Authors suggested the town had an image problem as more of a location than a place
‘City for the 21st Century? Globalisation, planning and urban change in contemporary Britain' published on 27 January 1998 by Professor, Martin Boddy, with co-authors Christine Lambert and Dawn Snape of Bristol University
Swindon's post-war growth has been nothing short of remarkable: new housing, community and leisure facilities, new employers.
Development first in Parks, Walcot, Eldene and Liden, then West Swindon, and now the Northern expansion have brought both physical expansion and major growth in population.
Swindon’s history has been one of growth and expansion - even the now ‘historic’ railway village was once built on green fields to house the workforce for BruneI's rail engineering works - the expanding, high technology industry of its era.
Plans drawn up in the late 1960s by the Borough Council, the County Council and Greater London Council saw Swindon as a city of a quarter a million inhabitants by the Millennium. Growth since then has been spectacular - if not quite on the scale originally planned. The Borough Council itself played a key role in the development of new estates, providing community facilities and ensuring the creation of a high quality environment for the town's expanding population. Frequently this was in the face of opposition from the County Council and central government who wanted to limit new growth.
The mid-1980s, however, was a major turning point. Increasingly frustrated by financial pressures and with its own stock of land used up, the Borough Council decided enough was enough. Unconvinced of the benefits of future growth, it decided on a strategy of 'consolidation' and set its face against further expansion beyond what was already in the pipeline - meaning, essentially, beyond completion of the northern expansion.
Recently the news has been full of the debate about the massive predicted increase in the numbers of growth and expansion of households over the next twenty years or so, where they are going to live, the threat to the countryside and the greenbelt. The government is predicting that we will need, nationally, homes for at least a further 4.4 million households.
Given where people are keen to live and businesses to invest, pressures for growth in the South West are particularly strong. The region also has less in the way of so-called 'brownfield' sites, sites which have already been developed for, say, industry, which provide opportunities now for housing development. Swindon itself lost a major opportunity with the GWR site which would have been ideal for an urban-village type of development.
Greenfield housing development on a significant scale is, therefore, inevitable. Swindon itself, after the latest decisions on the new Wiltshire Structure Plan, is currently being expected to find sites for a further 8,500 or so houses, on top of the 10,000 already in the pipeline in the northern expansion.
And while Wiltshire and Swindon can argue over the figures, neighbouring counties such as Gloucestershire are no keener to see their own share of growth increased. It will take time. The town is not about to be swamped by new housing estates. The northern expansion still has a long way to go. But the writing is on the wall. Major expansion - whether east of the A419 or south between the town and the M4 - does now seem to be inevitable, it is only a question of when.
So what are the choices? The Borough Council could try and resist, to hold the line against further development. This would be a high-risk strategy. The danger would be that development would be forced on the town anyway, and non-co-operation would give the Borough little say over the direction this took or the quality of the outcome.
It could, on the other hand, acknowledge the inevitable - but aim to harness further expansion in order to secure maximum benefit to the town's existing residents. It could do everything possible to ensure well planned, architecturally excellent development, with good community facilities and, as in earlier phases of development, a high quality living environment.
It would need local consultation and would mean the Borough Council working in partnership with central government, developers and other, local interests. It might mean the Council using part at least of the land in the 'front garden' inherited from the County Council. It would also mean the town taking control of its own future and developing a new vision for Swindon, an inspirational plan for Swindon's development over the next 20 to 25 years of the sort that guided development from the early 1970s on.
Potentially this would provide the basis for Swindon to make the transition from a rather awkwardly sized town to become truly a city for the 21st Century, with the formal status and recognition, the self-belief and the quality of urban environment which that implies.
• City for the 21st Century? can be found in Swindon Central Library.