Thursday, April 11, 2013

This Is Swindon...

When you’re heading for an unknown destination, with a road that’s long and unfamiliar, the ability to become lost through a series of seemingly small and insignificant turns is an easy one. By the time you’re sure something’s gone wrong, the way back to the road can be disorientating and frightening. 

When did Swindon find itself in this situation? With thousands of small choices and decisions (and some of them bigger too) that eventually come to have realised a cumulative effect, our town seems to have lost it’s sense of direction at a point in the last two decades.

Take the 1970s, in the midst of domestic and international strife, Swindon opened the Brunel Centre, the Oasis Leisure Centre and the M4 was brand new. In just a few years, icons of modern Swindon emerged from the ground. Where once stood railway workshops became one of Britain’s best leisure centres, amongst the terraced houses and shops sprang a shockingly modern shopping centre with engineering flourishes that bowed to railway heritage, and with new personal freedom in their cars, new Swindonians swept into town, coming over the crest of the hill Westwards getting a glimpse of this powerhouse of Wiltshire.

With dramatic confidence and a pride that was symbolic in the building of the 1970s and 1980s, Swindon stood tall and shouted loudly for all that wished to hear. Tens of thousands heard and they came to make their home, amongst the leafy estates and wide-open spaces. It seemed anything was possible.

How do we get back that confidence?

We need to switch all the lights on and showcase what we’re known for. We need gateways, on the way into town from all directions that tell everyone that you’re not just anywhere, you’re in Swindon. Two of the town’s signature points, roundabouts and railways. A set of massive letters, ‘GWR’ along with an equally oversized locomotive wheel on the approach, maybe even on a roundabout, to the town. Let’s show off our roundabouts, in as many different ways as possible. Modern art pieces, fountains, flowerbeds, we’ve got hundreds to use as blank canvases. And for those who aren’t nearby, we’ll have to shout a bit louder. An inward investment campaign using not just the physical assets of our town, but it’s people too. The small business owner, the college student, the young professionals, the working mum, the retired couple, all proud, all passionate about their town.

Lets look ahead to what our town could be with a new-found confidence…

Driving past the gateway roundabouts that have generated hundreds of column inches in the press, become art and cultural icons around the world and sparked debate as catalysts for civic pride and regeneration, we approach the town centre. The first thing we notice is, it’s busy. Lots of people walking, cycling and stood on the street talking. At the corner of Whalebridge the new junction that seemed so controversial is proving it’s worth, many more pedestrians are able to break through what was the route of Swindon’s inner ring-road and move between areas without it acting as a barrier. The Kimmerfields (Union Square) development is well into it’s 3rd and 4th phases, with new office space making relocating or setting up in our town centre a popular move amongst large companies. As the new development has progressed, it’s integration with the neighbourhood has been carefully done. The nearby Broadgreen ‘streets for living’ project has been expanded, with new surfaces, greater space for walking, greenery and crossing points. To mark the new business district, a series of murals in Swindon’s 70s and 80s style has been undertaken, with three out of four now completed on terraced houses fronting Corporation Street. Investment by the new business tenants has also seen them uplit at night to give a dramatic route after dark.

