Hedges on sticks

Welcome though the changes to Swindon Railway Station forecourt may be, the artist’s impressions in the Station Update leaflet — that’s been distributed near the station — show a rather odd fashion in topiary. So the ghostly passengers and ghostly taxis are surrounded not by ordinary trees — that privilege is reserved for customers of the coffee shop — but by what look like carefully fashioned hedges… on tall sticks. Maybe it’s intended to make it easier for pedestrians, so they can walk underneath what would otherwise be low trees.

Hopefully in real life it will look far less bizarre than the artist has made it appear. Hopefully too, they won’t prove costly to maintain in this form either.

Hedges above!
Little green boxes

Union Square aMusements

A brighter business location… eventually.I almost felt sorry for Mr Hitchings of Forward Swindon on Saturday, as he tried — with little success — to convince those attending a consultation display at the Central Library, that Muse’s Union Square development was an all-round good thing. There’s really no effective argument one can make against those — and there were several — that are adamant that any development is pointless because “People just don’t want to come to Swindon, they go to Bath.” Nor is there any easy compromise between those that believe there’s no point starting the development now whilst the economy is in a slump — “Just look at those shops they’ve just built. Over half of them are empty. What’s the point of building more?” — and those that can’t see the point of a development that won’t be finished for fifteen years. Trying to convince those that couldn’t and wouldn’t envisage a Swindon any different from how it is now was a pointless task, and I think Mr Hitchings knew that.

Concrete dressed as goldFor once I found myself relatively impressed by what is planned, and I was not alone in that, though amongst those visiting the exhibition I appeared to be in a small minority. But to my mind there were two things that let down a good outline plan for the development. The first, as already noted by Mr Wakefield, is the hype. Not for the first time, what is nothing more than a development that could be found in many other towns is being touted as mould breaking.

An exceptional town centre regeneration scheme contributing to the renaissance of Swindon

Renaissance? These are plans for offices, not a cultural centre.

Union Square has regeneration at its heart and will provide a vibrant and genuine extension to the town centre.

I have diminishing hopes that one day I might read a developer’s brochure that doesn’t describe their bog-standard plans as ‘vibrant’. And if anyone can tell me what a fake extension to the town centre would be like, I’d be delighted to know.

The other point of concern are the plans for Phase 1 which will occupy the space where the police station once stood.

This first phase of the masterplan will deliver 84 supported housing units, a new high quality multi-storey car park (850 spaces) and space for either a relocated Primary Care Trust or a new office or hotel development.

Oh wow! Yet more flats and another hotel. Just how ‘vibrant’ is that? It must have taken a lot of imagination to come up with that plan. I can imagine it already. The Swindon Renaissance Hotel, serving genuine meals at Vibrant, its stylish carvery and grill….

It’s as though I’d never been away…

Sometimes, returning from a long absence is like awakening from a hibernation: everything is new and fresh. A new beginning. But then there’s times like now when it seems that nothing’s changed.

So what’s not new? Fanciful predictions that the old College building will soon be demolished continue to be peddled by our less-able councillors. Now — as last summer — Mr John Richard ‘Rikki’ Hunt, is begging for money for his tin-pot wifi company that’s taken almost £½M of our money and delivered virtually nothing in return, failing on its commitments whilst it does so.

And the unifying feature of it all? Mr Perkins spouting unadulterated rubbish. For example, Mr Perkins on the old College site:

We’ve been in discussions with the developer for the last few weeks. If that goes through, we’ll start removing the college from Swindon. Hopefully it’ll be going ahead by April.

Would that be April 2012? As the rather more rational Mr Bawden notes, we’ve heard this all before… many times.

We were talking about it when I stepped down. Now five years later, we’re still talking about it! It’s no good saying: it’s all the economy. Until two or three years ago, the economy was going like a rocket…. I get more and more frustrated walking around the town centre, I feel we just don’t really know what to do with it.

Quite. But hey, we’ll soon have yet another person at the council’s expense — over £45,000 of expense — puffing out a smoke screen about grand plans for nothing much in the town centre, when Forward Swindon appoints a new Head of Communications and Marketing.

