The top 10 myths about the Mechanics’…
1 ‘The GWR provided it for its workers’
Although the railway company and its managers were certainly supportive of the idea of the Mechanics’ and gave the land for the building, the pressure for it came from the workers themselves, who managed it via a voluntary council, elected from the various workshops in the Railway Works. The money for the original building came through selling shares, and it was run by the people, for the people, so is a monument to mutual improvement and co-operation.
2 ‘Thamesdown Council sold it for £1’
Neither Swindon Borough Council nor its predecessor, Thamesdown Council, have ever owned the building, although Thamesdown did turn down the chance to buy it for £1 from British Rail Engineering Ltd (BREL) in 1986. Nobody has ever bought or sold it for £1. Nationalisation of the railways in 1948, along with the effects of the Beeching cuts and the merger of the Mechanics’ Institute with the British Rail Staff Association in 1960 caused ownership to pass from the workers to BREL. The myth of the £1 persists partly because of the widely expected transfer for £1 to the council, and of a more recent official valuation of the building, which again set its value at £1. This nominal figure is important because it indicates that a significant amount of money needs to be spent on it before it has any market value. The fact that each of the three owners since 1986 has paid much more than £1 (£50,000, £250,000 and £500,000 in turn) is evidence that speculation is occurring, based on the potential value of the land for development, if planning permission could be secured – which is hasn’t.
3 ‘Something should be done with the building before it falls down’
It isn’t going to fall down. This was confirmed as recently as October 2009, in the Urgent Works Report issued to current owner Forefront Estates, which said the building is in a bad state but structurally sound. The actual wording was: “Generally, the fabric of the building is robust and in good condition, with no obvious inherent structural problems.” In other words, it was built by skilled and proud local people – and it was built to last! Now that the Urgent Works are being undertaken by the Council this will safeguard the building significantly.
4 ‘It’s just another old Listed Building’
With more than 187,000 Listed Buildings in Britain – some of them as insubstantial as telephone boxes – you could be excused for thinking that the Mechanics’ Institute is nothing special. But you’d be wrong. Whereas 92 per cent of Listed buildings are Grade II, the Mechanics’ is in the category above that, having been re-graded as a Grade II* in 1999. That star makes all the difference because it is reserved only for “particularly important buildings of more than special interest”. Repeat: “more than special interest”. Swindon’s Mechanics’ Institute therefore ranks alongside national treasures such as the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the London Palladium, and it’s in the class above Alexandra Palace and the British Telecom Tower. Only Grade I buildings are considered more important, and these are either ancient churches and cathedrals or such icons as the Palace of Westminster and Clifton Suspension Bridge.
5 ‘Swindon Council should let the owner turn it into something useful – anything, as long as he “saves” the building’
Any owner of the Mechanics’ is prevented, by law, from inappropriate development of the Grade II* Listed building – specifically by Planning Policy Guidance 15 (PPG15). This was introduced in 1991 by the previous Conservative government, and remains a cornerstone of planning legislation in Britain. In 2008, an independent government inspector reviewing Swindon’s Central Area Action Plan warned the Borough Council against contravening PPG15 in its handling of the Mechanics’. She concluded: “PPG15 acknowledges that the best use for a Listed building will often be the use for which the building was originally designed; reinstating that use should be the first option when the future of the building is considered.” In other words, only if returning the building to its original use has been fully investigated and found to be unviable should they even consider allowing it to be turned into anything else. Experts fail to understand how making the Mechanics’ a hotel, for example, could be said to be either ‘appropriate’ or ‘saving it’.
6 ‘The Mechanics’ is unsuitable for 21st century use’
Just because it was built in the middle of the 19th century, it doesn’t mean the building doesn’t have a future in the new millenium. There is no reason why it can’t be brought up to date. It was solidly built (see above), and as the Trust’s plans for its future use involve expert restoration and the creation of new spaces within the solid framework of the building, their approach will actually make it easier to install 21st century facilities to modern standards of accessibility and safety than in most other existing buildings.
7 ‘Is full restoration, community use and ownership a dream”?
English Heritage, the Victorian Society, the Theatres Trust and the Ancient Monuments Society disagree. They each supported the Trust’s Listed Building Consent application when it presented its plans for the restoration and modernisation of the building. It was also through the research work by the Trust’s members (particularly by the late Trevor Cockbill) that the building was raised from its previous Grade II status to Grade II* in 1999 (see above). The Trust is part of a national network of preservation trusts, as well as a member of the International Conference of Mechanics’ Institutions. Mechanics’ institutes were a 19th century means by which working people obtained knowledge before the advent of public libraries, colleges and universities.
8 ‘The Mechanics’ Institute is not unique and therefore not worth saving’
It’s true that Swindon’s Mechanics’ Institute is not unique. In fact, it’s one of no less than 700 that were set up in Britain, early in the 19th century. Neither are they unique to Britain, because workers in the United States, Australia, New Zealand and several other countries had the same idea at the same time. What makes Swindon’s so important is it was one of the biggest, longest lasting, and probably the most far-reaching, in terms of the services it provided. It is also the only remaining one established to serve a railway workforce – and what a world-class railway the GWR was! More than 2,000 visitors came to Swindon for the laying of the foundation stone on May 24, 1854,– more than the population of Old Swindon at the time! Swindon is also unusual in being one of the few southern English towns to found such an Institute, which were much more common in the north of England, Wales and Scotland. Perhaps most important, however, is the context of the Mechanics’ location at the heart of the historic Railway Village. It continues to be the missing piece of a jigsaw – and by putting that final piece in place, it may even be enough for Swindon’s historic railway complex to win World Heritage Status. Perhaps those seeking city status have been looking for the wrong status!
9 ‘But the Trust can’t do anything until they own it, and they can never afford it’
The Trust’s plans cannot, indeed, come to fruition unless (until) it actually owns the building. However, both central and local government can, where it is deemed necessary, obtain a Compulsory Purchase Order to ensure proper use and maintenance of a building – especially when that building is Grade II* Listed.
The likelihood that the Mechanics’ will be purchased in this way remains a very real possibility – possibly sooner rather than later. As the Trust’s plans have already been supported by the granting of Listed Building Consent, this could prove to be crucial when the question of who owns the Mechanics’ is debated in future. And remember, the purchase price under this circumstance could be as little as £1!
10 ‘Here’s the bottom line: it will cost too much and the Council can’t afford it’
It will, indeed, cost a lot of money to restore – £12million upwards, according to the Trust – but nobody is expecting the Council to pick up the bill. Lottery and heritage funds should provide the necessary money for restoration, and it is not anticipated that local Council Taxpayers will pay anything towards restoration costs. The big issue here is whether any future owner can meet the ongoing costs of running it, because this will not be drawn from national funds, and is unlikely to be subsidised by Swindon Borough Council (in the way that it subsidises the STEAM Museum annually. That’s why an economically viable business plan from a non-profit-seeking organisation, like the one proposed by the Trust, is crucial. The potential for the project to restore the Mechanics’ and turn it once again into a social and community asset is proven by the success of many such projects across the country since the National Lottery was established in 1995, the year the Trust was formed.