NEXT year will be crunch time for Coate Water after developers put forward new plans that could see the popular nature reserve expanded.

The Swindon Gateway Partnership wants to create a university campus, expand the Great Western Hospital and build hundreds of new homes on land at nearby Coate in what it is calling a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Plans were originally submitted to Swindon Council earlier this year but the developers were told to make adjustments, which have included increasing the buffer zone separating the nature reserve from the development site by 40 per cent.

Campaigners who are against the scheme have already hit out at the plans and say in spite of the changes Coate Water will still be destroyed if this goes ahead.

But if plans are given the green light, Coate Water could increase by 60 acres.

The University of Bath wants a new campus at Coate while 1,800 new houses would be built by Persimmon Homes and Redrow Homes.

Les Durrant, the chairman and managing director of Old Town-based planning consultants DPDS, said: "We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to make Coate Water Country Park a bigger, richer and more diverse environment for the people of Swindon and to enhance the Coate Water Site of Special Scientific Interest.

"It has never been suggested that any part of the park should be built on, and our plans have always included a natural buffer zone to minimise the visual and environmental impact of development from the neighbouring Gateway site.

"We are now looking to expand this buffer zone by more than 40 per cent and are considering whether this area, together with other protected land on the Gateway site, should be gifted to Swindon Council to manage in perpetuity.

"This could mean Coate Water Country Park increasing in size by around 24 hectares - almost 60 acres.

"By extending the buffer zone to the south of the Coate Water SSSI it could be connected for the first time to the Burderop Wood SSSI, providing a vast continuous wildlife haven.

"We are also considering ecological and environmental enhancements to the buffer zone.

"These include new ponds and lakes to attract birds and other wildlife; additional nature conservation areas; woodland planting; reed beds and wet grassland."

The plans are being publicised by a newsletter, which is being sent to residents in the town and to key community stakeholders.

An updated meeting for stakeholders is planned for the end of this month and there will be a public exhibition of the final plans in the New Year before the plans are submitted to the council.

The Swindon Gateway Partnership is an organisation which consists of the University of Bath, the Swindon and Marlborough NHS Trust, Redrow Homes and Persimmon Homes.

Wrong place

ALAN Hayward, of Swindon Civic Trust, has been campaigning for a university to be located in Swindon town centre and does not think the development should go ahead.

"This is the wrong thing to do to the area," he said.

"These revised plans still do not address the fact that this is the wrong site and the buffer that's proposed still does not protect the land around Coate Water.

"Our argument has always been that Coate Water is the wrong site for this development.

"Particularly we think this is the wrong site for a university.

"The university should be in the centre of town. The council are talking about the town's regeneration and what better way to give the town centre more life than to have a lot more younger people?"

"If the university goes ahead at Coate there will be no need for the young people to even come into town."

This does not go far enough'

JEAN Saunders, of the Save Coate campaign, says in spite of these plans the fight to save the nature reserve is far from over.

"My initial reaction is that the plan is still totally inadequate because the buffer is not big enough to protect Coate Water and its environment," she said.

"The proposed buffer that they suggested is not good enough because in some parts the buffer is very small anyway and so an extra 40 per cent is not going to make any difference.

"We are proposing that the buffer must be at least a kilometre and I am disappointed this is not in their plans but we will keep fighting on.

"We now have almost 30,000 signatures for our petition and everyone is calling for the buffer to be a kilometre.

"If we don't get the kilometre Coate Water will end up looking like a glorified duck pond in the middle of a town."

She added: "Coate Water really is a special place. People feel like they are not in Swindon when they are there. It needs to be preserved not taken away form the people of Swindon.

"If we get our buffer it will mean there is only room for the hospital to expand but the university and the houses could go somewhere else.

"I just hope common sense will prevail."

Waiting to see revised plans

COUN Andrew Bennett (Con, Ridgeway), the chairman of Swindon Council's planning committee, said he has not seen the revised plans yet but is looking forward to seeing them in the New Year.

"By the time applications get to the planning committee stage all the support and objections have been received," he said.

"But there will be a limited opportunity for the developers and members of the public to put their point of view across.

"Then after this has happened the planning committee will be in a position to reach a conclusion, whether that is to allow the application to go ahead, to refuse, it defer it or whatever."

Coun Bennett added that when DPDS's plans were first inspected it was highlighted that the buffer zones needed to be increased.

"This was suggested to create a larger space between the development and the country park," he said.