THE Swindon-based headquarters of one of the UK’s biggest retailers could be listed for historic protection instead of demolished if conservation efforts succeed.

The Twentieth Century Society and Swindon’s conservation officer pushed back against plans to knock down the Greenbridge base of WHSmith and build 228 new homes on the site.

The society hopes to have the warehouse, six-storey office block and two-level car park maintained and protected because of their historic and architectural merit.

But the applicant’s heritage statement argues that the site “falls short” of the national requirements to be designated as a listed building and that its “architectural and historic values are limited”.

Society caseworker Coco Whittaker strongly disagrees and suggests that the complex is of “outstanding national significance”, adding architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner once described the WH Smith warehouse as the “most striking building” on the industrial estate.

She said: “It’s a really interesting building that is under-studied and has a lot of potential for reuse so it would be a huge shame to lose it.

“It’s being seen as a liability rather than an asset and I think it could be sympathetically refurbished, which might be expensive in the short-term but worth it in the long-term.

“We would be so pleased if it was saved because it’s a significant site for Swindon and nationally. There is a growing interest in 60s buildings so we would be kicking ourselves if this was not retained.”

Its historic importance comes from the fact that in 1966, shortly after moving into the new purpose-built complex from London, WHSmith staff created a nine-digit code that would later become the International Standard Book Number catalogue system which is now commonly used in the book publishing industry.

The building’s unusual design includes an arched roof with three 150ft-wide and 525ft-long curved spans of steel truss girders and reinforced concrete roofing supported on 12 columns which cover 250,000 sq ft of floor space.

Objections from Swindon Borough Council conservation officer Liz Smith-Gibbons highlight these points as reasons to save the structure.

Her letter said: “The scale of harm demonstrated by the proposed development is major and would result in total loss of an acknowledged heritage asset.

“On the basis of the information provided, the level of significance attributed to the building has, in my opinion been underrated.

“Both physically and metaphorically the site is a landmark. This translates to high/exceptional historic and architectural interest.

“The applicants have not taken the opportunity to update their heritage statement nor seek additional specialist advice as advised at pre application in March 2020.

“I advise that this is now undertaken as part of the outline application submission. Presently the development proposals give rise to an objection on heritage grounds.”

The warehouse was fitted with a sorting conveyor, with 45,000 ft of shelving for half a million books and racking for 5,000 pallets.

The buildings were constructed in 1966-1967 to designs by H. F Bailey with the consulting architects Johns, Slater & Haward. Johns, Slater & Haward, an important post-war architects’ practice.

The offices were designed to accommodate administration areas, restaurants, welfare and recreation rooms, service equipment areas and an air-conditioned, double-glazed computer and data processing suite.

Stratton St Margaret Parish Council are not keen on the plans either and recommended that the borough’s planning committee reject the outline planning proposal because they feared it would add to the traffic congestion on Dorcan Way – particularly as, it was argued, accidents in the Greenbridge area are already high.

Councillors suggested that some of the rooms would be too small for people to live in, they had concerns over adequate insulation to counter high noise levels from passing lorries, and thought the single entrance in and out of the site could potentially cause a bottleneck for any emergency vehicles that are called to the properties.

If the plans are approved, a developer would then be found to take on the construction of the new housing and submit a more detailed application which includes more information about the layout, scale, landscaping and appearance of the development.

Both the parish and borough councils would discuss this application before deciding whether or not to give the green light for demolition of the WHSmith HQ to begin.
The retailer hopes to move out of its existing offices, sell the land to a housing developer and stay in Swindon at another site which is yet to be determined.

According to a planning statement for the application, the company wants to move because its current base “requires significant capital investment to keep running but, even with further investment, remains inefficient for modern-day logistics operations”.