Having just had a general election, and with groups of Swindonians battling against green field development at Coate and on the Front Garden, and the proposal to turn the Mechanics? Institute into a hotel – as well as arguing against proposals for another 16,000 to 25,000 homes to be built in the town between 2016 and 2026 – the big question is, can anybody do anything to influence the decision making process?
One of the speakers at May?s Swindon Festival of Literature was former MP and renowned political thinker and writer, David Marquand, who explained the thinking behind his recently published book, ?The Decline of the Public: the Hollowing Out of Citizenship.?
John Monniot, chairman of the Swindon Civic Trust, pictured, considers his views in relation to Swindon.
Marquand divides human activity into three areas ? the market domain of trading, buying and selling, the private domain of family and friendship and the public domain of citizenship.
According to him, the market and private domains grew naturally in society, whereas the public domain has been constructed artificially.
The public domain – not be confused with the public sector – is the field where people work for the public good and are accountable publicly.
It?s a relatively recent invention having been created by the Victorians and built up throughout most of the 20th Century. The building of Swindon?s Mechanics? Institute through public subscription from the 1860s and the creation of the NHS, based on the Swindon railway works health care model, are a local and a national example of the public domain in action.
Marquand believes that the public domain has come under attack in the last two decades and is now in serious danger. He blamed Thatcherite ?marketisation? as well as the centralisation of power and target culture under New Labour for sapping the public service ethic and demoralising those working for the public good in many fields like local government, the civil service and the health service.
This has been worsened in recent years by the obsessive use of ?spin? by government in attempts to manipulate public opinion. Marquand argued that this has caused declines in the effectiveness of public services and a dangerous public distrust of government and politicians, and an unwillingness to be involved in the democratic process, explaining recent falls in election turn-outs.
One point to emerge from discussion after his talk was the effect of globalisation. There are now major public domain organisations ? working in fields like environmental protection and disaster relief ? which are largely outside democratic accountability.
Marquand?s talk was co-sponsored by Swindon Civic Trust and took place in the former railway museum in Faringdon Road – the Community Crossroads. Along with other recent events the building was an ideal venue for the festival. The town has nothing like it, but regrettably Swindon Council seems intent on turning what could become an important cultural activity space central to the town centre regeneration into yet more offices.
David Marquand?s views about the threat to the public domain resonated strongly. The way in which plans to develop the land around the Coate Water Country Park seem to be being steam-rollered through, in the face of a massive public outcry and alternative proposals for a university campus in the town centre, explain why citizens feel powerless and disaffected. And have Swindon people been consulted about the council?s decision that the former railway museum will no longer be available as a performance and exhibition space?
If this town is to come together for anything like a common purpose, let alone support the idea of becoming a city one day, then Swindon Council has to take a lead in breaking down the cynicism that the council taxpayer has for it.
The next Swindon Civic Trust talk takes place on 15 September, 7.30pm, in the Community Crossroads, if still available. George Ferguson, President of the Royal Institute of British Architects will speak on urban design.