Online renesting

After a week of technical messing about, komadori has moved his blog from Google’s Blogger to WordPress. A rather messy process, that lost all the comments along the way (though there were never many). I’d have been quite content to continue using Blogger — it was easy to use, gave good syndication tools, and did not take too much technical angst to customise a site’s appearance — if it were not for Google’s obsession with integrating everything with Google Plus. I know what my brand is and how I present that, and rather resent the likes of Google insisting ever more loudly that I change that to fit in with their views on online anonymity and identity.

Creditors grab the Brunel Centre

The Brunel — in trouble

In a rather complex chain of financial transactions, it appears that the Brunel Centre has been forced into the hands of ‘fixed charge receivers’ by the fall in property values in recent years. The centre — which is owned by a Jersey-registered company — had breached some of the terms of a loan — traded on the Irish stock exchange — of over £110 M in the first half of last year. The creditor’s agentappointed after the default — had also had the centre revalued, reducing its worth by almost a third, down to £87 M, less than the value of the loan. The closure of the Liquid & Envy nightclub was estimated to have lost the centre income of £90,000, but this was less than 4% of their total income.

With the loan due for repayment on 25 April this year, and with over £100 M of the loan still outstanding, the creditors were clearly getting worried about the chances of getting their money back, and have taken possession whilst considering options, including the possibility of selling the centre. The appointment of receivers was announced on 22 December.

Car park design Musings

Islington & Carfax Street car parks

It seems that unadorned multi-storey car parks have gone out of fashion. Not that they were ever something that could be described as ‘fashionable’. But at least the simple construction of a series of floors, plainly open to the elements, was unpretentious and offer scope for some styling. Looking down Islington Street three such car parks from the 1960s and 1970s are visible. They’re not pretty, but they are functional, with Islington Street Car Park and the Menzies Hotel quite well matched in their brickwork.

Now for the first stage of Muse’s Union Square development something far less simple has been proposed to replace — on a different site — Carfax Street Car Park: a car park encased in aluminium and terracotta ‘fins’. According to the architects, this freak of architecture has

a language for the building where the whole was greater than the sum of the individual parts…. The façade design balances the practical requirement of allowing natural ventilation through the building and creating a striking visual appeal to the building.

Only in the mind of an architect could an overgrown fence be thought of as having ‘a striking visual appeal’.

Union Square car park

In comparison with that, the block of 45 flats to be built nearby are almost stylish. And in the artist’s impression of the flats they felt obliged to hide the car park behind some trees!

Union Square flats

Swindon housing supply

Today the planning enquiry starts into the planning application from Persimmon and Redrow Homes to build near Coate Water at Commonhead. This is what’s left of the former ‘Swindon Gateway’ project.

With other areas identified for house building — for example Wichelstowe and Tadpole Farm — already having space for many thousands of houses, it is perhaps timely that just two weeks ago the Department of Communities and Local Government published figures for housing supply during the last financial year. For Swindon, the figure for ‘net supply of new dwellings’ is down by 11% compared with the year before. (By comparison, across the whole of south-west England there was no significant change, and for England as a whole there was a decrease of 6%.)

Net housing supply for Swindon
Year 2004-05 2005-06 2006-07 2007-08 2008-09 2009-10 2010-11
Dwellings 1710 1550 2260 1940 970 880 780

At the rate of building seen in recent years, land already identified for new building is sufficient to keep the builders going in Swindon for many years. Even if they forecast a recovery in the housing market, for the developers to argue — as they no doubt will — that there is a desperate need for extra land to be released for housing in Swindon is fanciful in the extreme.

East Wichel — in search of ghosts

Last night in their Inside Out programme the BBC presented a report on Wichelstowe. The report was introduced by Alastair McKee as “The Homeowners who say they’re living in what amounts to a ghost town’, yet the reality is very different.

