Planning decay

You could be forgiven for thinking that Swindon Borough Council now has an obligation to find alternative uses for the Mechanics Institute. That’s certainly the impression that the Adver’s report gives.

A Planning Inspectorate report on the Swindon Central Area Action Plan says it has seen no evidence that other sources of cash have been explored to restore the building as a centre for learning, cultural and social activities. It says the council must demonstrate alternative ownership and a cultural learning centre is not feasible before it can look at other uses of the building.

It’s not true: the council doesn’t have to demonstrate anything. The planning inspector’s report on Swindon Borough Council’s Central Area Action Plan is very careful not to point at who has that obligation. These are some of her comments.

The Mechanics Institute is privately-owned. Although there is strong support to bring the building back into public ownership, the ongoing revenue costs of maintaining the building would impose a substantial financial burden on the Council. Consequently, the acquisition of the building by the local authority was discarded as an option in favour of working with the owner to deliver a sensitive re-use of the building that would secure its long term survival….

Whilst public ownership of the Mechanics Institute does not appear to be a viable option, there is no evidence that other sources of funding to help restore the building and reinstate its historic use as a centre for learning, cultural and social activities have been considered, or other ownership options have been explored…. The policy is not framed with such options in mind. Moreover, as drafted, it fails to encapsulate the important place of the building in the heart of the local community, both physically and emotionally

The changes she has made to the plan and its policies as a result also make no reference to the council.

IC12

Before alternative uses are considered, the availability of grant assistance and the option of charitable or community ownership should be explored in order to establish whether it is feasible to reinstate the historic use of this listed building as a centre for learning, cultural and social activities.

IC13

If it is demonstrated that reinstating the historic use of the Mechanics Institute as a centre for learning, cultural and social activities is not feasible, then other options for the future use of this listed building will be considered. Such uses should be sympathetic to, and compatible with, the historic character and role of the building, deliver public access to, and use of, the building’s main rooms as far as possible, and be of a nature that would not adversely impact on the amenity of Railway Village residents

That reads to me like it’s for the owner, Mr Singh, to demonstrate that his proposals are the only viable option… and for those who oppose his plans to demonstrate that they aren’t. Swindon Borough Council is the pawn in the middle, running the planning process. While the arguments rumble on, the Mechanics Institute continues to decay.