Tag: LDF

Spatial squabbling

Both the blue and red nests seem to be keen to blame t’other side for proposals to build 3000 houses to the west of Swindon. The government’s representative in South Swindon, Ms Snelgrove, would have us believe that it’s all the fault of the blues.

Under current proposals Tory run Wiltshire County Council plan to build 3,000 new homes neighbouring West Swindon…. The Regional Spatial Strategy that sets out housing numbers for each local authority area was drafted by the Tory controlled Regional Assembly (now known as the South West Leaders Council).

Naturally, her opponent lays the blame on the reds.

Yesterday, Labour bizarrely criticised the Conservatives for the Regional Spatial Strategy, which has led to plans for 3,000 houses next to West Swindon. But only four months ago, Labour’s South Swindon MP strongly supported the RSS, saying, “it lays out important manageable growth figures for Swindon”.

As is so often the case in politics, all are suffering from selective memory loss.

The Regional Spatial Strategy is a consequence of the planning legislation introduced by the current government (red). The housing targets in it were set by the government (red). The strategy itself was produced by the South West Regional Assembly, now known as South West Councils (both blue). This is a document that seems to aim to solve the housing problems of rural Devon and Cornwall by building in the corner of the region that is furthest from those two counties — 34,000 houses were to be built in Swindon. Not satisfied with this distortion, the government (red) added another 2000 houses to Swindon’s allocation plus another 1000 in North Wiltshire in ‘urban extensions’ to Swindon.

Where to put those 37,000 houses? The Regional Spatial Strategy identified a large area to the east of Swindon, the Eastern Development Area. Swindon Borough Council (blue) in the first draft of their Core Strategy identified a number of other ‘areas of search’ where there could be significant development. One was at Tadpole lane. It also suggested where the urban extensions in North Wiltshire added by the government should be: near Ridgeway Farm and Moredon Bridge. Neighbouring North Wiltshire District Council (varying hues) objected to Swindon making plans beyond its border.

Now Wiltshire Council (blue, successor to North Wiltshire District and Wiltshire County Councils) is consulting on its own Core Strategy. It allocates land near Swindon’s western border for 3000 houses. In doing so it follows where the Government’s development strategy, the South West Regional Spatial Strategy and Swindon Core Strategy have lead.

With that provenance, neither main party is innocent in the conversion of Swindon into a suburban sprawl.

Discouraging response

I’ve spent much time recently completing my comments on Swindon Borough Council’s Core Strategy. It was pleasing to see that many comments on the earlier draft seemed have been taken into account.

Whilst the council’s officials may be responsive to the comments they receive on their strategies, there seems to have been little effort to make it easy to submit those comments. The online response form remains as poor as last time. And unlike last time where any means, within reason, of submitting comments was accepted, for this final stage of consultation only comments on the official forms were accepted. Unlike a printable form, where one can see what’s coming next, with this online form that’s not possible. So just copying the words from the printable form onto the online form — which is what’s been done in this case — doesn’t work. It was a case of filling in one screen of the form, moving onto the next screen, only to find it asking for something I’d put on the previous screen, resulting in lots of clicking back-and-forth to cut-and-paste material into the right section of the form.

It’s also noticeable that in all their consultations, Swindon Borough Council’s Forward Planning Group give little publicity until the final round of consultation. So in the earlier rounds — where the planning rules allow people to have real influence — there are few comments, with many of those that might have something to say unaware until the final stage where the rules are very restrictive. And the Adver played along with an almost continuous dripdrip of stories based on this version of the Core Strategy, but was almost silent during the earlier rounds, even though the proposals now highlighted were in previous versions of the strategy. It’s good that they’ve covered the story, just unfortunate that they left it so late.

Finally, two predictions for the next round of the process, examination of the strategy by a planning inspector. The first is that the Save Coate campaigners will try to make it a one-topic examination, in much the same way as the New Mechanics Institute did with the Central Area Action Plan. The second is that, like them, they’ll again be unsuccessful.

Developing the party line

It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that the vote at last night’s council meeting to oppose the Eastern Development Area proposals ended up dividing along party lines. It seems that the local red nest are totally ignorant of what their party’s mismanagement of the economy and distortion of the housing market has done, as illustrated by the comments of Mr Grant.

