Report on the debate at Swindon Council
An ode to the council meeting
Celebration with carols
The agreement between Swindon Council and the LSF trustees
Thanks to Swindon Link
“If they had huffed and puffed a little more, they might have blown the farm down,” was the first comment from a confused Lower Shaw Farm supporter emerging from the council chamber at Swindon civic offices on 23 November.
After a long debate which left supporters and not a few councillors wondering where it was going and how they had come to a decision, all three parties overwhelmingly voted for the final motion: “the council will re-affirm its support for the activities provided by the trustees of the farm and believes that the way ahead agreed with trustees will seek to secure the future of these activities.”
This vague set of words, though affirmative and referring to ‘an agreement,’ worries the farm supporters who have battled for a month to get the council cabinet to see the farm as an opportunity to develop education and environmental initiatives which would put Swindon at the forefront in these fields, rather than seeing the site as a quick way to make ?2 million to pay for other capital projects.
Labour councillors, who are in the minority on the council, had put down a motion of support for the farm calling on the council to re-affirm its support for Lower Shaw Farm and the activities it provides for the benefit of the people of Swindon especially children and for a new lease to be given to the trustees to carry on their work.
However, 24 hours before the meeting the Council and Trustees of Lower Shaw Farm had come to an agreement, with which both parties were happy, to work together to allow the activities at the farm to continue, whilst developing a part of the site for high quality eco-homes. (See the agreement reached below.)
In the light of this, Councillor Barrie Thompson for Labour, at the beginning of the debate, told the meeting that Labour wanted to replace their original motion with another more up to date proposal. However the Borough Solicitor advised the Mayor, in the chair, that because the council had not been told that a new motion was coming forward, that councillors meeting would have to agree that it could be put before them.
The Conservatives promptly voted against allowing Labour to put forward their new motion and Coun Thompson was obliged to speak to his original motion. However, the Conservatives then lodged an amendment which was debated and voted upon. It was agreed and it became the substantive motion (see the second paragraph above). Labour quickly then put forward a further amendment based on the motion they had tried to substitute earlier in the meeting. This was quashed by the Conservative majority and the motion (which was originally the amendment) stood.
During the debate, Councillor Thompson accused the Conservative administration of trying to do deals behind closed doors and not identifying what the community needs and engaging in meaningful consultation. “Unlike the people of Swindon, the present administration doesn’t know the value of the farm. There has been huge support for Lower Shaw Farm and the administration has backtracked on its initial position of selling the site.”
Leader of the council Rod Bluh said the Conservative administration was trying to come up with the best solutions for Swindon and seeking the best value from its assets. “We are making difficult decisions all the time and we cannot shy away from them. However in discussion with Matt Holland we have come up with a solution that allows the activities at the farm to continue whilst realising some of the value from the site.”
Labour councillor Fay Howard raised a loud cheer when she said she was worried that the Conservatives were not being genuine in their change of view. “I am not a regular visitor to Lower Shaw Farm, but I know a good thing when I see it. This motion is far too vague, and people of Swindon do not want to see events like the literature festival moving to Lydiard House. They want it to be at Lower Shaw Farm.
“I accept things have to change but if we lose this facility 10 or 20 years down the line we will be asking ourselves why we got rid of such an asset.”
But Freshbrook and Grange Park councillor Peter Greenhalgh (Conservative) said the agreement with the trustees is a ‘win-win situation.’ “We are going to get some capital out of this site, and we are going to work with Matt Holland to preserve what he is doing on the farm.
“We are looking at very high quality sustainable housing on the site. We have had candid discussions with Matt and we are moving forward with the ideas. But we cannot talk about all the issues around this yet, and we are not shying away. The motion reaffirms our support for the activities at the farm. I don’t understand why people can’t understand that.”
Councillor Steve Wakefield (Conservative for Toothill & Westlea) said the farm was a very emotive subject in his household as, apart from Swindon Town Football Club, Lower Shaw Farm had been the subject of heated discussion. “My son used to go scrumping for apples there; if ever we needed to find him, it was likely he would be at the farm. I imagine there have been similar passionate, emotional discussions in many homes across Swindon.”
Councillor Peter Mallinson congratulated Council Bluh for negotiating an agreement with the trustees, though there was much detail to be discussed.
Conspicuous by their silence at the meeting were the two Conservative councillors who represent the Shaw & Nine Elms ward in West Swindon in which the farm is situated. Both of are cabinet members.
Coun Nick Martin, cabinet member for Resources and Finances, started the whole farm fandango in September by telling the trustees that their lease was not going to be renewed and they had 12 to 15 months longer before the site was sold. In public he declared “the farming aspect is not greater than you would find on an allotment.”
In early October, when asked by Swindon Link whether he thought there would be a major public reaction, similar to the outrage in 2004 when proposals were made to redevelop Shaw Forest for a football stadium, he said, “you could make a cause celebre out of this but as an administration we have responsibilities for seeing the best returns and we have to make difficult decisions. The cabinet supports this proposal.”
In 2004 he declared he would lie down in front of the bulldozers. In relation to the farm he seemed to have climbed into the driving seat.
