1998 July: More than just more and more houses. Swindon's expansion and how it sees itself, then and now.

By Roger Ogle - 7 February 2019

Photo ArchiveCommunity

As a community, has Swindon progressed since then? Surely it is time to rediscover the spirit of optimism it had in 1998?

The Mayor of Swindon Maurice Fanning with the Mayor of Ocotal and members of Swindon Ocotal Link. Bruce Clarke is pictured second from left.

Being discussed in depth during the summer of 1998 and reported in the July Link, was the public consultation for more expansion of the town with a proposal to build up to 9,000 homes by 2011, in addition to the 10,000 already underway in North Swindon. In parallel, a longer-term plan for a further 15,000 houses was unveiled at public meetings across the town and in North Wiltshire.

In the same edition we reviewed ‘The Hungry Spirit’ written by business management guru Charles Handy who wrote: ‘Swindon is not a place to lift the heart, at first sight, it has no focus, no cathedral, no university, no beauty.’

From that less than flattering introduction he expressed high regard for the town’s capacity for economic regeneration, successful race relations, the diverse voluntary sector and the churches and schools which take on a wider civic function.'

Back then The Link asked Bruce Clark, who ran Third Aid Challenge, a Swindon based older worker project, to comment on Handy's view of the town and he called on town leaders to take a broader look at what it takes to make a city. He wrote: ‘Have you noticed how most of the critics of Swindon seem to be local people rather than those who have moved into the town?

‘Like Charles Handy, I’m an outsider who believes that Swindon is a very special place and in some unique ways is already a city. How would it be if our leaders began an exercise to help our various communities to construct such a truly compelling vision, not just slogans, not just modern high rise offices or big factories and outlet villages?

'Let us also celebrate our small businesses and communities, our athletes, musicians, our leading projects and initiatives. So how about someone asks the question: How would you like to see our city grow?’

In the July 2018 Link, Bruce was asked to reflect on what has happened since to Swindon. He wrote: 'In 1998 the Mayor of Ocotal, a poor and vulnerable community in Nicaragua - our twin town - arrived to take part in a Swindon festival; we had lots of festivals to celebrate in those days. The town was optimistic and we were collectively regaining a sense of identity.

'Now, Ocotal is stronger and more sustainable, a place where its citizens take pride in their town's achievements. By contrast I think Swindon's optimism has dulled and its pride somewhat diminished.   

'Charles Handy's description of the town as a place with a successful economy and a strong sense of community is still true today. Swindon plays a key role in the economy of the country. It has a diverse workforce of Brits, Brazilians, Eastern Europeans and Asians working double shifts to supply key services and industry. Yet I feel, as a town, we aren't as aspirational as we once were, and I have a sense that the cultural activities we once enjoyed are falling away. 

'Having said that I continue to be proud of Swindon and our collective achievements. Twenty years ago we were a new unitary authority, no longer under the direction of a Wiltshire County Council, there was a debate about city status and our community organisations were varied and strong.

'Whilst those aspirations may have diminished, Charles Handy's conclusion still has a point. In The Hungry Spirit he wrote: "In ways mundane and intriguing, the people of Swindon are learning to live with the hectic forces of modern life."

'Our 'modern life' has been a decade of austerity. Now, more than ever is the time to rediscover the optimism we had twenty years ago.'  

Main picture, members of Swindon of Ocotal Link and visitors from Ocotal in Nicaragua who took part in the 2006 Swindon Brunel Festival, to mark 200 years since IK Brunel's birth. The figures at the back are Gigantonas, large mannikins traditionally carried at festivals in Nicaragua, in the form of Brunel and Queen Isabella of Spain

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