Tag: regeneration

Good, but not so good

Debenhams’ faded gloryWhilst it’s clearly good news in some ways that Debenhams’ Swindon store is to receive a £1.5M refit, in other ways it’s not so good. Not so long ago, Debenhams was to be the flagship store in the Regent Place development. That failed. That they’re now choosing to refit their existing store, whilst it may indicate a commitment to Swindon, shows that plans for something greater are now well and truly buried.

It looks as though rather than waiting for the council to replan its stalled town centre regeneration, the retail industry has already made its decisions and moved on.

Forward Swindon — repackaging failure?

On the same day that the University of the West of England announced it had ditched plans to build a university in Swindon, thereby knocking yet another hole in the masterplan for Swindon town centre regeneration, the council’s fantasist leader Mr Bluh was busy burying his head in the sand.

2010 will see us kicking off out of the recession because of the resilience we have here in Swindon.

The only resilience I see is in Mr Bluh’s habit of throwing our money at vanity projects.

[I]n 2009 we had one of the best years in getting the name of the Swindon known better around the country — getting rid of the speed cameras, the Radio One weekend; the wi-fi launch which attracted interest from around the world and, of course, our twinning with Disneyworld.

Let’s not forget that the council has admitted that the claimed £2M benefits from almost £½M splurged on the Radio 1 Big Weekend are partly speculation rather than fact. Let’s not forget that the almost £½M spent on wifi is on companies with minimal track record and whose project is already behind schedule. Let’s also not forget that Mr Bluh and Swindon Borough Council had no part in the Disney twinning — the once source of sustained good publicity.

So why — apart from naïvety and arrogance — is Mr Bluh so optimistic? Apparently because he’s throwing yet another £1M of our money at a replacement for the New Swindon Company. As was announced back in January, the old company and parts of the council are to be replaced by a new company, now to be named Forward Swindon*.

If Forward Swindon is to bring about the long promised regeneration, it’ll need to be considerably more successful than its predecessor — and significantly more careful with our money than its council masters. With little money available in current economic conditions, small steps rather than grand plans would be in order. Swindon needs a town centre that serves the needs of its population, rather than one that serves the ego of legacy-seeking political masters.

* Just a holding site for the moment, but registered in the name of the New Swindon Company’s Ms Ashdown.

What regeneration will Swindon get for £4.5M?

And how much direction to that regeneration will £150,000 buy? I ask those questions because £150,000 is roughly the size of the ‘package’ being offered for the chief executive of the replacement to the New Swindon Company.

  • £120,000 salary
  • £15,000 bonus
  • Removal and storage costs
  • Up to £4290 for temporary accommodation
  • 6 months weekly travel costs
  • Legal & estate agents fees plus stamp duty
  • £750 for ‘adaptations in the home’
  • Up to £8000 for relocation expenses

That’s roughly 10% of the new company’s budget of roughly £4.5M over 5 years going to its chief executive’s pay.

According to Mr Bluh

This is an exciting opportunity to lead and direct the regeneration and transition of Swindon, placing it on the national and international stage as a location open to inward investment.

Unfortunately Mr Bluh has been saying much the same thing for many years. There’s been far too much talk of visions, leadership and direction, but a woefully small amount of action, even allowing for the havoc wreaked upon the regeneration plans by the poor state of the economy.

We are seeking someone who has the appropriate leadership and entrepreneurial qualities and the ability to gain the support of public and private sector investors and the local community to deliver success.

‘Deliver success’? And whose version of success will that be? Surely it should be for this new company to support the public/local community and private sector investors to deliver success, not the other way round.

This is a pivotal time to shape the future of Swindon and in the process make your mark.

And that mark needs to be something considerably better than decorated hoardings around demolition sites, which is just about the only mark the New Swindon Company has left on the town.

This new company has a long list of things to do. It includes some such as a ‘University project’ that should be dead with the current state of government finance. Roughly £1.3M of our money is to be spent in the company’s first year, and a total of roughly £4.5M over five years, with a mission:

To deliver prosperity and a town everyone can be proud of.

Given the parlous state of public sector finances — both nationally and locally — we need to get considerably better value for our money than the regeneration has been so far.

