Swindon Council has agreed that the management of the town’s favourite heritage site will be the subject of wide ranging discussions with interest groups and the community at large before decisions are made – once local council elections on 22 May are out of the way.
In a knockabout debate at the full council meeting on 4 April, the last before the elections, councillors from both parties traded accusations about whether the Lydiard estate would be sold off.
Former keeper of Lydiard House Sarah Finch-Crisp with the late Denys Hodson, Swindon Council’s former director of arts and recreation, in December 2003, at an event marking the 60th anniversary of the purchase of Lydiard Park by Swindon Corporation in 1943. The evening was hosted by Sir Neil Cossons, chairman of English Heritage and the Mayor of Swindon Cllr Derek Benfield, and was a precursor of the £5 million Heritage Lottery grant towards the restoration of the park.
The cabinet has ruled out a private sector takeover, but has left the door open to management by a trust rather than direct council control.
In public question time Mike Bowden, chair of the Friends of Lydiard Park, said he noted the council’s intention to review ‘ways to ensure that Lydiard is preserved for future generations to use and enjoy, such as through a trust.’
He asked for assurance that Lydiard House including its historic museum collection and the park remain an integrated public heritage asset and that any options review, including any financial constraints, are openly stated.
He also called for meaningful consultation to be undertaken with all stakeholders involved in the review process and the formation of an external review body similar to the previously successful Lydiard Park Management Board.
During the debate, long serving councillor Mike Bawden, attending his last meeting, told the council: "In 2002, as leader of the council which was in special measures and under tremendous pressure to improve from central government, I was told by an officer that there was a good chance that the Heritage Lottery Fund would support a major bid to renew the landscape of Lydiard Park.
“There was cross party support for the application and the park has become a great success. It is again a difficult time financially for the council, the challenge is to seek support from all interested parties to ensure the park and house continue as a favourite place in the town.”
Leader of the council David Renard told the meeting there would be no circumstances where Lydiard Park would be offered to the private sector. He said: “The park is subsidised to a significant extent. In a time when the public purse is stretched it is the responsible thing to look at ways to reduce this subsidy.
“I can categorically say we are not looking to put the park in private hands and I don’t think there is any member in the chamber who would support that decision.”
Cllr Garry Perkins, cabinet member responsible for Lydiard said he looked forward to working with the Friends of Lydiard Park and other interested external parties.
Mike Bowden said he was encouraged by what he heard in the council chamber. “We need to recognise that the Lydiard estate is a unique combination of an extraordinarily fine historic house with much of its original family furnishings intact, set in a beautifully restored park.”
"We are very keen to make sure that the house and its contents, which are particularly vulnerable, are looked after by professionals to prevent deterioration and ultimately a loss to the people of Swindon. After the investment of so much public and corporate money in restoring Lydiard Park, this remarkable historic landscape and much loved local amenity continues to thrive.”
Afterwards Parliamentary candidate Anne Snelgrove said Lydiard should stay within council control. “I fear that setting up a managing trust would detach the house and park from the council and create uncertainty in the future.
“Similarly I’m worried that registering it as an Asset of Community Value would cloud the issue and make Lydiard more vulnerable. ”