Preparations could soon be underway to bring Swindon’s historic Mechanics’ Institute into public ownership.
If approval is given at next week’s Cabinet meeting (Wed, 25 March), officers at Swindon Borough Council could begin to make the preparations that are necessary to allow the authority to make a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO), which could secure the Council’s ownership of the building.
A strict condition of the CPO process, however, is that a third party must first be in place to take over the building.
The Grade II* listed Mechanics Institute is currently owned by Forefront Estates Ltd and its eventual renovation is a key priority for the Council. It’s also the highest priority project in the Heritage Action Zone which was launched last year in partnership with Historic England.
Despite attempts by council officers to engage with Forefront Estates over possible restoration plans, the company has not been forthcoming, requiring the authority to step in.
Since January 2019, the Council’s Cabinet Member for heritage issues, Cllr Dale Heenan, formed a group made up of heritage experts at Historic England and the Mechanics’ Institution Trust, to identify a solution to the 30-year problem that is the derelict Mechanics’ building.
Together with funding and support from Theatres Trust and funding from the Architectural Heritage Fund, the group commissioned a viability study to determine a way forward for the building.
With the foundation work complete, the Council may soon be able to prepare the necessary paperwork to make a CPO, which will help to enable restoration plans to proceed.
An enforcement notice was issued last autumn which allowed the Council to step in to remove the bushes and overgrown vegetation from around the building.
Councillor Dale Heenan, Swindon Borough Council’s Cabinet Member for the Town Centre, said: “The Mechanics’ was a key personal priority for me when I took over as cabinet member 18 months ago, and I must thank my colleagues for letting me go out on a limb to get this sorted. Good news – we have nearly cracked it.
“For the first time all of the right people are at the table collaborating and we can demonstrate that there is a sustainable future for one of Swindon’s most treasured assets. This will comprise a mixed-use facility that can accommodate a range of business, community and social functions such as weddings, proms, concerts, theatrical and other cultural uses. What’s more, there is a strategy to secure the necessary £24m for restoration.
“The Mechanics’ is a complex jigsaw – you work out which pieces have edges and join them, then slowly build up the picture. If you jump to trying to find the right pieces that fit in the centre of the picture, then you’ve made it ten times more difficult. There is a plan and we are following it.
“Thanks to the collective efforts of Historic England, the Mechanics’ Institute Trust, Theatres Trust and the Council, I am pleased to recommend to Cabinet a way forward for the Mechanics’, and that includes authorising Council officers to prepare whatever is required for a Compulsory Purchase Order.”
Cllr Heenan added: “It’s important to stress that for the next stage, we must have a third party in place before the CPO occurs. If anyone is interested, please come forward and make yourself known.”
Rebecca Barrett, Regional Director for Historic England in the South West, said: “Through our Heritage Action Zone we have a crucial opportunity to make progress on a future for the Mechanics’ Institute.
“We know through experience that tackling historic buildings at risk takes partnership, imagination and perseverance. We have all of those in Swindon, with the right people around the table, all committed to finding a long term solution for this remarkable Grade II* listed building.
“We will continue to work with the Council over the coming months to work up a robust plan to help bring the Mechanics Institute back to life.”
Claire Appleby, Architecture Adviser at Theatres Trust, said: “The Mechanics’ Institute is an important Grade II* listed building and a fine example of its kind, which has been on our Theatres at Risk register since 2006.
“The viability study has clearly shown an exciting opportunity for the Mechanics’ to be brought back into viable reuse for its community and to once more be standing proud at the heart of the Railway Village.
“We are delighted to have been able to be a part of the steering group for the viability study and to help fund this work through our Theatres at Risk Capacity Building Programme at what is seen to be a crucial turning point for the future of this historic building.”
A definitive viability study commissioned by the Mechanics’ Institution Trust, and undertaken by consultancy firm Fourth Street, has shown that a high-quality, multi-purpose events venue is the best option for the future use of the building.
Fourth Street has outlined a delivery programme of four and a half years. Added to this, however, will be the potential time necessary to secure ownership of the building and to raise the necessary capital funds.
The Mechanics Institute was built by the Great Western Railway in 1855 to provide a place for recreation and education for railway workers. It included a theatre and a library, among other amenities.