Waiting for quality

Where’s the quality? Photo © komadori.I’m relieved that Mr Young does not share the manic optimism of Mr Bluh when talking about plans for Swindon town centre. Even so, it’s difficult to feel anything but weary when the subject of redeveloping the site occupied — still — by the old college building gets a mention.

We have been there before on the college site. It’s cautious optimism at the moment. For the first time in a long time there is cause for optimism. It’s a case of the last points for negotiation.

Um, really? That seems painfully familiar.

We want quality for our town centre. We’re not just just going to sign away that quality just to get things moving in the recession. The breakthrough came about a month or two ago and they have gone away to do more detailed work.

So that’s why the town centre has so many vacant and derelict sites is it? They’re just ‘waiting for quality’. Recent experience suggests they’re proabably waiting for yet another hotel proposal.

Let’s not forget that when Swindon town centre was redeveloped in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that was regarded as a ‘quality’ development. We can only hope that the current generation of councillors are better at seeing through the developers’ fantasies than their predecessors were.

Never believe a project plan based on the seasons

With the recent departure of Mr James it now seems to have fallen to our local councillors to provide updates on the actions (or more generally lack thereof) of the New Swindon Company. Thus it is that an update ostensibly written by Mr Young has appeared in the ‘talk back’ section of their website previously occupied by Mr James’ thoughts. I say ostensibly, because the piece is hard to distinguish from many others produced by the New Swindon Company spin machine.

As you know, we’ve been focusing a lot lately on improving the town centre’s public realm facilities in order to provide a better environment for our proposed new developments.

I thought they’d been doing it because the government had chucked some taxpayers’ money in their direction.

Plans are also underway for public realm improvement works on Regent Street…. We are hoping to be onsite early next year.

Early next year? That’s not very precise for a construction project that, if taken at face value, could be less than two months away from starting. Perhaps by ‘early’ he means ‘first half of’.

In general, plans for Union Square are moving in a very positive direction.

R.I.P. plain English. I’d rather the plans were stationary but the work progressing.

A detailed planning application for phase one of the development — which will comprise of 45 sheltered dwelling units, a new Primary Health Care Trust facility and a multi-storey car park

For what is meant to be a prime office area that all sounds very public sector to me.

is due to be submitted very shortly. If all goes according to plan, we look forward to starting on site in summer 2010.

Aah, back to those imprecise deadlines. An old adage is never believe a project plan based on the seasons of the year.

An outline planning application for the rest of the development is due early in 2010 — and we hope to be ready to begin on site with phase two of the scheme in the latter part of 2011.

That’s just five years after most of the area was demolished, and still nothing has been done to make use of the areas surrounded by hoardings.

Plans are also nearing completion for the former Swindon College site development. We are hoping to see a planning application submitted in the near future

I’ve heard that one before… several times over at least two years. I’m no more inclined to believe it now than I was last time.

In the more immediate future, work is due to begin on site early in January 2010 for the new BHS development.

Wow! A deadline precise to within a month! So there’s one development we can be confident will happen. Just one. There’s no mention of the replacement for the collapsed Regent Place development. “Transforming Swindon’s retail centre” appears to have been consigned to the already overflowing dustbin of failed regeneration masterplans.

Look up please

Can’t see the shopping centre for the paving!Whilst attending yesterday the New Swindon Company’s exhibition on their plans to emblandise Regent Street, I learned a new bit of developers’ fake psychology. What the man from their consultants said was that the current paving in Regent Street — and elsewhere in the town centre for that matter — is too ‘busy’. Apparently, it’s too distracting and takes people’s attention away from the shops. By making it blander, they think people will look more at the shops and their ‘interesting’ architecture, and go in to buy something. This does, of course, presuppose that there are rather more shops open in Regent Street than there are at the moment. It also presumes an interest amongst shoppers in paving that, I suspect, only a street designer would have. And it’s surely only such a designer that could convince themselves that something — lighting in this case — is ‘inspired’ by a tramway, simply by virtue of being in a straight line.

This exercise in repaving — like others before it — is expected to achieve a miraculous transformation.

The concept design for Regent Street aims to provide a vibrant, accessible street scene, encouraging visitors and shoppers to come to Swindon town centre as an exciting destination in its own right as well as for its many shops.

That, you may notice, is what was said about repaving Canal Walk.

So next time you’re wandering along Regent Street, engrossed by the paving, please look up. The street designers expect nothing less of you.

