IN one corner is a phalanx of smartly suited planning and legal experts whose names are suffixed with an admirable array of initials denoting hard-earned degrees and qualifications while besides them sit several hefty boxfuls of documents that include statements in triplicate, examples of legal precedents and door-step thick volumes pertaining to the case in hand.
In the other corner are Richard and Betty Uzzell and their son Kevin.
But why has a down-to-earth, working-class couple gone head-to-head with the borough council over the crucial matter of Swindon’s redevelopment on this morning of May 24, 1983?
It is the climax of an unusual – in Swindon’s case, unique – David versus Goliath-tussle that has seen the proverbial little man give the sprawling conglomerate a bit of a run-around.
At the heart of the confrontation is the Uzzells’ house at 6 Westcott Street on the edge of Swindon town centre.
It is a modest, tidily kept and nicely decorated three-bedroomed Victorian mid-terrace. As far as Richard and Betty are concerned it is also their castle.
For several years they have lived with their two sons in what has become the last house standing.
Somewhat conspicuously, their abode sits in the centre of a desolate landscape that does a passable impression of a World War Two bomb site. Complete with its lone, doleful chimney, their residence is supported on each side by a derelict, bricked-up property.
Everything else around it, including their local pub The Gardeners Arms, has long since been flattened. It has even become an attraction. People go out of their way to gape and to take photos.
The council want the Uzzells to budge but the Uzzells are not for budging. To quote father-of-two Mr Uzzell, 59: “I just don’t care if they send the bulldozers in. I’m not bloody moving from the house I have lived in more than 20 years.”
Their decade-long spat with Thamesdown Council – which finally concluded exactly 30 years ago this month – highlighted the rapidly and in many ways controversially changing face of Central Swindon.
During the Seventies, rows of century-old terraces were levelled to make way for modern homes, offices and shops. But some felt the heart was being ripped out of the old redbrick railway town. The Siege of Westcott Street takes seed during the early 1970s when the council informs scores of residents living along, or just off the west-side of Westcott Place that they have to shift.
A £1.8 million development has been earmarked for the site including 86 homes for the elderly. But Richard Uzzell – who ironically works for the council – is not having any of it.
The family had been forced to move from another part of Swindon in 1955 due to redevelopment and they don’t wish to do so again. By 1975 virtually all of their neighbours have cleared off after accepting council compensation.
Their homes have either been demolished or – as the Adver somewhat poetically puts it – reduced to shells that “await the bulldozer’s kiss of death.”
Speaking from the doorstep of her freshly painted home, housewife Mrs Uzzell tells the Adver in December, 1975: “It’s taken us 20 years to finish buying it and now we own it. We have done it all up completely – we just don’t intend to move.”
The council applies for a compulsory purchase order but the Uzzells oppose it and – in a rare victory for the small man – win.
As time goes by Thamesdown council becomes increasingly rattled. Their development plans are being stalled by one stubborn couple. They feel a bit daft. The Adver reports in January, 1980 that some housing committee members are “beginning to show signs of losing their tempers.” Committee chairman Les Gowing is shaking his head as he tells fellow members: “The public have been waiting ten years for this development and I am beginning to wonder if it will ever get off the ground.”
He adds, with no little grit: “It’s time we went to town on this.”
You can understand his frustration. The Uzzells have to move for the common good. In their hearts Richard and Betty know this.
They have put up a good fight and have gamely stuck to their guns. They have demonstrated they are not going to be pushed around by a faceless corporation. They have poked out their tongues at the pen pushers. But as with most things, it now boils down to cash.
The council offers them the market value of their house which isn’t much as it is stuck in the middle of a wasteland. The Uzzells do not accept because they cannot buy a similar sized town centre property with the proffered sum.
Chewing over the situation on his doorstep Mr Uzzell tells us: “They can start their old people’s homes without knocking down my house. I don’t want to stop the development.”
All they want is a fair price, he shrugs; that or the offer of a similar sized house in a similar location. The row rumbles on for a few more years. Mr and Mrs Uzzell become well known via the pages of the Adver as Swindon’s “defiant couple.”
Their home is a local landmark. Swindon’s premiere pop group XTC use a dramatic photograph of the Uzzells’ residence on the sleeve of a 1982 single, the appropriately named Ball and Chain.
A reinvigorated compulsory purchase order (CPO) is drawn up but hundreds of people sign a petition supporting the couple so the issue will be decided at a public inquiry. A now retired Mr Uzzell, however, remains “defiant.” He does not, we report, give “two hoots” about any inquiry.
“I don’t give a damn what the outcome of the inquiry is,” he tells us. “And I don’t care how many compulsory purchase orders they send me. I’m staying.”
Covering the hearing in May, 1983, I am scribbling away wondering how the Uzzells can possibly get any sort of result against a body that commands such resources, technical know-how and high-brow representation.
As a journalist I am of course completely impartial and report only the facts. But you can’t help rooting for the underdog.
The couple don’t say anything during the inquiry. Kevin, who is in his 20s, speaks for them. He reveals that his parents have just received an offer of £12,500 – a hike of more than £4,000 on its predecessor four years ago.
But a swift recky around Swindon estate agents reveals no houses of a similar size for anywhere near that price.
When Thamesdown is given permission a few months later to serve a CPO, Mr Uzzell remains – true to form and to quote my own 1983 story – “defiant.” He cannot find a three bedroom house for under £19,000, he says.
In April, 1984 XTC’s ball and chain duly swings into the now iconic-cum-symbolic redbrick structure that increasingly resembles the Alamo. It is 11 years since the first houses in Westcott Place/Westcott Street were razed.
After drawn-out negotiations the couple has accepted a better deal.
They don’t say what it is but are satisfied. So David did not, in the end, fell Goliath. But he gave him a bit of a slap and, for more than a decade, led him on a merry old dance.
- OVER the years the stand-off between Mr and Mrs Uzzell and the council generated a number of missives to the Advertiser’s Letters Page.
This one is from E Geary, of Whiteland Road, Swindon on January 25, 1980:
“I was utterly appalled to read about the man who won’t leave his home. Not because he won’t (how I admire him for making this stand!) but because he is being harassed.
“Surely this man has suffered enough.
“He has had to watch his friends and neighbours leaving one by one, with the associated problems of vandalism and the value of his home has dropped with no chance of sufficient compensation.
“Come on you councillors. Treat this man as you would wish to be treated in similar circumstances. Pay him enough to buy a home at least as good as the one he has.”