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.

Emptying the streets

Despite little having changed since Swindon Borough Council’s licensing committee last considered proposals to ban street traders from much of Swindon town centre, they have now approved the proposals. The only things that have changed are some strong objections from the owners of The Parade, and the appearance of proposals for repaving Regent Street. Those proposals talk of

De-cluttering the street, removing unnecessary items

yet on the same page encourage cluttering it again.

Encouragement of cafes and food outlets with street side seating areas.

It seems the council’s and New Swindon Company’s views are that a trailer selling doughnuts is bad, but a cafe selling doughnuts on the street is good. Reading the comments of shop-owners and developers, one could be forgiven for thinking that the rundown state of the town centre is entirely a consequence of a few street traders, and nothing to do with their inability to find occupants for now boarded-up shops.

These proposals do nothing to create a ‘vibrant street scene’ but go a very long way towards creating a bland one.

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?

Better than an empty space

Walking home from work yesterday I saw at least one person making use of the New Swindon Company’s latest offering: mirrored windows with headless transfers. A woman ran up to the former Zavvi shop front, struck a pose for about one second in front of a headless James Bond transfer, had a little giggle and rushed on. Whether the New Swindon Company succeed in getting posers to upload their photographs is another matter. At the moment, the address given in their news item is to a domain without a website. The Strike a Pose Swindon website is at www.strikeaposeswindon.com — itself just a link to some buried pages on the Swindon Big Screen website — rather than the ‘.co.uk’ equivalent. As I seem to be the first person to provide a link to the website, it’s no surprise that at the moment the gallery is empty.

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.

A degenerating regeneration

I’ve never had much trust in property developers and their colleagues, but with every passing bad news story about the regeneration of Swindon town centre, the words of the New Swindon Company become less believable. It’s just a couple of weeks since Mr James of the New Swindon Company was claiming that Modus were fully committed to the Regents Place development… which they’d just shelved. Two days ago, after Modus went into administration, Mr James was still as over-optimistic as ever.

Being placed into administration was one of a number of possibilities and therefore we have been looking into how we can still move forward with development at Regent Place… and we will work to get Regent Place back on track.

Now it’s reported that the development is to be scaled back to little more than a supermarket in Granville Street car park.

Maybe there’s room for food retailers to come into the town centre. If there was a big supermarket interested maybe they could go onto the Granville Street car park site. It would be something to attract people in and then there could be restaurants attached to it.

A supermarket. Stunning. And plenty of joined up thinking there as a supermarket is also proposed to occupy the old college building on Victoria Road.

There’s another aspect to this that undermines what little credibility the New Swindon Company had. It’s not so long ago that they were telling us that regeneration is a very long term thing, that couldn’t be blown of course by troubles in the economy, and that Swindon would be a destination to rival others in the south. It’s all different now. Mr James’ has scaled back the ambitions.

We are not trying to compete with Cribbs Causeway or The Oracle. We need to concentrate on making Swindon special and attracting people to the centre. We are looking at bringing more restaurants into the town centre.

Mr Young has forgotten the long term nature of the plans.

The Modus scheme was the right one for the time but we now have to look at how the market has changed and see how our regeneration fits into that…. It’s a great opportunity to reflect on what will bring people to Swindon, considering there are already two huge shopping developments at Bristol and Reading.

And now they’re thinking of another round of ‘consultation’, which will keep them and some consultants in a job whilst nothing much is happening.

This hyperbole and bluster would almost be comical if we weren’t paying dearly for this farce through our taxes.

Going… going… almost gone

The vanishing redevelopment of Swindon Town Centre

’Twas once the time when the masters of spin were the New Swindon Company, when it came to making out that minor changes to the town centre were stunning improvements. The leaders of Swindon Borough Council have now snatched the spinning baton and would have us believe that the redevelopment of a single department store will now transform the town centre.

It really does beggar belief that the New Swindon Company’s Mr James seems to think that announcing the replacement of a single department store somehow lessens the fact that a major development has been shelved. Regents Place is dead… long live BHS. A £215 M development shelved, but don’t worry, all’s well: one store is spending £25 M. Let’s hope that Mr James never takes up marriage guidance as a profession, as his understanding of commitment is rather unusual.

I am pleased to say that Modus are fully committed to a development in Swindon…. Unfortunately, it is impossible to say when it will get back on track as this depends on when the economy moves out of recession and the property industry regains its equilibrium.

It’s not surprising that many commenters do not believe that Mr James’ Modus bride will ever make it to the development altar.

Yet some of our councillors appear to have even less of a grasp of reality than Mr James. First, as always, there’s Mr Bluh, who sees movement where there’s only stagnation.

I do believe this scheme will go ahead, the momentum the town’s regeneration has created isn’t going to be easily stopped.

Momentum? Where? Unless the momentum Mr Bluh has in mind is downwards, like that of a lead balloon, there is little in evidence. Perhaps he’s still rather over excited after spending the weekend having fun at our expense, but all we’ve got of regeneration so far is one giant television, installed a year ago — which for most of that time has shown little more than news and weather bulletins — and a large number of boarded up demolition sites. The only obvious momentum is the continual spin from politicians about the stalled regeneration. Another spinner is Mr Barnett. He seems to be easily impressed.