Mr Perkins on wifi is no more logical, despite his alleged business acumen.

No business in its first year is completely trouble free and most of Highworth is still operating and the technical problems are mostly sorted out.

Given that Digital City (UK) Ltd originally claimed that their wifi in Highworth would be fully functional by 15 January… last year, even someone as politically warped as Mr Perkins should be able to see that’s as shining an example of failure as one could ever hope to see. They may brand themselves as ‘Get Signal’, but in Swindon getting Digital City (UK) Ltd’s signal is one thing you’re guaranteed not to do.

However, things don’t always go as you plan in business, particularly when you are dealing with something that is innovative.

As many have noted — but Mr Perkins and his colleagues choose to ignore — there’s nothing innovative about wifi. Seemingly the only thing innovative about this project has been the company’s ability to pull the wool over the eyes of the likes of Mr Perkins and walk away with £½M of our money whilst delivering almost nothing in return.

Mr Perkins also flatters himself when inviting people to talk with him.

I wish people would come and talk to us if they have a problem, but it has to be in a positive way. Going through reports to find things that are not 100 per cent right is not helpful — business doesn’t operate like that.

As anyone who has seen Mr Perkins in the council chamber will know, taking a positive approach with him is not something he rewards. Mr Perkins in the council chamber has just one mode of operation, a loud-mouthed, bad tempered yob, shouting down anyone he disagrees with, spitting with fury and hatred.

Swindon Borough Council has repeatedly waived the conditions it applied to its loan to Digital City (UK) Ltd. If Mr Perkins isn’t happy with the council being legitimately held to account over how it’s spent our money, then he really shouldn’t be a councillor.

The cut and run approach to regeneration

It seems that far from being a fresh start for Swindon’s economic and physical regeneration, Forward Swindon, the reincarnation of the New Swindon Company, is, as I’ve noted before, repackaging failure. And it goes right to the top of the organisation. Mr James, erstwhile chief executive of The New Swindon Company, cut-and-ran when the going got tough. It was rather a habit for him. In as much as she is, for the moment, considerably more circumspect in her comments, the new chief executive of Forward Swindon, Karen Walker, is an improvement. But like her predecessor, her record for seeing the job through to its end is not good. Indeed, so successful was the last regeneration company that she led, in Sandwell, that all three of its public-sector backers pulled the plug on its funding last year.

Given the current state of Swindon Borough Council’s finances, Ms Walker might find a greater sense of ‘continuity’ between her old and new jobs than she was expecting.

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.

Protesting too much

One could be forgiven for thinking that Mr Wills’ little outburst against the New Swindon Company and Swindon Borough Council was just a rather poor attempt to divert attention from the revelations about his parliamentary expenses, revelations about which he did protest rather too much.

I am not facing questions over items purchased at taxpayers’ expense during the past financial year ’ not least because travel costs are not items purchased at taxpayers’ expense and these are legitimate travel costs.

Ahh, spin, spin, spin. Travel costs may not be ‘items’, but they were still at the taxpayers’ expense.

I did not agree it was a mistake to claim this amount. It was a mistake to claim it under this header, which I did on the advice of the Fees office. It should have been claimed under the travel heading. I did not add that the costs ‘would have been’ allowable under my travel allowance. They are allowable under my travel allowance and they are being allowed under my travel allowance.

Spinning again: picking at individual phrases whilst not substantively disputing what was alleged. Does he really believe that saying ‘the trips would have been allowable under his travel allowance’ makes much difference from ‘the trips are allowable under his travel allowance’? And has he not realised that the whole problem with MPs’ allowances is that far too much is allowable?

The only reason my wife was hiring a Street Car to make journeys to and from the constituency was to save the taxpayer money. It is far cheaper — though more stressful for her — than claiming the train fares to which we are entitled.

Again, he misses the point. In what other job could anyone trough to this extent at the public’s expense?

And what of Mr Wills’ little outburst against the New Swindon Company and Swindon Borough Council? He admits to pushing for the creation of the New Swindon Company.

