The "£20 million pound traffic lights". That's what the 15 strong 'Morlands crew' currently occupying a derelict industrial building at the Morlands site near Glastonbury call the road works outside their door. In the eight years since the South West Regional Development Agency (SWRDA, pronounced "swerda") acquired the 12.5 hectare site for an estimated £6 million pounds, all they have done is demolish some fine industrial buildings, and construct an access road with traffic lights.
The squatters moved into the red brick industrial building on 5 January 2009, because SWRDA, just a few days before Christmas announced that they would be starting demolition on that day, on the pretext that kids were getting inside and it was "dangerous".
After the RDA acquired the site in 2001, with a brief to redevelop it 'sustainably', several major local proposals for sustainable reuse of the existing buildings were being proposed. One of these was a joint venture for a sustainable buildings research centre, involving Bristol University and The Somerset Trust for Sustainable Development (now ECOS), who built the award-winning Bow Yard ecohomes at Langport. All of these projects were snubbed by the RDA, who consistently refused to reply to representations.
The RDA has also refused to consider any request from individuals and small businesses to rent any of the premises. Local groups have petitioned the RDA to rent out some of the buildings on a cheap and cheerful repair lease, at least on a short term basis, to no avail.
After making assurances to the public that the buildings would be preserved, SWRDA demolished several serviceable buildings at short notice, in the face of a report commissioned by Mendip Council stating that refurbishment of eight out of the eleven buildings on site would cost less than £3 million — a fraction of the £30 million SWRDA estimated was needed to redevelop the site.
One of the buildings destroyed was the 1952 Hepworth Building, the first vaulted north light building ever erected in the UK. Many people in the town assume it was demolished because it got in the way of the RDA’s traffic scheme.
Most of the demolished buildings, and the red brick building now under threat, are north light industrial buildings. These are carbon friendly because they require less daytime lighting, and their ridgeback roofs are oriented and pitched conveniently for taking solar panels on the south side. SWRDA also seems to have shelved plans for renewable energy production on site.
The squatters and most local people are now convinced that SWRDA’s aim is to demolish as much as possible on the site so that they can offer oven-ready brownfield sites to their friends in the development industry. They say it is typical of the duplicitous behaviour of the Regional Development Agencies which is experienced by nearly everybody who comes into contact with them and which, early in 2008, was the subject of a Radio 4 documentary.
Simon Fairlie is editor of The Land magazine.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2008