It’s going to tidy up an already tired looking building. It’s great news for Swindon. All sides have come on board to provide the town with useful shops in a good looking building.

The plan for BHS’s store is to replace a large windowed concrete and glass building with a large windowed stone-clad concrete and glass building. Stone-cladding have never been so exciting.

A lesson in doing nothing

A year ago, I suggested that, with some town centre sites that had already been demolished being amongst last scheduled for redevelopment, it would be good if they could be put to some use, rather than just surrounded with hoardings.

Some of the parts that have been demolished are, in the grand plan, the last that will be redeveloped, the old police station for example. As these sites would, even without the economic problems, be vacant for several years, you’d think something better could be done with them than just put hoardings round them. Just grassing them over to give a bit of green space for a while would be a big improvement.

The councillor with responsibility for such things at the time, Mr Young, agreed and said the process had already started.

Couldn’t agree more Komadori (sic). I have actually already kicked off a conversation to see if this can happen – either used to add additional parking to make it easier for people to get in to the Town, particularly during the construction phases when access may be more challenging and we need to do all we can to support the traders, or as green spaces for the interim.

I raised the issue again with the New Swindon Company in December, and was told that they were in discussion with Swindon Borough Council on some sites they could guarantee would be vacant for three years, with the intention that they could be used as a mini adventure park for children.

After over a year of talking, you’d think there might now be some action on this. By action I mean some construction, not yet more talking as proposed by Mr Martin.

The fact is that a lot of this land is going to be sitting there doing nothing for a number of years to come, so why not do something with it.

And it’s taken you a year to notice that?

At the moment we are working with the New Swindon Company to negotiate with landowners, in the areas where we don’t own the land, to get an agreement in principle.

As Mr Young said he had got things started a year ago, just how much discussion does it need?

We will then be putting it forward for consultation. We want to hear what ideas people have.

Fine, but why wait until now when this has been given consideration for over a year already?

I really hope to get it initiated this year. First we have to look at consultation with the owners, then with the public. We are probably looking at some time in the autumn for that.

Initiated this year? That be political spin for no action until next year.

With the economic recession already slowing Swindon town centre’s regeneration to a snail’s pace, this dithering by Swindon Borough Council beggars belief. With only £140,000 for the scheme, they could well spend more money on talking than on actually doing anything.

Visions for Swindon

I’ve visited two exhibitions today showing visions for Swindon. First was the young amateurs. The ‘Visions for Swindon’ exhibition by Swindon College School of Arts included several imaginative designs. Being from young students, some lacked practicality, but the more realistic ones still showed original ideas that if turned into reality would be unique.

Then it was on to the professionals. The New Swindon Company’s exhibition of their designs for tidying up Canal Walk. Now, I’m all in favour of things green, but the proposal for a green wall is completely out-of-place A solid wall of greenery in a place where it’s surrounded by steel, glass and concrete walls looks ridiculous. It would look rather less silly if they spread it around a bit, so that there was some greenery on all the surrounding walls too. According to one of the company’s representatives at the exhibition, it will be first in the country. I guess she’s never seen an ivy covered wall, nor read her company’s own bumf which says there’s already one in London.

Designer puddleThen there’s the water features. The water jets in the display have already been dropped, I was told. The other water feature in the design, stylised puddles, or ‘Natural Stone Rainwater Water Features’ as the designers call them, were clearly giving the representatives a few problems: they were very keen to emphasise that they wouldn’t be a safety risk.

With the hyperbole being spouted to support these proposals making repeated reference to the Wilts & Berks Canal, it’s odd that they propose to relocate the Golden Lion statue. A statue that marks the site of the Golden Lion Bridge over the canal is rather pointless elsewhere.

Adding to the hyperbole, as has become traditional for all matters related to town centre regeneration, is one of our local councillors. This time, it’s Mr Young’s turn to be in twaddle mode.

We think greenery helps bring the town centre back to life and makes it a much more pleasant place to be and make people come into the town even if it’s just to see it.

I agree that it’ll make the town centre more pleasant, but if people are going somewhere just to see greenery, I suspect they’ll choose the countryside where there’s rather more of it.

McDonald’s felt that before Wharf Green was done, it was dragging the area down.

Hmm… guess they didn’t like the competition.

It’s very important to us to set a high standard with public realm improvements, and we want to hear what local people have to say.

Aah, the deceit of faux consultation! With work on Canal Walk due to start in July, the time for influencing the design is well passed. The New Swindon Company’s hubris is equally over-the-top.

The design concept 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 the shopping.

It’ll take rather more than a few trees, a hedge, new paving stones and stylised puddles to do that.

By renewing Canal Walk we aim to… provide a unique identity and quality environment… making Swindon an exciting place to visit.

A few trees an puddles amongst the paving stones as a source of excitement… developers must lead a dull life.

The designs for Canal Walk are the effort of no less than four consultancy companies. The New Swindon Company would’ve been better off hiring the college students.