Travelling up Princes Street, evidence of the green spine from the Town Centre Masterplan is obvious, with new trees safely surrounded by guardrails and mature examples retained. Groundwork has just begun on the new joint University of Swindon and Swindon Borough building to house the performing arts centre (Swindon Dance) and new Wyvern Theatre. On the site of the Wyvern carpark and Magistrates Court, the building will have shops, community space, a café, restaurant and bar, as mixed-use buildings have very much proved to be key in Swindon’s regeneration. The big draw that was responsible for pulling people back into town of an evening is now a few years old, but is just as popular as it’s opening day. The Regent Circus cinema, supermarket and restaurants on the former college site gave a quick shot in the arm to the town centre. The demand at the new development was such that extra and later bus services were needed after a few months. A new ‘Alive After 5’ campaign coincided with the opening to get people into the town after work hours on weeknights. Retailers opening later, along with new restaurants in the centre of Regent Street means investment in retail and leisure has become big news. Such has been the footfall that the Central Library now opens later 3 nights of the week, being perfectly positioned at the top of town as a meeting point for visitors and locals. Swindon’s early success with mixed-use buildings has seen it become a pioneer in small-scale mixed use development. For the first time in 25 years, people are now living above the shops in Regent and Bridge Streets. Along with refurbishment and restoration of 20 of the decorative frontages along those streets, many property companies had enquiries from people about whether there was residential property available. This market town feel is to expand, with signing off today of the new Swindon Art Gallery on Sanford Street, combining the original Sanford Street school and a new wing, built to modern standard, it will include a row of 6 terraced houses/shops/offices built to an original 1890 design. Time marches on and the Brunel Centre owners have started fitting out the new expansion of the centre on the Granville Street site. Taking inspiration from the original designs, the new mall will have Paddington Station-style overall roofs, with ironwork in Great Western green. The original Brunel Centre has been reworked, with much of the ground-floor cleared in the original plaza to bring back the dramatic sense of space, and views to the curved roof opened up.

With a series of Heritage Lottery grants under it’s belt, the delicate job of restoring the Mechanics’ Institute is past the halfway mark. With Emlyn Square pedestrianised, it’s become a meeting place, with a café, for the staff and students of the nearby University Technical College. Tucked away in the corner of the Railway Village, the UTC, has quietly got on with it’s work, but it’s progress for Swindon has been immeasurable, with staff now working on the fully-fledged University of Swindon bid, proposing an initial campus on a large chunk of Cheney Manor Industrial Estate, but with an advanced engineering campus building next to Honda at South Marston. Some graduates have been working on the new SEG, Swindon Energy Grid, using energy generated within the Borough, the target of generating 75% of all power from town resources is ambitious, but is already at 48%. With waste-to-energy at Waterside depot, solar power from all Borough-owned buildings and panels being fitted to nearly two-thirds of all residences, energy bills have begun to stablise and are expected to fall next year. A collaboration with the big businesses, has seen waste heat used in a local heating district for the town centre and inner-suburbs.

Leisure and heritage tourism is now as important a business as manufacturing and high tech industries to the town. The new Oasis has reborn North Star. The Great West Arena at the site has been booked with acts since opening and is booked up for each weekend and midweek event slot for the next 2 years, it’s entirely changed leisure in Swindon. Along with the Snowdome, people now come to stay for the weekend, venturing to the expanded Outlet Centre and town centre, plus Lydiard and Avebury. Day-to-day, the bigger skatepark next door sees hundreds on weekday evenings when the weather is good. A good walking route along the old canal from Station Road to the Oasis has been altered by the start of digging work on the restored stretch of canal that’ll run alongside it. A canal basin has been marked out on Sheppard Street with canalside houses. The route to join up with the Kingshill stretch is being finalised, but is almost certain to be along the original Canal Walk route with the major landowner including it as a priority in their public consultation document. The gateway for many, the railway station is constantly being worked on. Scaffolding surrounds Signal Point, with the landmark office block being dismantled floor-by-floor. A full reproduction of the original Brunel-designed station building will be constructed to match the Grade 2-listed surviving neighbour on Platform 3. A modern twist will include a vast curved glass canopy over part of the forecourt, giving a dramatic entrance with a statue of Brunel himself smack bang in front of it. The growth in passenger numbers has seen a new ticket hall, concourse and bridge commissioned, which will cross the line at a slewed angle slightly westwards. Styled to the highly-successful Reading rebuild design of a few years ago, it’s north-to-south public-right-of-way access has gone a long way to break the barrier of the railway to movement from one side of town to the other. A series of previously bricked-up subways used at the height of the Works power have been brought back into use as walking and cycling routes. An entirely new tunnel is being planned to be big enough for trams as Swindon bids for central government funding for it’s own core network.


The above is certainly ambitious, idealistic maybe, but then again Swindon has never done anything small.

Has Swindon got what it takes to stand tall and shout?