This plan will deliver much needed affordable housing to Swindon. We should be trying to make sure that the development is eco-friendly and includes green technology — we should back this development for the future of Swindon.

At the moment, just about the only building going on in Swindon’s northern and southern development areas is the construction of so-called affordable housing. And if you look at the prices of those ‘affordable’ houses, you’ll notice that most are more expensive than the equivalent allegedly unaffordable houses in other parts of Swindon. Forcing developers to make 30% of any large development ‘affordable’ just forces the average price of housing up without solving the underlying problem.

If you want to make housing affordable, the only way to do it is to ensure that supply exceeds demand. The recent collapse in the economy has done more to bring that about than market distorting government rules on affordable housing ever will.

Crunch, Stretch, Weave

Swindon Eastern Development AreaI spent yesterday wading through Swindon Borough Council’s consultation document on the proposed Eastern Development Area. With the main document running to over 90 pages, and almost 240 pages of supporting documentation, it wasn’t easy going. The consultants seem to have been enjoying themselves, with the document stuffed full of jargon. I have now been introduced to phrases such as “functional green infrastructure links”, “benchmark for exemplar sustainable development” and “urban acupuncture”.

It’s only once one has got through almost 30 pages of this guff that there’s something of substance about what is actually planned. For those living in South Marston and East Swindon it’s bad news.

It is important that South Marston retains its independent identity as a settlement and does not coalesce with Swindon.

The consultants have an… errm… unique way of doing that. The proposals change South Marston beyond recognition, more than doubling it in size, or in planner-speak “significantly enhance the sustainable credentials of the village”.

For those in East Swindon, there’s just a few fuzzy words about not increasing the likelihood of flooding, with nothing to say about the severity of flooding. There’s much talk of the ‘benefits’ the development might bring to East Swindon, but these are dependent on the most expensive option — The Crunch — being selected: an option that requires government subsidy to bury the A419 at the White Hart Roundabout. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that with the current government having run up a level of debt that would shame a 1980s third-world dictator, that money isn’t going to be forthcoming. Which leaves us with one of the other options, The Stretch or The Weave — just what were the consultants on? — with a new town centre facing South Marston across the railway line as the most likely outcome.

Unusually for anti-development campaigns in Swindon, the campaigners actually seem to have got their act together and learnt from the mistakes of some of the less effective recent campaigns. No petitions, but 200 individual responses submitted to the council. The last time there was a consultation on a similar matter, the Central Area Action Plan, the number of responses from individuals could be counted on one hand.

The consultation closes at 4.30 pm tomorrow.

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.


Swindon Eastern Development Area, from figure three of Swindon’s Core StrategyI first came across the Campaign to Protect Rural England (then known as the Council for the Protection of Rural England, CPRE) as a child living in West Sussex, when they seemed intent on having the majority of the county frozen at some point in an imaginary Victorian past. (They still do.) My impression then was of an organisation of city dwellers and rich commuters that knew little of the countryside and wanted to preserve it as a playground for the rich, regardless of the implications of that for rural communities. (The organisation’s original name included the word ‘preservation’ rather than ‘protection’.)

As someone who has now been a town dweller myself for twenty years, I’m really no different from my description of them, but nevertheless find the comments of the chairman of their North Wiltshire branch on the South West Regional Spatial Strategy still tainted with the same lack of reality. There’s much in what they say about the proposed eastern expansion of Swindon to supply the 36,000 extra houses imposed on us (as described in Swindon Borough Council’s Core Strategy) that I agree with.

There needs to be a major investment in water supplies, sewerage and public transport to support the proposed increase of 36,000 more houses in Swindon and an additional 13,000 new homes in the surrounding areas. Already there are instances of severe sewage overflow; the existing infrastructure cannot cope. It is time the Government listened to our concerns over building in the flood plains, for the protection of Coate Water, and for maintaining the separate identities of Swindon’s neighbouring communities.

There’s nought wrong with any of that. But then they go a bit off track.

Expansion outwards has left a dead centre and a fall in the economy.

To ascribe the problems of the town centre to the growth of the town is bizarre. On that analysis, city centres like Manchester, Sheffield and Nottingham should be long dead and feeding the daisies. As the CPRE also say, central Swindon needs regeneration, but that regeneration can never supply the sort of living environment that outward expansion — welcome or not — could.

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!