Over the past few months the issue of the running of Lydiard Park and House has been a heated topic.
Set within serene landscaped gardens, the palladian house and estate at Lydiard sits dearly in the heart of many of its residents.
So it is easy to understand why the people of the town are fearful for its future with Swindon Council’s cabinet having put the running of the site out to formal tender earlier this month.
On Monday (15 Feb), Swindon Link hosted a public debate at its offices at Arclite House in Peatmoor to discuss the future of the site – a week after the cabinet decision.
The meeting was chaired by Swindon Link group editor Jamie Hill with a panel made up of Garry Perkins, cabinet member for culture, Jim Robbins, shadow Labour culture spokesperson and Mike Bowden, the chair of Friends of Lydiard Park – a group set up 54 years ago to safeguard the site’s heritage and who are spearheading a community charitable trust bid.
It was also attended by Lord Joel Joffe of Liddington, who acted as Nelson Mandela’s defence attorney who described the meeting afterwards as ‘calm and conciliatory’.
Cllr Perkins said: “I do need to emphasise that Swindon Council will still own the site and it will still belong to the people of Swindon. We are having to make some very tough decisions at the moment as a council. By 2020, 92% of our budget will be taken up with looking after vulnerable adults and children. That is the reality of the situation. We are facing these tough decisions across the board and are looking at how we will still be able to function under these conditions.
“What we are doing for the people of Swindon is safeguarding the future of Lydiard. The park will still be there, the heritage will be protected and there will still be free access to the parkland.
“At this stage I cannot say what the length of the leasehold will be as that will form part of the negotiations with the organisations putting in a bid.”
It was revealed at the meeting that only two out of the nine expressions of interest were for running the whole site and they were Twigmarket, which run Broome Manor, and the aforementioned charitable trust bid. The other bidders were for parts of the site like the conference centre, catering facilties and car parking.
“It is still very early days and now that the formal process has started there could definitely end up being more bidders,” added Cllr Perkins.
Organisations have from now until May to put in a bid with the council due to decide in June and the running of the park to be taken over in September.
Cllr Robbins said: “Lydiard Park is owned by the people of Swindon and its running should stay in the hands of the council. Central Government has just announced £1.6 million of transitional funding for Swindon Council to ease the impact of Government grant reductions. We call on the council to back down from this whole process as regards Lydiard and back down from cuts to other services and use that money to find different solutions.
“Our preferred option is the community bid as putting Lydiard into private hands where profits would take priority over what’s best for the people of Swindon is something that is unthinkable.”
Swindon Council is also planning to introduce parking charges at Lydiard and Coate Water over the summer and will be giving the winning bidder a reverse premium of £860,000 to take care of any work that needs doing.
Mr Bowden, who revealed that the staff bid for the site had been absorbed into the community bid, said: “I believe that using the talent in this town the public bid that we are putting together will definitely be the best bid on the table. We will be doing all we can to ensure Lydiard’s future and any profits will be going directly back into Lydiard and not into shareholder’s pockets.
“I still believe that this process is moving at a speed that is unheard of for the council, where usually things happen at a glacial pace. But we are in the situation that we are in and we are working with the council now to make sure that we, using our expertise, will put in the best competitive bid for the people of Swindon.”
Swindon Link is also carrying out a survey to find out what people would like to see at the site. You can fill this in at bit.ly/Lydiardparksurvey