As Member of Parliament for Chippenham, I have received many letters and emails from constituents who raise concerns about the closure of Chippenham’s courthouse. Having spoken with many local magistrates and having gained a far greater understanding as to the current and potential uses for the Chippenham Court I am moved to express my opposition to the closure of the courthouse.
The Chippenham courthouse is less than 25 years old. Well-designed and built to exceptionally high standards the courthouse remains in near perfect condition and is one of the regions only courts of to be reinforced with bombproof walls and glass and is equipped to high anti-terrorism standards.
There are many arguments for keeping the court open to enable victims of crime local access to justice. Given that, for the majority of victims of crime, attending court is an extremely rare event I do not necessarily subscribe to that simple argument.
From my point of view, there are two clear and practical reasons to keep the Chippenham courthouse open. Firstly, the alternative arrangements following the proposed closure of Chippenham’s court. If the courthouse were to close, Chippenham’s cases would be heard at Swindon’s outdated and impractical Crown and Magistrate’s courts. Swindon’s court buildings are in need of urgent and substantial updating and renovation which will, no doubt, take a long time to complete.
Unless a new Swindon court is built before the closure of the current court, or in the instance that the existing court is simple brought up to standard, during that re-development process Swindon’s court buildings are more than likely to have to close. In that scenario, Chippenham’s high-quality courts would be ideally places to cope with a huge amount of the workload from Swindon.
It is my belief that the closure of the Chippenham courthouse will prove premature. There needs to be a lot more planning around the re-development of Swindon’s courthouse with
regard to the impact that any work may have on court provision in North Wiltshire and Swindon.
I understand that there are significant pressures to make savings in Government spending and to reduce the size of the property portfolio held by the state. It is my firm believe that the closure of the Chippenham courthouse will not help achieve much, if any of those savings.
Although exact savings figures for each court site have not been published, I believe that any saving would be modest. The court employs very few staff who would not be re-deployed to another court and the site is relatively small and has limitations from a development point of view. Added to this, given the high-specification of the building as set out above, the demolition costs of the building would be extremely high and conversion by a developer into flats or commercial space would be impractical and not economic. I would prefer to see the building used far more imaginatively to increase the use and revenue potential of this excellent facility. I understand that in their official submission to this consultation local magistrates have set out in detail some of the potential options for using some of the court space more imaginatively and to increase the use of the building.
The magistrates would like to develop a national training centre for staff and judiciary which could be used to trial the latest technology and new court practices. Additionally, surplus office space on the ground floor could easily be extended to provide office space for local government services, SMEs or start-up businesses whilst the court rooms are retained, using the additional rental income to cover any government costs of keeping the courtrooms open.
In conclusion, I share the belief that the closure of the Chippenham courthouse will not achieve the desired outcomes for HMCTS and firmly believe that there are many ways in which the courthouse could continue to operate, provide additional revenue to HMCTS and provide valued, local justice.
I would urge you to carefully consider the future development of Swindon’s courts in any decision about closing Chippenham’s courthouse. There needs to be a long-term, joined up approach in order to ensure that northern Wiltshire is not left without court provision for any length of time.