Farewell Mr James

It has been announced that the New Swindon Company’s Mr James has stood down, apparently by Mr Richards of the South West Regional Development Agency.

Swindon has a problem with a negative image. We need to bring together the marketing of the town and the delivery of regeneration all under one roof. That is what’s behind the restructuring of the New Swindon Company. We are very satisfied with what Peter James has achieved and we wish him well.

Mr James seems to have a track record here. According to his profile, he has left a regeneration programme unfinished before.

Prior to joining The New Swindon Company, he spent three years with Tees Valley Regeneration as Director of Development.

A feature of Mr James’ leadership has been severe over-promotion of every minor step. Lets hope his replacement is someone capable of completing the job. One other point from the announcement stands out.

We need to bring together the marketing of the town and the delivery of regeneration all under one roof.

So far, much of the ‘marketing’ has been done by the New Swindon Company, but whenever it comes to ‘delivery’ Swindon Borough Council gets involved. If this is all to be brought ‘under one roof’ whose roof will it be?

Pie in the sky

That’s not my verdict: it’s that of Mr Bluh on some of the latest witterings of the New Swindon Company’s Mr James. It’s perhaps indicative of just how monotonous his ramblings have become that his own financial backers are not sounding overly supportive. As Mr James was talking about a part of the town centre for which there is, on his own admission, no investment interest yet, his words were even emptier than usual. The plans are now six years old; Mr James has been talking about them for almost four of those years.

With every repeat of his tales about what might happen to the town centre in the future but in six years hasn’t yet, the reputation of the New Swindon Company as an organisation delivers nothing at great expense grows. Mr James needs to learn that if he hasn’t got anything new and substantive to say, he’d be better off not speaking at all.

With the current economic conditions, I’m expecting a long silence.

A college building is for life, not just redevelopment

Monument to the recessionI really don’t know why Mr James of the New Swindon Company bothers to waste his breath speculating on when the old college building on Regents Circus will be demolished.

There is still a possibility it could come down this year but it’s unlikely…. We are waiting on the developers. They are not going to demolish the site until everything is signed because, essentially, that’s all they have over the council.

More accurately, it’s all they’ve got against the local residents. As the New Swindon Company themselves explained six months ago, once the building is demolished, residents on the hill behind could legitimately object to new development on the basis that it would spoil their view. If you bear that in mind, the excuses given by Mr Fisher of Ashfield Land look like a blatant lie.

I can’t tell you exactly when it is going to come down because we are still in the final stages of getting an agreement with the supermarket. Our ambition is certainly to start this year but I can’t guarantee that. We can’t demolish anything until that deal is done because we have an agreement with the council on keeping the car park open.

Hmm… I could’ve sworn that, in other towns, a frequent use for redundant sites between demolition and redevelopment is as car parks.

Turning off the regeneration funding tap

The Beeb has happily trumpeted that the South West Regional Development Agency is bringing forward £3M of ‘investment’ in the regeneration of Swindon town centre, whilst making cuts almost everywhere else. But that’s only part of the story. The details of the plans say rather more about how that money is being spent.

Swindon town centre, 2009/2010: Given the current recession and significant uncertainty in the property market, the Agency has agreed to bring forward £2.85m of investment in town centre regeneration projects into 2009/10. This investment, which has now been approved, will help to improve the town centre including helping to tackle empty units, creating construction jobs now and helping to create the conditions for private sector investment when market confidence returns

‘Tackling empty buildings’ sounds like more demolition to me, with only a little bit of building going on. The briefing and project list also make clear that this is the last money Swindon will be receiving from the agency for the foreseeable future.

In five particular areas where we are currently involved in a large number of projects — Plymouth, West of England, Swindon, Gloucester and our support for the aerospace industry — we have decided that we need to place an upper limit on what will still be significant future support for projects in these areas….
Swindon town centre, 2010/2011: Given the shortage of funds available to the Agency in 2010/11 other partners will fund activity in this year. This collaborative approach will allow the RDA and its partners collectively to keep regeneration and development moving forward

That to me sounds like Swindon’s tax payers picking up the tab for the New Swindon Company’s ineffectiveness. Nice. A ‘collaborative approach’ where Swindon gets told what to build by a quango it didn’t ask for, but after this year doesn’t get any extra money to pay for it. That doesn’t look like much of a collaboration to me.