The town that inspired the NHS: In defence of Swindon

The Mechanics’ Institute, Swindon. Image: DickBauch/Wikimedia Commons.

On Bristol Street, a short walk from Swindon train station, lies a Victorian warehouse, marking the northern edge of the former railway village. Or rather: there lies the façade of a Victorian warehouse. It now acts as the entrance to one of many car parks serving the town’s railway museum.

This building, surrounded by many others like it, is emblematic of the journey the town has taken over the last 200 years – proudly celebrating its past, yet undermining it by adopting a way of life almost antithetical to the one it pioneered in the 19th century.

Swindon now finds itself powered by cars, rather than trains, and a long way from the style of living set by the railway villages which preceeded the town. Yet it remains an important model for urbanism through its pioneering use of social housing, education and the NHS. Swindon is often maligned, particularly in its current state – but the town serves as a reminder the radical change that urban centres can generate.

Swindon’s new town was born during the industrial revolution: a period of rapid growth was launched by the construction of the Wilts & Berks Canal in 1810, followed by the arrival of the Great Western Railway (GWR) and the industries required to support it in the early 1840s. In recognition of the need for decent housing for its workers, the early GWR developed the railway village it built alongside the old market town to an unusually high standard.

The workers here developed some important ideas. A number began the widespread sharing of books with their colleagues, forming the first circulating library system – predating the first ever public library. Later, the GWR recognised the business-sense of this system, helping its employees to form a the Mechanics’ Institute, funded via subscription.

This was still the Victorian era, of course, and it would be foolish to expect  utopian: the work was harsh, and diseases like tuberculosis were widespread. So the Institute also offered health services.  The authorities also established a Swindon medical fund, pooling some of the workers’ salaries to pay for comprehensive healthcare, dentistry, swimming pools, even Turkish baths.

Nye Bevan later paid homage to the policy: “There was a complete health service in Swindon. All we had to do was expand it to the country.” Fittingly, the medical centre was later replaced by the first NHS-built hospital, the Princess Margaret.

At the start of the 20th century, trams were introduced to service the growing town, maintaining good links between the new and old towns and charging a reduced rate to the railway workers. This new public transport system helped the development of a new, more leisurely lifestyle, allowing for frequent visits to the new ice rinks and cinemas.

So, along with the rapid industrialisation of Swindon came radical social policies and town planning opportunities. The railway village shares many qualities, library and health centre included, with planned communities like Bournville, in south Birmingham.

What, then, happened to pave the way for the Swindon of today? The Mechanics’ Institute is now disused, the Wilts & Berks canal has been tarmacked over in the town centre, and the trams lasted only 25 years, thanks to the introduction of buses.

The story is familiar to many towns and cities: the collapse of industry led the railway, in this instance, to become a less important employer. At the same time, the outbreak of the Second World War curtailed investment in public transport, even as Swindon continued growing, with several factories opening on its outskirts to contribute to the war effort.

These changes, along with a post-war population boom, led to council-sanctioned slum clearances and a sprawl into the suburbs, with expansions into residential areas like Penhill, Dorcan and Park North.

As the railway business collapsed, new firms moved in: WH Smiths, Nationwide, a number of car manufacturers. The one thing which links these businesses is that they lie in industrial estates around the city, far from the new town in the centre.

The post-war period also brought many of town’s more infamous projects, such as the magic roundabout and Swindon bus station, described by Douglas Adams as the place most ‘inimical to life’ in the world. In the 1960s, the railway village was even earmarked for demolition: like London’s St. Pancras station it was saved, in part, by John Betjeman.

Ooooh. The famous magic roundabout. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

This is not to say that all is lost – far from it. There has been a recent expansion of the bus lines, leading to competition between competitors on who can run the most buses, and a total reconstruction of the bus station is underway.

The town centre has a handful of commercial development plans going on at any one time through Forward Swindon. One of the most recent was the conversion of the Great Western Works into a digital hub – which, infuriatingly, calls itself the ‘Shoreditch of Swindon’. Here, Swindon seems to be taking its cues, if not from Shoreditch, at least from other successful urban ventures across the UK, such as the TramShed in Cardiff.

The development is more characteristic of a new Swindon than the railway façades are of its recent past. Fittingly, the digital hub will be located right next door, in one of the old railway buildings on Bristol Street.

Swindon may be working towards a new style of town, and a new reputation, by learning lessons from other cities – but through its trailblazing work in education, health and housing, Swindon taught Britain how to build its most treasured institutions.


A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.

Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.