The same document also contains the submission draft of the Action Plan, which is open for consultation until 4.30 pm on 11th February 2008 — so much for the promised communication on how my comments would be considered… I’m still waiting for the council’s forward planning group to write.

The last objection from the New Swindon Company (on page 42) shows how much they care about the local communities just beyond the ‘core of the central area’.

The key players should include The New Swindon Company. The proposal to invite tenders for the improvement of public realm beyond the core of the central area seems to be short sighted. There is limited funding available for the improvement of the public realm, and the development of the Wharf Green scheme has shown that the improvement of the public realm to a high standard can be an expensive practice.

Thanks for sharing!

An apple a day keeps the town planners away

I’d not noticed until someone pointed it out to me that, in addition to the Central Area Action Plan, there is also a Core Strategy for future development of Swindon currently out for consultation (deadline for comments is Wednesday 23rd May). Apparently, Swindon has green fingers.

A significant feature of past development in Swindon has been the creation and retention of ‘green fingers’ between areas of development. This provides the opportunity for green infrastructure to be enhanced and increased as the town grows.

Slowly but surely, the planning framework is turning into a green skeleton. Next we need some green arms, to join the green fingers to the Central Action Plan’s green spine.

One bit of advice. If you’re thinking of using the online form to send the council your answers to the almost ninety questions that the Core Strategy contains,… don’t. It doesn’t work. The numbering of the questions doesn’t match the numbering in the consultation document and most of your answers will be lost. ’Tis far safer (and easier) to email your comments to the council.

Planned insights

I’ve been reading through the latest version of Swindon Borough Council’s Central Area Action Plan which is now out for consultation. It’s nice to see that, as hoped for, the Green Spine now has a bit more body to it, looking a little like a headless running stickman (though I think I detect a green football and a green sombrero in there too).

The plan includes some masterpieces of thoughtful insight. An observation on page 27 is the epitome of this erudition.

[Crime] hotspots remain and concerns about crime and anti-social behaviour are still evident in Central Swindon, and in particular in the Bridge Street and Fleet Street Area. In this area, the peak times for violent offences, is in the evenings and at weekends, which suggests a strong link with alcohol misuse.

Only suggests? Move on to page 65.

The dominance of drinking establishments in the Fleet Street area has by a large margin given rise to more crime in the area than at any other location in Swindon.

Aah… a little bit of realism at last. More seriously, this unclear thinking goes deeper than just presenting the obvious as thoughtful observations. When considering the not-so-obvious, some of the statements are, with a little thought, just plain wrong. Move on to page 94.

A significant proportion of these private rented properties are Houses in Multiple Occupancy (HMOs). This high proportion of private rented accommodation is to a large extent a by-product of the exodus of families from Central Swindon.

To confuse ‘cause and effect’ with ‘supply and demand’ is a serious mistake in a document whose prime purpose is to regulate the supply of property over the next twenty years.


Swindon Borough Council’s Central Area Action Plan will be out for consultation from the end of this month. Whilst full of big visions that make good headlines, the ‘action’ will be spread over quite a long period… until 2026. Worth a look, if only to see if you can find some green arms and green legs to go with the proposed green spine. A green man amongst the streets of Swindon would be a unique planning concept.