As part of Swindon Link's The Heart of Swindon campaign - which focuses on the challenges faced by our town centre - Swindon Borough Council's Dale Heenan addresses some key questions in the first of two reports.
What are the major challenges facing the town centre?
Swindon Town Centre is facing many of the same problems as the rest of the UK, with a huge shift towards online shopping, and a move to spend more money on experiences as well as growth in, and competition from, out of centre shopping locations. Every independent report shows Swindon holding up well compared to other towns and cities.
There is a lot of good work happening, and the council must improve how it gets its message across to residents and business. It is easy to knock our town centre but there are no easy answers. We must recognise that if the town centre was the Designer Outlet Centre, people would be raving about it. The Designer Outlet, the town centre and Old Town are complementary.
They offer very different things to different people, and it is essential we focus on improving the connections between them to allow people to move more freely. They are very different destinations, for retail and leisure and all within 15 minutes’ walk of each other. Few towns have such an opportunity. The town centre must evolve to tempt people back which is why projects like the indoor ski slope at North Star are so important. We need to manage the transition of the town centre from its current retail focus to being an attractive leisure and cultural location. There must be more homes in the town centre.
Politics can also get in the way.
We have seen calls from some councillors for a Swindon Congestion Charge but this is something I do not support and is a distraction from dealing with what really matters. Keeping focus is essential.
Swindon doesn’t have a strong commercial office market when held up against its neighbours. Rents are lower than Bristol or Reading, so it is challenging for developers to build and make a return on their investment. We need these values to increase and I believe being 50 minutes to London by train, thanks to the recent electrification of the Great Western Mainline, and just over an hour to the city with Crossrail will start to make a difference.
I am very pleased that I can say that Swindon is close to seeing the start of the first phase of the £100m North Star indoor ski slope construction, and work on the new £40m Zurich headquarters is scheduled to start this summer. No-one would have believed you if you had said that 12 months ago.
I am also determined to find solutions to a problem that has been a stumbling block for Swindon for the past three decades. The Mechanics Institute. This will be a top priority for me during 2019 and I believe I know how we can move forward.
Can you highlight some of the positive work the council has achieved in the town centre?
Over the last 10 years the council has invested heavily in Swindon Town Centre, delivering dramatic improvements to the main shopping streets such as Canal Walk, Regent Street and Havelock Square.
It is easy to forget but Wharf Green has been transformed over the years to provide a welcoming public open space, which is now home to many of our popular Town Centre events. Work started just a few weeks ago on improving the road and footpath linking the railway station to the town centre so it’s more attractive for both residents and visitors to Swindon.
A lot of effort has occurred in the background that you won’t know about. For example, proactive work with landowners to support improvements like The Crossing at The Brunel. This has introduced a new food and beverage court to town which is doing well and providing more choice for Swindon shoppers.
We continue to invest in keeping the Town Centre clean and tidy as well as comprehensive improvements to our CCTV system which, together with inSwindon’s street wardens, goes a long way to making the town centre feel safe for those who visit.
The council does act quickly to help find solutions to homelessness and anti-social behaviour and we are paying close attention to our car parks and other key gateways which often form a lasting first impression of the town. Our town centre team is a joint effort with partners working together and has made the town much more responsive to these issues.
In recent months we have been successful in securing a Heritage Action Zone designation for the Railway Works area. This will mean more than £1m in funding for the local area and support from Historic England to deliver improvements to the Railway Works area. By utilising Swindon’s historic assets we will be helping to create an attractive and distinctive town centre that will be the destination of choice for businesses, residents and visitors.
We are delivering on our regeneration ambitions. Last year, the council brought the Carriage Works on London Road back into use. At the heart of Brunel’s Great Western Works, it is a collection of Grade II listed buildings, and provides high quality office space for co-working as well as a digitech incubator which opened last July (Workshed). We have just announced the next phase of this important project, which will see the Royal Agricultural University provide a Cultural Heritage Institute, delivering courses based on heritage, conservation and culture from this September.
What is the council’s role in supporting the town centre?
The high street is undergoing big changes and we recognise the council can’t solve everything alone.
It does have a crucial civic leadership role to play and being a supportive partner to businesses and investors is vital in order to support the town centre.
Successful councils think about the bigger picture. A strategic view of a number changes is required. It requires big thinking. For example, the council doesn’t own the properties along Bridge Street, but could the council support improvements by encouraging a move from low-value retail to much-needed homes?
Could the council, by sticking to a long-term plan, be proactive in its use of compulsory purchasing order powers, and create an environment where people want to invest?
I think that is where the council has a role. The success of the town centre will ultimately come down to the collective response of many different landowners and people. Partnership is key. We need our landowners to believe in the town and know that if they invest they will see a return. We must be relentlessly positive about Swindon. Our external image is critical to promoting Swindon as a place to live, work and invest.
What is the long-term vision for the town centre - what is the time scale and what would success look like?
Swindon Town Centre must be ‘a destination for socialising, culture, health and wellbeing, creativity and learning. A place to set up home and business, where people stay longer, spend more and keep coming back’.
The council set out its long term vision for the Town Centre in the Town Centre Masterplan 2013. This was a comprehensive framework for change in our centre over the next 10 years.
We are halfway through that plan, and 2019 is the year that local residents will finally see construction start on many of the key projects. Regeneration schemes cost tens of millions of pounds, and no matter what anyone says, progress doesn’t happen overnight. I wish I could snap my fingers but it doesn’t happen that way.
We must recognise that town centres cannot be all about retail in the future. The town centre must be easy to get to and move around, one that is safe, clean and green and somewhere where people can work and play.
It’s important to learn from our mistakes - on reflection, what could have been done better?
I believe the council has for too long tried to undertake too many things at the same time spreading our resources too thinly. Since I took over as Cabinet Member for the Town Centre last year, I’ve specifically asked everyone to concentrate on just a couple of projects, deliver them well then move to the next ones so we can generate a positive momentum which makes the market and investors pay attention. We are already seeing the benefits of this.
The big challenge for Swindon Town Centre is how you ruthlessly prioritise and stick to your long-term plan. There is always more to do, calls for action on different issues and never enough time, staff or money.
We also need to continue to build and strengthen our partnerships with the public, private and community sectors. The council cannot deliver everything that Swindon needs alone, especially in light of the financial challenges facing local authorities.
In five years Swindon has seen a £30 million increase in spending on social care and looking after our most vulnerable.
There is no extra money available, and these decisions mean it impacts on other services including regeneration. This is the real issue politicians avoid and some prefer to talk about austerity. We must do better in getting across the positive things which are happening and that the plan is starting to make a difference.
Are there any other important things that you feel you would like to add that we haven’t touched upon?
I would urge everyone who lives in Swindon to support the town centre by visiting it. There is as much responsibility for those of us who live here to visit, spend time and money to ensure the shops and restaurants can continue to be there for the long term.
Swindon is economically very healthy. Employment is high, businesses perform well here, homes are affordable compared to neighbouring towns and cities and we are blessed with country parks, green spaces and much to see and participate in across the town. If you look at a place as the sum of its parts Swindon is a great place to live. The Town Centre is one very big and very important part of that whole. Bearing this in mind we need to be ambassadors and advocates for our town and speak positively about it.
There is much in Swindon to be proud of.