Local Politics IV: wind, water and writing

For anyone out there interested in political politics, it turns out that Honda’s application to build 3 wind turbines on its site in Swindon, to meet environmental standards for reducing its carbon footprint, was rejected by the planning committee last week, after objections by local residents. 

Meanwhile, another long running local campaign, this one to stop housing development on and around Coate, on the outskirts of town, garnered some national attention at the weekend. The Guardian’s Review section on Saturday had a little story about the campaign to ‘save Coate‘. The venue for the story, in ‘The Week in Books’ section, was notable – the campaign is spearheaded by the Jefferies Land Conservation Trust, and the campaign revolves around the link between this large area of green space and the Victorian writer Richard Jefferies – “who was arguably the founding father of environmentalism in Britain”, and maybe even the US (who knew!). Jeffries was born at Coate, so Swindon now gets to claim him. Coate Water is a popular local amenity, centred on a huge nineteenth century reservoir which was the headwater for the Wilts and Berkshire canal – so there is an interesting loop between this modern campaign to save local green space and Swindon’s pre-railway position within an industrialising economy (Swindon is actually great for amateurish historical geography). And because lots of Swindonians visit Coate Water for some reason or other (for the pitch and putt, paddling, or picniking), the campaign has a certain ‘reach’ across the whole town. If you ever find yourself whizzing along the M4 towards Junction 15, or along the A419 to or from Cirencester or Marlborough, you will be passing by – and you should stop off, the best thing is the miniature railway.

Local Politics I: Take This Town

Two years into the Swindon stage of my life-long ethnography of the M4 corridor (eight years in Reading, eight in Bristol; where next?), and I’m growing fonder of the place. There is in fact, as my OU colleague Allan Cochrane reminded me before we moved here, a venerable tradition of urban studies research on Swindon – by Michael Harloe in the 1970s (a ‘town in transition’ then, an aspiring transition town now); subject of one of the ESRC Locality projects in the 1980s (Swindon really did have a proper ‘growth coalition’, once upon a time, apparently; and also an active Communist Party); and further work by Martin Boddy and others, who went so far as to suggest that Swindon might be the ‘city for the twenty-first century’. Not quite a ‘school’ like LA or Chicago’, not even the sustained history of case work that exists on places like Vancouver, or Columbus Ohio, or even Durban; in fact, Swindon is not even an ‘ordinary city’. It’s not a city. It’s a town. Very much so, a town.

It’s not a ‘post-political’ town, mind.

There is lots of politics here. And it’s not hidden, it’s quite open, and very much part of a vibrant little local public sphere.

One story rumbling through the local press (OK, the one local paper, the Swindon Advertiser, or ‘the Adver’) is about the plan for the Honda plant on the outskirts of town, one of the main employers and key to the economic success of the town over the last two decades, to build wind turbines on its site. This has aroused opposition from residents living close by to the plant. But the plan is supported both by the controlling Tory group on the Borough Council, and also by the opposition Labour group, on the grounds that it’s important to keep the Honda plant competitive (the Swindon plant lags behind other Honda plants on renewable energy targets, apparently).

None of this is necessarily is out of the ordinary (it fits with the image of local policy and political elites that emerges from those academic analyses of Swindon’s post-war development), it’s the sort of issue one can find all over the place (and it’s likely to become more common if and when proposed changes to planning regulations are introduced).

There is another story running alongside this one, which revolves around Honda’s relationships with UNITE, the union which represents some 1000 ‘associates’ at the plant. For some months, there has been noises about Honda seeking to de-recognise or minimize the influence of the Union at the plant.

The union story in particular has been very publicly sustained by reporting in the Adver, very sympathetic reporting one should say, that led in turn to a story with a slightly different inflection on BBC’s Points West yesterday.

As I say, none of this is terribly novel, although the juxtaposition of the wind turbines story and the union story is revealing of some of the ordinary political tensions that revolve around this kind of locally embedded link in a ‘global’ production system. I have been struck by the quality of the reporting on these sorts of issues in the local paper – which retains a much more obvious ‘civic’ orientation than I remember being the case with the equivalent daily papers in Bristol or Reading.

So, local politics, for local people only perhaps, but lots of it, and you don’t even have to look that hard to find it. No sign of the post-political, not here.