[T]he company was created, partly due to me pushing for it.

Yet he absolves himself of all responsibility for it.

Not enough has been delivered and both Swindon Council and the company are to blame.

The company is financed and controlled one third by the Council, one third by the South West Regional Development Agency — a quango created by his own government — and the Homes and Community Agency — a quango created by his own government. So that’s mainly his government wasting our money, rather than the council.

Mr Wills also seems not to have noticed the dire state of the economy that his government has created.

The plans don’t have sufficient vision, they’re humdrum…. I suggested a design competition with the likes of Norman Foster and Michael Hopkins taking part, but when I sent letters nothing was done.

Many would say that Swindon town centre has suffered from far too many council and developer visions over recent decades, and the Regent Place development failed through being too big a vision in a poor economy. Even in the topsy-turvy world of New Labour economics, it’s hard to understand how Mr Wills can believe that employing some of the most expensive architects in the business have made regeneration any more viable.

Replacing the New Swindon Company

With all the fuss and angst over Swindon Borough Council’s budget plans for next financial year, another item on this Wednesday’s council cabinet meeting agenda has been overlooked.

The council executive’s proposals for replacing the New Swindon Company is damning with its mild praise. First, the mild praise.

Since the company’s formation TNSC has helped to stimulate regeneration and investment in Swindon’s central area. TNSC has put together exciting development packages that have stimulated considerable interest in Swindon’s regeneration plans. The company’s most notable success has been in attracting Muse as the developer for the Union Square scheme.

Claiming success before anything has conrete has happened is premature, to say the least. Even if this could be claimed as a success, ‘only’ is a more accurate term than ‘most notable’. One odd thing is that the proposals say funding — if only for the coming year — is unchanged.

Recognising the current economic challenges and the importance of an effective response, SBC aims to continue with its existing level of funding of £250k per annum plus the financing of the transferred economic development team and related project budgets.

Yet the budget proposals show a reduction of £147k. With contradictions like that, it’s no wonder that the council’s finances are in a bad way.

The reasons given for replacing the company read as a thinly-veiled catalogue of failure.

An opportunity to engage with private investors in a way not seen before

So the New Swindon Company failed in attracting private investors….

Deployment of limited resources for maximum impact and for best value

And wasted our money….

The requirement for town centre regeneration to link in a more integrated way with plans for the rest of the Borough to ensure Swindon’s existing communities benefit from regeneration and growth

And ignored the communities it was meant to benefit. And the replacement, borough-wide company, how will that engage with the community? Apparently, not all. The council’s vision for the new company is for it to be the poodle of the council, seemingly with no direct involvement with the community at all.

Degenerating regeneration whitewash

It has been announced that the New Swindon Company is to be replaced by a new company tasked with doing… well, almost exactly the same as the New Swindon Company was. This smacks of an attempt to hide failure that’s no more likely to succeed than renaming of Windscale nuclear plant as Sellafield did. According to Swindon Borough Council’s Mr Jones,

The new company will be responsible for the integrated plans for economic development, growth and regeneration.

Hmm… that’s so different from the purpose of the New Swindon Company.

The New Swindon Company was formed in 2002 to stimulate investment and co-ordinate plans for revitalisation of the town centre as a key component to achieving sustainable economic growth.

What’s not so clear from the announcement is how this new bureaucracy will be funded. The New Swindon Company was funded by tax payers through three routes: Swindon Borough Council, the South West Regional Development Agency and the Homes and Communities Agency. Funding from the last two does not seem to be guaranteed. Mr Jones hopes the new bureaucracy will obtain more funding from the private sector. Whether local people wish their town’s regeneration to be lead by an organisation dominated by developers is a question he seems not to have pondered.

As usual, at the conference where this piece of deckchair shuffling was announced, Mr Bluh was in full head-in-the-sand mode.

I find it the most exciting place I’ve ever lived in. We must not pick up the negative side but keep positive. I feel certain we will come out of the recession on the right side. We certainly have got the product here and it is our job to sell it.

Blind, unquestioning optimism has never been a virtue. A decade of demolition and degeneration has not changed that.

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.