Swindon Chamber of Commerce has been charged with drafting a strategic economic strategy for the next 50 years, after challenging Swindon Borough Council's limited 15-year vision.
Chamber of Commerce president Les Durrant told members of the council's Growing the Economy Overview and Scrutiny Committee that while the borough had a plan for economic growth over the next decade, neighbouring towns and cities were being far more ambitious.
In particular, Reading and Milton Keynes, he said, produced long-term Vision documents providing strategy up to 2050.
When Dale Heenan, cabinet member for the town centre and regeneration, suggested that the business organisation might like to draft a 50-year plan for the borough, Mr Durrant – a qualified town planner, urban designer, and chartered surveyor – took him up on the offer.
Swindon's current economic strategy was published in 2013 and covers the period from 2012 to 2026. It imagines the town in 2026 – "A Hub of Advanced Engineering & Technology" with "A Higher Skilled, Higher Earning Population" – and sets out its priorities to get there.
The Chamber of Commerce contributed to the plan, but has long argued that the Vision needs to look forward to at least 2050 in order to provide the vision and strategy for the necessary infrastructure to sustain the town’s economic success achieved over the last 50 years.
Mr Durrant told the committee that Swindon had under-delivered planned housing growth for several years and had also failed to identify and allocate adequate land for employment use, both to meet the identified needs of local firms and attract inward investment.
"You need three elements to be in balance for a successful economy: people, homes and jobs and if any one of these is out of kilter with the others there will be problems," he said.
"Swindon has historically, for many years, needed to attract economically active people to the area to fill jobs created in a successful local economy, but the recently published Centre for Cities economic report indicates that whilst productivity in Swindon is high – the third highest in the country – job creation statistics had Swindon in the bottom 10."
Without jobs, he argued, Swindon would become a dormitory town, supplying workers to businesses in Oxford, Bristol, Reading, and London – as confirmed by the recently-published Swindon Borough Local Plan 2036.
In particular, he said, the preparation of a Vision taking a longer timescale and providing a more strategic view would almost certainly require the council to address the administrative boundary issue with Wiltshire Council as all studies of the last 60 years had identified the importance of this are to Swindon’s long term development and economic success.
This would be particularly important in respect of the identification of new employment sites as the requirements of modern business required large, well-serviced sites in order to attract inward investment.
Sites need to be earmarked for employment land at an early stage so that the necessary infrastructure can be planned for in order to attract funding and timely delivery, and Swindon Borough Council must work more effectively with Wiltshire Council to ensure land is identified and preserved for future employment growth.
While recent growth has been concentrated on the east, further expansion will require another look to the west and north-west – to Purton, Lydiard Millicent, and Hook – with a western bypass linking the M4 west of Junction 16 to the A419 south of Cricklade, and perhaps with a second railway station on the line to Kemble, Gloucester and beyond, with adjoining business parks and logistics sites.
Wiltshire Council – under whose jurisdiction the land falls – has been historically reticent to encourage the further western expansion of Swindon. But in a recent situation that echoes the conflict between Swindon and Wiltshire, the government came down hard on South Oxfordshire District Council for failing to accommodate the southward expansion of Oxford.
In a damning letter to council leader Sue Cooper, Robert Jenrick, the secretary of state for housing, ordered the council to go along with a plan to build 28,500 homes in its area.
And he wrote: "Should a significant delay occur, should you fail to comply with the directions in this letter without a good reason or should the (South Oxfordshire Local) Plan fail at examination, I will consider taking further intervention action to ensure that an up-to-date Local Plan is in place in South Oxfordshire."