Councillors trying to save an historic building in Swindon might do well to look to Reading for inspiration.

Anyone who watched this month’s meeting of Swindon Borough Council’s cabinet where councillors debated the ‘route map’ to try to save the historic Mechanic’s Institute building, would have noticed a certain despair.

This stunning building, unlike anything you might expect to see in a backwater of the town where few visitors go, opened 169 years ago, was extended 131 years ago but has spent the last 38 of them crumbling, leaking and becoming ever more of an eyesore.

After closure in 1986 along with the railway works, around which the town was created, the only action it has seen has been the council seizing access to it from owner Forefront Estates to protect the roof and to put hoarding around it. It is even more striking when you see it behind the hoarding.

A few years ago, an attempted compulsory purchase came to nothing and so this month’s approval of a route map sounds encouraging. However, it’s not really a route map at all because no one really knows where they are going with it.

Rather than exploring an exciting new idea, councillors simply warned it would not be easy, cheap or quick. No-one is exactly taking the bull by the horns. Instead, everyone seems lacking in ideas and this is simply a nervous step forward.

But just up the M4 another building, much less pretty, but similarly left to crumble for around 40 years, is an example of how a sow’s ear really can become a silk purse.

The King’s Meadow open air swimming pool in Reading closed in 1973. Thirty years later a developer wanted to demolish it for a Jury’s Inn, the locals rallied and somehow managed to ensure this abandoned ruin was listed and the hotel plan thwarted.

It waited a further 10 years before owners of the Bristol Lido chanced upon it and, after a three-year slog, turned it into Thames Lido, an attraction that is now a must for any promotional material about Reading.

Swindon has a similar situation with the Oasis leisure centre where councillors and owner SevenCapital had wanted to bulldoze it for development but have been forced to think imaginatively since it became Grade II-listed.

Like the Oasis and Thames Lido, the Mechanics’ is off the beaten track but benefits from a fairly direct (if poorly signposted) pedestrian link to McArthurGlen’s designer outlet village, via a long and wide tunnel under the mainline, which railway workers used to use to get from their homes in the Railway Village to the works.

The outlet village, built into the railway workshops, is itself a shining example of how big old unwieldy buildings can be brought to life.

It would seem those working with good intentions to save and restore the Mechanics’ need an injection of flair and ambition and a fair amount of entrepreneurial thinking, not something councils are known for.

Whether it becomes a cultural destination, a theatre, a church, a place of learning or a Wetherspoons, someone outside the public sector needs to make Mechanics’ Institute great again.

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