In 2002 English Heritage and Swindon Borough Council appointed architects Fielden Clegg Bradley to produce an Urgent Works report which would highlight what measures and repairs were needed in order to slow the process of decay to the building. This report was planned to be issued as part of a Urgent Works Notice due to be served on the owner. During this period the owner announced that he had a buyer for the building. The Trust urged the Council to issue the notice regardless of the ownership situation however in 2003 they chose not to and put faith in the new owner Forefront Estates who claimed that they would carry out the urgent works themselves and therefore a legal notice was not needed. Forefront Estates paid £500,000 for the building.
During 2003 the new owner did carry out some works on the building largely concentrated on the southern end however these were incomplete. The Trust continually pressed the Council to assess to what extent the owner had carried out the works detailed in the original notice and to serve an Urgent Works Notice on the unfinished work. The Council refused to do this.
The owner produced plans for the building to be developed as a hotel, however these plans were of poor quality and showed over-development as well as a lack of understanding of the heritage and conservation issues required. The Trust vigorously opposed these plans. Swindon Borough Council Planning Committee were recommended to grant planning permission by Council officers. The committee were due to vote in favour of the scheme but thanks to the Trust appealing to central government the application was “Called-in” and to be subject to a public enquiry. The Trust had argued correctly that the scheme was contray to PPG.15 (Planning Policy legislation relating to the historic environment). In 2005 the owner withdraw his application at the last minute and the enquiry did not go ahead.
Very little happened on site during 2007 and 2008. The building was increasing left unsecured, with doors and windows wide open and inviting trouble.
It should be noted that twice during this period the Trust were approached by the BBC series “Restoration” to take part however we still didn’t have ownership. Given the type of buildings that eventually won it would seem the Mechanics’ would have stood a very good chance in the competition.
In June/July 2008 a hearing took place regarding the Council’s Central Area Action Plan (CAAP) the hearing was chaired by an independant inspector. Among the many issues being debated was the Mechanics’ Institution and the Trust made its representations to the Inspector setting out the Council’s continued policy towards the Mechanics’ was not appropriate and was contrary to PPG.15 and the best practice in dealing with heritage buildings. It seems the Inspector agreed with the Trust and ordered the Council to change its policy. Essentially this made the Council shift from a position of only seeking a private commercial solution to one that says it must now prove that the Mechanics’ as a “centre for learning, community and culture are not viable before any other solution is preferred” and that “lottery and other grant funds be explored” i.e the Trust’s plans and position. The Inspector came to the same conclusion as the Trust – that the Council had been ignoring PPG.15. This was an important victory for the Trust as it proved that we had been correct in our position towards the building.
During August 2009 English Heritage and Swindon Borough Council appointed Fielden Clegg Bradley for the second time to once again assess the extent of Urgent Works required. The Council intended to issue an Urgent Works Notice on the owner. This notice is due to be served in November. In the meantime the owner is executing some planning permission he has for the southern end of the building much to the Trust’s concern. We continue to press major stakeholders such as Swindon Borough Council to involve the Trust more constructively in the future the building.