This blog is about a new initiative from the senior planning managers at Swindon Borough Council Called “Rising to the Challenge”. They have rightly appreciated that to meet current challenges in local areas, it’s necessary that more than just the Planners and Economic Development officers understand the advantages of a managed, growing economy alongside all the other challenges of a healthy population and vibrant places.
Swindon Borough Council do have a strong wish to grow their economy. They were the fastest growing area of the country in the 1970s and then had a bit of a decline in fortunes as the heavy industries that this blue collar town relied on moved away or died. But now Swindon is back and hungry.
Swindon had an “Open for Business” peer challenge from PAS a couple of years ago. They say that helped to make the step towards the planning service (officers and members) becoming more aligned to the needs of delivering investment growth through new developments and being responsive to the needs of businesses. It also helped to foster an appreciation that success was going to be more assured if the development was high quality and aligned to a planned spatial strategy that set a framework for decision making.
The new initiative is to run a series of seminars called “Rising to the challenge”. The purpose of the Seminars is to help Swindon grapple with the big planning challenges ahead by getting in leading thinkers / practitioners to speak on the issues to help guide their approach. Speakers are being brought in from a range of local and national organisations, other towns and other parts of the council. The audience is as wide as they can manage from councillors, community voices , interest groups and people from a range of council services and public sector bodies and developers. The seminars are hosted in Swindon’s great Steam Museum – a potent reminder of how heritage can be conserved and turned in the direction of the future – and a venue that made people feel good/valued at having been invited.
I went along to the seminar last week when the topic was “Delivering Good Growth”. Speakers included an inspirational talk from Peter Studdart about the Cambridge experience and a pithy talk about where Swindon is among the galaxy of similar (maybe competing) towns in terms of a range of indicators of economic health from Andrew Carter of the Centre for Cities. The afternoon sessions looked at working with the LEP and the work going forward in partnership with the HCA on a range of schemes especially delivering the necessary infrastructure for essential town centre regeneration schemes and the housing urban extension at Wichelstowe (2 of several). The final speaker wrapped up the day with a great talk that pulled together all the threads of activity in their growth strategy, and set them in the context of the aligned local plan, business plan and economic development strategies.
The audience were clearly caught by the ideas judging by the animated discussion that followed. I didn’t catch any whiff of NIMBYist “alright in principle, but…”. There was plenty of talk about what was good design in terms of Swindon.
The seminar topics are
- Good Design (presentations here)
- Delivering Infrastructure to support growth (presentations here)
- Delivering Good Growth (presentations here)
- Planning for an ageing population ( seminar 15 December)
- Planning for a Healthy Swindon
- Citizen engagement in the Planning of Swindon
This was about a council really taking the time not just to do consultation with their community, but really pulling out the stops to change hearts and minds about attitudes to development – making the situation real, talking about consequences without shroud waving and showcasing the breadth of ambition across the whole local authority area… and it was being lead and coordinated by planners.