The BBC have interviewed many people in East Wichel over recent weeks — komadori was one of them. The views expressed by many in those interviews were that it’s a very nice place to live. The community spirit is great and there’s quite a bit going on. It would be nice if there were some more facilities open in the development — such as some shops and a children”s play area — but given how slow the housing market is, it’s no surprise things are taking longer than originally planned. Some of the first that were housed in the area by Sovereign Living feel let down as things haven’t turned out as planned, but most that have moved in since knew it was going to be quite some time before facilities would be available. In short, it’s nice, it could be better, but for most there haven’t been any surprises.

Watch Mr McKee’s report and the impression you’ll get is distinctly grimmer. No mention of community spirit, only of ‘out reach’, despite filming community events. Little mention of what people expected before they moved here, only of what more they would want. Only five interviews were used of the many that were done, and many whose interviews were left out have said their comments were more positive than those used in the report. Even the interviewee in the most critical interview shown in the report has said her interview was edited to leave out the good things she had to say about the community. And where are “The Homeowners who say they’re living in what amounts to a ghost town’? Despite Alastair McKee’s introduction, none of the interviews in the report express that opinion. Fast forward through the programme to leave out Mr McKee’s distortions and listen only to the interviews, and the impression you’ll get is of a far more contented community than the report portrays. Yes, what may one day be West and Middle Wichel look rather forlorn, with roads in place years before they will carry traffic, but the East Wichel community is coming along quite contentedly thank you, albeit rather slower than most living here would have liked.

No doubt to many that watched the programme, Mr Greenhalgh’s defence of Swindon Borough Council will seem rather aggressive. To me as someone aware of the background of the report, he was giving a biased reporter everything he deserved.

East Wichel canalside

Garry Perkins’ reverse commitments

The universe occupied by Mr Perkins is clearly a very topsy-turvy place. In all other places, if one wants to show commitment financially, one gives money rather than taking it. In the Perkinverse, it’s the other way round, Thus with several public sector bodies — including Swindon Borough Councilstumping up £3.5 M to remodel Whalebridge roundabout, as a prerequisite to Muse even starting their Union Square development, Mr Perkins is claiming that this shows commitment by Muse.

The fact that there’s £4 M invested shows Swindon is serious, it shows Muse is serious.

And even the first phase of the Union Square development will mainly be paid for ultimately by the public sector. It consists of a car park — that Swindon Borough Council will buy — sheltered housing, and a health centre — to replace the NHS Carfax Health Centre which will be demolished to make way for the main part of Union Square.

The only commitment in evidence here is that of Swindon taxpayers’ money, being spent up-front, well before the commercial developers have even submitted detailed plans.

Wi-fi’s dead — long live wifi!

The report to next week’s special cabinet meeting of Swindon Borough Council makes it clear that their venture with our money to bring wifi to the whole of Swindon is dead.

So far as the Council’s interests in Digital City is concerned, further legal and financial advice will be required in this matter following which it is suggested that the Chief Executive, in consultation with the Cabinet Member for Finance, be authorised to take such action as he considers necessary to protect and, if appropriate conclude, the Council’s interests in Digital City and ensure that the network assets deployed in Highworth are transferred in the first instance to the Council’s ownership.

Conclude the Council’s interests, i.e. dead, finished, failed. And do we get any apology for that failure? No. Far from it. In fact, reading the report you could be forgiven for thinking the project had been a success.

Despite Digital City having failed to make interest repayments since late 2010, the granting of the loan has still proved to be financially advantageous for the Council. Sums received in interest and arrangement fees total £10.5k, while investment of the sums advanced to the company would have generated £6.9k to date at the Council’s average investment rate of return.

Let’ forget, shall we, that the original proposal said that Digital City would have repaid its £450k loan from us, the tax payers of Swindon, in full within two years. Instead, lets just be grateful. for £10.5k.

In place of an apology, we get a new proposed scheme, between Swindon Borough Council, an unnamed investor “under the ultimate ownership of a Global Telecommunications Company with annual revenues in excess of $3b US.” and that company well known for successful IT projects, Capita. Capita already provides numerous services to Swindon Borough Council. The report gives no indication as to whether Swindon Borough Council would have to stump up more of our money for this deal to go ahead. It also tries to suggest that the return on this new investment will constitute a return on the investment in Digital City (UK) Ltd.

