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Last Updated: Friday, 19 May 2006, 10:39 GMT 11:39 UK
West: Farewell to the magic roundabout
Dave Harvey
Dave Harvey
Political Editor
BBC West

Swindon's Magic Roundabout
Swindon's Magic Roundabout in 1972

The town that brought us Billie Piper and Britain's weirdest roundabout says farewell to a veteran councillor.

"We got down to the princely number of three councillors, and the joke used to be that we met in a telephone box! Now in 10 years we have gone from three to 40."

You can see he is pleased. The Conservatives' return to local government is writ large in Swindon, and Mike Bawden has been at the heart of it.

He was first elected 39 years ago - and this week he has stepped down as leader of the council. Job done.

Railway town

Swindon did not exist in 1967 - well, not as a self-governing authority like it does now.

The town was built on the railways, quite literally created by the Board of the Great Western.

But for 30 years the council Mike sat on was just a small part of Wiltshire. For most of that it was not even called Swindon, just "Thamesdown".

Then in 1997 the local government map was redrawn and big so-called "unitary" authorities were born.

Councillors would run everything - schools, social services, rubbish lorries, planning decisions, you name it.

Labour challenged

Swindon was a Borough Council, and it was Labour from Day One.

"We were very much in the wilderness locally," he says, "that was probably the low point."

Swindon's Tories got organised. They hit the doorsteps with streetwise campaigns - quite literally in one case.

Outrage at a rash of speed humps in one area of the town prompted a Tory campaign to flatten the "Berlin Cushions", as the town's highway engineers called them.

The locals loved it, and two safe Labour council seats fell.

The party started recruiting political youngsters. Today a quarter of their councillors are under 30, and the fresh faces they can put out canvassing change people's image of the party.

Tory control

At the 2004 election, Mike's Conservative contingent passed the magic 30 mark - and took control. Even their Labour opponents rate their organisation:

"The Conservative party have been very active, they have a young, very active team," says Labour group leader Kevin Small.

"We have had to pull our socks up over the last year."

But Mike Bawden's retirement party still lacks the real fizz the Tories need.

Despite all the gains on the council, the Tories failed to win either of Swindon's seats in the 2005 General Election.

And while they may rule in the council chamber, they can feel impotent out on the streets.

"When the Labour party were in opposition they said they'd set local government free," he says.

"There is far more centralisation now than was the case even under Margaret Thatcher."

He remains a councillor - but holds out little hope of seeing an end to a trend that has cast a shadow over two of his four decades in local government.

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