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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 June, 2004, 14:15 GMT 15:15 UK
Battle to save community forest
By Chris Kelly
BBC News Online, Bristol

Tour the Swindon Shaw Community Forest site.

The main entrance to the Swindon Shaw Community Forest is hardly welcoming.

Until relatively recently the area was a rubbish tip, and all the old hallmarks still remain.

The dusty road at the front, the scarred landscape, the disused builders' yard - it's tough to think why anyone would want to save this place.

But over the brow of the hill the dusty moonscape stops and gives way to a rolling forest of trees.

Although the oldest trees were planted just ten years ago, in places the plantation is as tall as it is thick.

But just a few metres below the surface is some of Swindon's accumulated waste over several decades - the tip has been capped with several metres of top soil and clay.

Dotted around are methane valves, which require periodic checking.

This land is not suitable for housing, but the town's football club has earmarked it for a new stadium.

Opponents of the scheme say their objections are not down to a football club moving, but to the loss of a "vital green lung".

The site is home to deer, rabbits, otters - and is not far off being declared an area of special scientific interest.

Over the last 20 years Swindon has expanded at an astonishing rate.

Swindon Town's County Ground
Swindon Town say their ageing stadium is holding them back
Companies such as Motorola, Honda and Intel have moved in, and extra housing has been built to cope with the newcomers.

The northern expansion has already swallowed up villages such as Purton and Haydon Wick.

Little or no parkland has been left over in the march north, and some residents are seeing the Shaw Forest fight as being the town's last stand for green space.

During the May Day bank holiday weekend more than 1,000 people turned out to protest against the club's plan.

More are expected on a five-mile walking protest between the forest and the Swindon Borough Council town centre building on 5 June.

The protests are being organised by the Swindon Forest Protection Group (SFPG).

Alan Hayward from the group told BBC News that the stadium was one small part of a wider debate.

"It's nice here at the moment, why do we have to keep expanding and growing?

"The government allocate quotas for housing, and Swindon seems to bear the brunt of that.

"Why can't we say that we like it here, and we want to keep it that way for our children."

'Bad idea'

Mr Hayward added they are not against the football club building a stadium to replace the ageing County Ground.

"We would be delighted for them to have a new stadium. We would be delighted to see new sports facilities around the borough.

John Doyle (left) and Alan Hayward (right)
We want to persuade the council this is a bad idea
John Doyle, Swindon Forest Protection Group
"Nobody has got any problem with that. The issue is that this is completely the wrong location."

The borough council and developers, St Modwen, have both committed to a full consultation.

A council statement said: "At this very early stage the council would like to reassure local people that it is aware of the ... implications for the Community Forest.

"Before making any commitment to the partnership we will be looking very carefully at how the developers will seek to resolve these issues."

Financial problems

Swindon Town's chief executive, Mark Devlin, was adamant the club needed to build a new stadium.

He told the BBC that the County Ground - which is rented from the council - was not good enough to "maximise revenues".

"Over the past 30 years the club has flirted with financial problems, almost on a yearly basis."

He added that the recent consultations were helpful to the club, but conceded that 90% of people who attended the West Swindon meeting were against the plan.

"Traffic and pollution were things people were worried about. These are things we can look at before putting a planning application in."

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