In September 2000 journalist and author Judy Jones caused a furore by lambasting the town in the New Statesman magazine. Her article concluded: ?Swindon?s greatest tragedy is not that it has so conspicuously failed to reinvent itself as a go-ahead, culturally rich and vibrant city after the final collapse of its railway industry in the 1980s, but simply that its elected representatives have barely started bothering to try.?
Not unlike the recent episode when style guru Wayne Heming-way made unfriendly remarks about the town in the May edition of an obscure magazine, the Mayor was suitably distressed at the hurtful remarks and town worthies expressed woe at being misrepresented.
But in 2000 Swindon was well and truly sliding into the pits. A shambolic and secretive bid to be declared a city to mark the millennium was finally killed off by the Government at the end of that year. A second effort in the Queen?s Jubilee Year 2002 went the same way.
The failure of the Education department in 2001 led to political upheaval with Labour giving way to a Conservative administration which has run the council ever since. Failure by the Social Services department followed and at the end of 2002, Swindon was rated as one of the 15 worst run councils in the country.
Have things got better? Living in Malmesbury Judy, unlike ill informed fly-by-night critics, observes at arms length what?s going on in Swindon. Her trenchant criticisms of the town five years ago stimulated an idea for a book on the revolution brought to South West England and Swindon by the visionary engineer IK Brunel.
This summer she retraced Brunel?s steps as he set out the route of the Great Western Railway. Her impressions, insights and comments collected whilst walking from Paddington to Penzance will be published next year, in time for the Brunel 200 celebrations.
Swindon Link invited Judy back to reflect on the town. “Things seem to be improving in Swindon, there is a different atmosphere, more of a buzz compared to 2000,” she said. “Maybe Swindon in the summer sunshine is much nicer to look at, but talking to people here and others who have contact with the town, there is a greater sense of purpose rather than a drift and malaise that was so apparent five years ago.
“I?m impressed by the National Trust headquarters and I?m glad the council blocked commercial development of Shaw Forest last year. The restoration of Lydiard Park looks interesting as well.”
Judy?s book research revealed aspects of the town she wasn?t aware of. Her hike brought her from high on Liddington Hill into the town centre via the Old Town railway path and along the route of the old canal. It caused her to reflect on the sprawl of the town and the imminent loss of more countryside – in the Front Garden, to the east of the A419 and at Coate Water.
“From Liddington you can see large areas being proposed for development. The idea of building 16,000 to 20,000 more houses in and around the town must be a concern to everybody. It just seems Swindon wants to keep on growing and growing and the reasons have not been clearly explained to people.
“Turning Coate Water into an urban park surrounded by development would be killing the goose that laid the golden egg. By contrast a university in the town centre would give such a fantastic boost to the town centre.
“It would also be fantastic to see a canal running through the centre again. Every town I?ve visited on my walk – Reading, Slough, Chippenham, Bristol, Bath, Bridgewater – all have a canal or a river going through them. A university and a canal would bring such vitality and dynamism into the town.”
However Judy?s criticism of the University of Bath attitude toward Swindon is unforgiving. In the February 2001 Link – when the university was still committed to building in the town centre – Judy said that the University of Bath in Swindon was better than no university at all, but she was not impressed by the patronising, colonial attitude of sending in ?academic missionaries? to educate Swindon.
Her view hasn?t changed much. “Why is it that Bath, with a population of 80,000 has two universities, and Swindon with nearly 200,000 people cannot have a university in its own name? Bath?s demands to go to Coate is very imperialistic when promises were made quite recently not to build on that land, and now so many people oppose development there.
“I can see why there is such a great mistrust in the organisations which purport to represent the people of Swindon.”
Have you 150 words for Swindon?
Sum up Swindon with some pithy paragraphs and win a prize
In December the Audit Commission will give its overall assessment of Swindon Council?s service. Two years ago the council was rated as ?weak,? one of the poorest in the country.
Last December it had improved to the status of ?poor.? Since then Sir Mike Pitt has been brought in as interim Chief Executive and there has been a major management shake up. There is hope that the council could achieve the ?fair? category.
This year the inspectors will set great store by a statement called the ?direction of travel?. After considering all the information from inspections carried out across departments, the council?s future prospects will be summarised in just 150 words.
How would you describe Swindon in no more than 150 words? Send your compositions to email@example.com by 9 November.