Coun Gary Perkins, who is responsible for Children’s Services (i.e. education and health services) was quoted the previous day saying little of significance went on at the Lower Shaw Farm and more children visited Roves Farm visitor centre, several miles to the east of the town.
After the meeting supporters said they were deflated by the experience of witnessing the grandstanding performances of some councillors, mud-slinging and general opportunism to score politics points off each other.
Trustee Andrea Hirsch said she was disappointed that the motion agreed was not precise enough, but took heart that every speaker in the debate was supportive of the farm continuing at the present site.
Fellow trustee Matt Holland agreed. “We have to rely on the ‘my word is my bond’ principle. We have made an agreement with the council which sets out the terms of how we go forward to develop the exciting future we have discussed for Lower Shaw Farm. We have faith in the council leader and his colleages standing by their word.
Kevin Fisher from Shaw was more forthright and said the political game playing in the council chamber did not endear political parties to the public. “The agreement between the Trustees and the Council is a victory for common sense, inspite of the childishness or the ya-hoo politics I witnessed this evening..
“Seeing the motion fulfilled in its vague form really does rely on a huge leap of faith and trust between those who agreed it.
“The protest against the council’s original idea of selling Lower Shaw Farm during November was never really a campaign with leaders and a strategy for getting the council to change its mind. What we have witnessed is a huge upsurge of outrage against a council proposal and an outpouring of love for something which was endangered. I had never been to the farm until late October so its been amazing to see how people from Swindon and far afield have expressed their support for the farm.
“The councillors were taken aback by this support farm; they don’t seem to have been aware of it at all, or have carried around severe misconceptions which do not reflect the popular attitude. So if the council does renage on the agreement, just wait and see what kind of campaign we could organise if we really have to.”
Matt said the agreement went back to the original concept of the farm thirty years ago when it was first leased to set up a centre for alternative urban living. “The plan we have been working on with the council takes that idea forward and is entirely in line with the founding spirit of Lower Shaw Farm.
“We have always had a very good working relationship with Swindon Borough Council, until these recent uncertainties. But we are looking at phenomenal, community based eco-housing which will incorporate cutting edge ecological ideas, right next to a well known, long established educational and ecology centre. It could be seen as a flagship project of which Swindon will be proud.”
Celebrate at Carols by Candlelight at Lower Shaw Farm. Saturday 9 December, 6pm – 7.30pm. An old fashioned 21st Century evening. Dress warmly and bring a torch. ?3 adults, ?1.50 child. Raising money for the homeless in Swindon at Christmas.
invisible agendas, a poem by tony hillier
Lower Shaw Farm supporters filled Council Chamber that night
patiently they sat for an hour up in the gods
safe in knowledge that agenda item eight was there in black and white
not knowing that they sat in the lap of party political gods
where seasoned and aspirant politicians nursed hidden agendas
though at root all speakers spoke in favour of the Farm
unfortunately many mined unseemly mud-sling mire
eventually, after nigh two hours, came death of Labour detailed amendment
Full Council passed a statement of belief
that agreed way ahead will seek the future of Farm activity
so they agreed
that they believed
they would seek to secure
future farm activity
so that’s alright then
I’m left to believe
the amended motion passed as only horse in town
some unwritten agendas aired
others remained unwritten, invisible, hidden
maybe some in public gallery
and all the time
agenda item eight was there to be believed in blurr-ed black and white
AGREEMENT REACHED BETWEEN SWINDON BOROUGH COUNCIL AND TRUSTEES OF LOWER SHAW FARM
An agreement has been reached in principle between Swindon Borough Council and the trustees of Lower Shaw Farm, which it is intended will secure both the future of the activities at the farm, and allow the Council to realise some needed capital from the site.
In addition, the Trustees have today signed a 12 month lease, with a possible extension to 15 months, to remain at the farm until negotiations and plans have been completed and agreed.
Today’s agreement will mean the council will seek to use some of the existing Lower Shaw Farm land for high-quality sustainable homes.
Swindon Borough Council leader Cllr Roderick Bluh says: “Throughout the public debate about the future of Lower Shaw Farm we have been involved in constructive talks with Matt Holland, and I am pleased that we have been able to reach a positive agreement which is acceptable to both parties.
“What we now have is an agreement which will allow us to get better value from the site, and will allow the valuable work which goes on at Lower Shaw to continue.”
Farm Trustee Matt Holland says: “Through listening to one another, understanding one another’s position, plus reasoned, imaginative, and informed discussion between them, the Council and the farm’s trustees have been able to agree a solution which achieves positive results all round.
“We hope it will offer an exciting opportunity to create an environmentally- friendly development which complements the work we do at the farm and is great for Swindon.”
Thanks to Swindon Link for the help in getting across the views of farm supporters
From: Anne Snelgrove, MP for South Swindon
Just wanted to congratulate you on the Lower Shaw Farm campaign. Whilst we still need to keep a very close eye on the council, the immediate danger has passed and it is in no small way thanks to you and The Link magazine. Well done!
From: David Birley
Well done for all your work and the support for Lower Shaw by Swindon Link! The idea of a small eco-friendly housing development which would not encroach on LSF and its activities/garden etc sounds quite interesting. Perhaps LSF should ask that it be energy- neutral, i.e. no more energy used than produced.