The financial return to the Council is, therefore, enhanced by its investment in Digital City and the resulting Highworth pilot and the Council will now get a return on its investment. This will equate to the loan advance of £400k plus interest by year five or earlier depending on revenue share and this financial benefit will continue to accrue in future years…. Through these arrangements with Capita, SBC has the potential to receive significant return based on sales targets being achieved over 5 years, part of which will be credited against the loan of £400k to Digital City, and accumulated interest. Current indications are that this amount is likely to be repaid over approximately 5 years.

5 years? That’s in addition to the 2 years over which the loan to Digital City (UK) Ltd was meant to be repaid. And unless this new investor is going to take over the assets and liabilities of Digital City (UK) Ltd, then to suggest that this is a repayment of the loan to that company is the most creative of creative accounting. As the report makes clear, no such takeover is envisioned.

The Council’s intention will be to secure an orderly extraction of our interests from Digital City, with its assets being transferred to SBC to ensure that the Highworth infrastructure is kept intact. To ensure this happens, it is suggested that the Chief Executive be authorised, in consultation with the Cabinet Member for Finance, to take such action as he considers necessary to protect and, if appropriate, conclude the Council’s interests in Digital City and ensure that the network assets deployed in Highworth are transferred in the first instance to the Council’s ownership.

So effectively, Swindon Borough Council will exercise its rights under the loan agreement with Digital City (UK) Ltd and take over the company’s network assets. It will then enter a new venture with Capita and an unnamed company. On that basis, the new venture will owe nothing from the first, despite what the report may try to suggest.

The report to Swindon Borough Council’s cabinet is written my Mr Hitesh Patel. Mr Patel is an ex-director of Digital City (UK) Ltd. Mr Patel was also an author of the original recommendation to councillors to invest in Digital City (UK) Ltd. Perhaps, then, it’s unsurprising that he writes about that investment in such glowing terms. But given how poor his advice was the first time around, and that he didn’t know he was already a director of the company he was recommending an investment in, would anyone with any sense really trust his advice again? But then, would anyone with sense have made the first investment? Answers to that on a no-questions-asked cheque for £450k please.

Yet another pub for East Wichel?

It’s less than a month since Swindon Borough Council granted planning permission for Marston’s Inns to build a pub-restaurant near the Croft Road entrance to East Wichel — on Langdean Road between Blackhorse Way and Frogden Road. Councillors criticised that application saying “it wouldn’t win any architectural awards”.

Now Mitchells & Butlers have submitted a planning application for a site almost opposite — on the stub of Croft Road that leads to a veterinary clinic — to build a Toby Carvery. The application refers to the new draft National Planning Policy Framework, saying that as the local plan is, in their view, out-of-date the application should be allowed — despite appearing to contravene almost every planning policy the council has. And although the application acknowledges that

The site is considered to constitute a free standing gateway site to the Witchelstowe (sic) development

the application almost entirely ignores the Wichelstowe design code:

[B]eing situated beyond the boundary of Witchelstowe (sic) it is beyond the remit of the Design Code….Materials and features have been specified to reflect some of the guidance within the Design Code, whilst retaining an appropriate degree of separation.

It’ obvious from the drawings that actually very little effort has been put into the design at all. Imagine an unadorned prefabricated concrete box, and you’ll have a fairly accurate idea of what this building will look like. In comparison with this, Marston’s planning application was positively imaginative.

Toby Carvery ugly pub

Anyone wishing to comment on or object to the application must do so by 29 September. Comments and objections can be submitted online.

Hedges on sticks

Welcome though the changes to Swindon Railway Station forecourt may be, the artist’s impressions in the Station Update leaflet — that’s been distributed near the station — show a rather odd fashion in topiary. So the ghostly passengers and ghostly taxis are surrounded not by ordinary trees — that privilege is reserved for customers of the coffee shop — but by what look like carefully fashioned hedges… on tall sticks. Maybe it’s intended to make it easier for pedestrians, so they can walk underneath what would otherwise be low trees.

Hopefully in real life it will look far less bizarre than the artist has made it appear. Hopefully too, they won’t prove costly to maintain in this form either.

Hedges above!
Little green boxes