This is the second in a series about planning observations of the town of Swindon. Native daughter/My Friend Lauren spent a day looking at the city through a planner’s eyes with me, and then wrote about her impressions of The Triangle, an affordable housing scheme in a kind of a rough neighbourhood. From there the pendulum swung, and we went to visit Wichelstowe, a new town on the periphery of Swindon. Wichelstowe will ultimately comprise 4000 housing units, ranging from affordable flats to six bed houses. Lauren wanted to show it to me because its built on a floodplain, and because its a really large-scale development (obviously) that has really changed the edge of the town. As with The Triangle, Lauren and I disagreed about Wichelstowe. Not all of it, but some fairly fundamental stuff.
First: my perspective. I think Lauren and I agree that, on balance, Wichelstowe doesn’t have that much to recommend it. Neither of us are going to be investing in it anytime soon. But our opinion is clearly that of the minority, since we spoke to a couple sales officials and they said that most units had already sold – so other people are clearly taken with the place. While Lauren and I disagreed about the architectural merits of the building facades, I think we agreed that it seemed like a bleak and depressing place to live. There is a huge about of space given over to tarmac and very little space given over to anything green (at least relative to the size). There’s no children’s play parks or sports fields or open space interwoven into the development, although the constructed wetland (presumably constructed to mitigate the destruction of the floodplain) is very nice; we saw a bunch of ducks and a couple herons, which says to me that it is fulfilling its purpose in shoring up ecological diversity. Lauren and I also agreed about the only commerce we saw – a pub on the edge of the development where we had lunch. It felt like a restaurant franchise called “The British Pub” accessed from exit 67 on the Pennsylvania turnpike. There was a sign outside encouraging women to send their husbands to the “husband creche” (to watch sports on the weekend). Everything that wasn’t offensive was bland.
The houses at Wichelstowe were not of high design quality; they were a pastiche of neo-Victorian crap designed to look cutesy and appeal to the lowest common denominator. The fact that I was impressed by them suggests that I’m more stuck in the development patterns of the US than I realised. But I was going to speak in defense of Wichelstowe and let Lauren trash it, so I’ll get on with it. The thing that I liked about Wichelstowe is that the architecture was so much better than The Triangle, and so much better than it could have been. And while many of the developers in cahoots on this development have done a lot of horrible things to the English landscape, you can see that they at least ticked a few boxes when they designed Wichelstowe. For example, the houses are all different bricks, and have different facade detailing. Affordable housing is worked in through the development and not obvious from the outside. There is a mix of sizes, widths, heights and window placement. And its dense! There is really a lot of housing crammed into a pretty small area (in part because there’s no commerce or industry or office space, but still). So at least all this offensiveness is occupying a relatively small footprint, and people will drive less than they would in a more suburban settlement.
Each individual house is a pretty standard British style, and all the houses look….new, but not in a good way. But I can see a world in which the development ages well. When the bricks get a little stained and weathered, and the trees have grown in and maybe (fingers crossed!) someone’s installed some playground equipment somewhere, I can see how Wichelstowe could be a nice place to live. Minus the “British Pub” and its giant car park. And now its counterpoint time! My friend Lauren says:
In my last post I mentioned that sweet nostalgia I have for my home town. It’s where I did my growing up. And it’s where I still come with my thoughts and ideas and I realise that I am still growing up. You’ll see; here’s a mini-existential crisis for your enjoyment or embarrassment:
I spent a lot of my toddler-time tiddling about with my grampy. He would hold my hand on our adventures in the woods, down alleys and along the railway track. Today, we’re on the railway track. The sunshine is glistening on the rain-wet leaves, birdies are tweeting, that little stream is crying out
for me to jump in. We go exploring up the embankment, ‘come on Lauren, have look at this!’ and grampy helps me up the slip-slippy slope through the bushes. There’s a fence, and on the other side is open countryside; and in the nearest field, a donkey.
‘Hey, donkey, why’re you called Eeyore?’
‘I dunno, Heorways calls me that. ‘
Right. You can see where this is going. But I’ll spell it out anyway.
Wichelstowe was built on Eeyore’s field. Now that is the emotional base for all my reasoning, but there are plenty of rational reasons to hate Wichelstowe too. There’s the insultingly naff design, the sheer density of the place, the legally-obliged buses that run empty. And the fact that it’s built in the catchment of the river Ray flood plain. There’s also the ethos behind it, which Franny and I glimpsed when we posed as lesbian-potential-house-buyers …
‘Wow, the development is really coming along, how many have you sold now?’
‘Oh nearly all of them. We’ve made so much money here, I just don’t understand why there’s so much restriction on building on land like this; it’s a goldmine for everyone!’ [blog editor sidenote: that’s a pretty ungenerous paraphrase]
‘uh huh. So how many are social housing?’
‘Don’t you worry about ‘horrible housing’, there’s none of them in this area. It’s allocated per development and one of the other companies took on the quota so we’re all owner-occupied.’ [blog editor sidenote: that’s a direct quote]
I hate it because I’m a ponce. Because I don’t live in a world where I think about profit or the income-source of my neighbours. Because I have an aversion to schemes like this: where the benefit to the stake-holders is dubious, and the motivation of the developer is purely bottom-line. Now, I can see that we need housing; yes, the developers are meeting a real need, but they’re hashing it up. These people really do live in risk of flood: the wetland area we saw had already flooded, and
one of the houses facing it had a ‘baby boy’ banner over the door. How old will he be when the water reaches his door?
I hate Wichelstowe because those houses represent something else to me, something malevolent that I can’t quite put my finger on. When the plans for Wichelstowe were announced, I grew up a little bit. I learnt that ‘donkeys’ years’ isn’t actually forever. All that is solid melts away…
Final blog editor note: Lauren did some research and found a Swindon planning doc about the site. For more info, click here.