Blog: 9 November 2017Is higher education lacking in the new Economic Strategy for Swindon?

The last couple of months could prove to be very memorable in the future fortunes of Swindon. In the last few weeks Swindon Council has signalled the start of its plan making process, hand in hand with its neighbour Wiltshire, and has also published a draft of its Economic Strategy to 2026.  This week (7th November 2017) the Swindon and Wiltshire Joint Spatial Framework Issues Paper and the Swindon Local Plan Review Issues and Options have also been published for consultation.

Plenty of page space in the draft Economic Strategy is dedicated to emphasising the importance of town centre regeneration (incl. Kimmerfields and North Star) and in identifying proposed residential schemes, such as New Eastern Villages (NEV) and Wichelstowe.  But those with a keen eye for detail will note that none of this is new. Perhaps this is unsurprising given that the Economic Strategy only covers the period to 2026, but the Council is at pains to stress the importance of regeneration to the town’s economic fortunes.

It would be a little unfair of me to criticise the draft Strategy too much. It provides a clear message that Swindon wants to be bigger and do better. An intention that has been at the forefront of Swindon’s civic ambitions since Brunel.

Indeed, the Vision behind the Strategy notes that Swindon is the UK’s 7th most ‘investable’ town, ahead of cities like Oxford, Nottingham, Brighton and Southampton, largely due to its location and connectivity. Productivity rates are also well above average for the UK, which is something to be pleased about, given the admission by Government that the UK lags behind the other major countries in Europe.  It also helps that Swindon is more affordable to live in than neighbouring towns, with average house prices in Swindon at £204K, compared to Bristol at £259K, Reading at £299K and Oxford an eyewatering £410K.

These factors are undeniably important in shaping the economic fortunes of Swindon. That said, there are -and have been for many years – two key things that have held the town back. Education and image.

The Strategy accepts that the town “has had decades of very low participation in Higher Education with the 10th lowest participation rate in the country amongst young people”.  The statistics bear this out when compared with Bristol, Oxford and Reading.  To rectify this, the Vision includes developing a Higher Education strategy between the Council, schools, colleges and businesses.  Amongst the actions identified, include seeking to raise attainment in schools and increasing apprenticeships.

But will these actions take the town and its population to the next level? Increasing the supply of HE options available in the town is surely more fundamental?

Although Oxford Brookes has located a small campus at the Delta Business Park, this provides only a limited range of courses, and whilst it is a university in name, it is not a full university in the way one would hope for in a town the size of Swindon.  Surely if (dare I say it) towns which are even less glamourous than Swindon can have universities, then why can’t Swindon?

Perhaps the town needs to be more exciting and have a better image so that it can get more of what it wants and needs (like a university).  I suspect that the Council knows this and perhaps that’s why the Strategy heralds a new initiative called ‘Switch to Swindon’, which they hope will seek to address the image issue head on.

The benefits which could be reaped from a new university are there for the taking, including a large and immediate increase in spending from the student influx.  Longer term – by retaining students in the town – it could also assist in reducing the brain drain to other towns and bring a stronger demand for quality housing, employment and leisure (such as the proposed new Art Gallery and Ski Complex).

Progress, it seems, comes slow to this Wiltshire town. Maybe you can only go so far with geography and with being a relatively inexpensive place to live. No doubt there will be growth over the next 20 years, but will that be enough for Swindon to claim that it is bigger and better?

I can’t help thinking that a lot rests on people seeing Swindon in a different light before that really happens.

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