The smiles on the faces of the Swindon councillors spoke volumes — many millions of volumes, in fact. Swindon had not only stolen a march on the famous city 20 miles or so down the A420, it had secured for itself a large piece of one of Oxford’s greatest jewels — the Bodleian Library.

Having been thwarted in its bid to build a depository to house millions of its books in Osney Mead, Oxford University had turned to Swindon, where it found an altogether more welcoming response.

Just how welcoming was evident last Thursday, as senior Oxford University figures joined contractors and Swindon dignitaries for a groundbreaking ceremony near the village of South Marston, on the outskirts of the town.

For it is there, on a 15-acre site in the Keypoint business park, that the university is to build a £26m storage centre to hold the bulk of its books; the depository that Oxford did not want, well at least not on the estate at Osney on the scale proposed.

The leader of Swindon Borough Council, Rod Bluh, provoked laughter by declaring: “We are delighted to be able to solve Oxford’s planning problems.”

“Can you solve, some more,” offered one good natured heckler, as Mr Bluh went on to express his pleasure in Swindon receiving such a financial boost from such an unexpected and celebrated quarter. “This is great news for Swindon. Anything that brings in such investment and jobs can only be good news.”

But there was also genuine pride that an historic institution like the Bodleian had chosen their town to house some of its treasures. “It is fantastic to have a name like the Bodleian associated with Swindon,” he said. “It is normally Oxford’s territory. I cannot even envisage what eight million books look like.”

For some of the Oxford librarians who had travelled to South Marston, the difficulty may have been imagining the Bodleian having as its new neighbours Honda and the component delivery service SDC, rather than the Sheldonian Theatre and Blackwell’s book shop.

But that will be the position in a year’s time when the giant book storage facility opens, filled with books, maps and “other historic treasures” from Oxford. It will mean books having to be brought into Oxford by van, with two book deliveries a day anticipated to meet the demands of students and researchers in the city.

No one from Oxford University was attempting to play down the significance of the groundbreaking ceremony. The university’s vice-chancellor, Dr John Hood, on what will be one of his last official ceremonies before his tenure comes to an end later this month described it as “a momentous day for Oxford University and the Bodleian”.

“It will,” he said, “become for us a most important centre for our collections leading to the promotion and enhancement of scholarship and research, so important for our civil society and the advancement of human kind.”

And this was likely to be only the beginning of Oxford University’s blossoming relationship with Swindon, that Dr Hood believes is set to develop over “decades and centuries”.

The depository was only to be phase one, he suggested. The vast industrial estate stretching far behind him offered plenty of room for further expansion, he ventured, as the Bodleian Library collection continued to do what it has done for over 400 years — grow and grow, filling miles of shelving in the process.

But there was an unhappy subtext to this big moment in the Bodleian history. For if this was the start of an exciting new story for Swindon, the groundbreaking ceremony marked the end of a wretched planning saga in Oxford.

The vice-chancellor made no attempt to disguise his frustration with Oxford City Council and the planning decision that stopped the university from proceeding with its plans to build at Osney Mead.

Looking around there appeared to be no one from Oxford City Council to hear Dr Hood set out his stinging criticisms, in stark contrast to the lavish praise heaped on Swindon Borough Council, which, he said, could not have been more welcoming and efficient.

Ironically, city councillors on that very day had bigger fish to fry, or rather throw out. For they were busy back in Oxford preparing to reject Oxford Brookes University’s £150m plan to redevelop its Headington site.

The Brookes scheme to create a new library in a centrepiece student centre along with a new gateway to the city, was voted down by 20 votes to 13. City councillors said the primary reason for objecting was that it would be “overbearing and have adverse impact on the conservation area”.

Size had been a problem too with Oxford Uiversity’s plans for the £29m book depository at Osney Mead, thrown out by a planning inspector after being turned down by Oxford city councillors on the grounds that it would “undermine the character of the city which is a fundamental asset to the university”.

At 20.3m tall at its highest point, the depository building would have been taller than the 18.2m limit dictated by the local plan for buildings within 1.2km of Carfax.

Labour city councillor Colin Cook, who opposed the plan, said after the decision: “I thought the building was too high and in the wrong place.”

The council had been backed by Oxford Preservation Trust, which maintained it would damage views of the dreaming spires.

The scheme was also opposed on the grounds that the university had not provided sufficient reassurance regarding flood risk, a view that Dr Hood said he still finds “mind-boggling”.

“One of the things that intrigued me about the Osney Mead debate,” he said, “was the thought that we would not be able to build a building that would be able to withstand a one-in-ten-year flood, with water lapping around its foundations.

“The existing Bodleian storage site goes down five levels below Broad Street and those who know Oxford and its soils will be aware that the water table sits close to the street level for much of the year. The current storage sits in a tank, effectively lying in a lake.

“The building was built in the 1930s and has been able to withstand water ever since. The paradox that in the 21st century we would not be able to engineer something to withstand the odd flood is mind boggling.”

He thanked Swindon for acknowledging that the Bodleian application had been one of the best submissions to have ever gone before the council. “I thank you for the way you have received us and for the expeditious way you have dealt with the application,” he added.

In Oxford the New Zealander had proved a controversial vice-chancellor and his bold bid to modernise the university means some may remember him as a divisive figure.

But in Swindon there will be no such reservations about him, and his lasting monument is secure.

When Bodley’s Librarian, Sarah Thomas, arrived from America to work with him to oversee the biggest expansion in the Bodleian’s history, she had assumed the creation of a depository would be the “boring part”.

But Oxford has always been a very different place to New York when it comes to planning decisions. As long ago as 1950 The Oxford Times was reporting that city councillors had overturned a recommendation of its education committee for a proposed college of further education, on the ground of traffic and “the bus question”.

With plans advanced to move books from the ageing, seriously inadequate New Bodleian, now to be refurbished to display special collections, Dr Thomas remembers people assuring her that planning permission would not be a problem on the Osney Mead industrial estate, home of The Oxford Times and our sister titles. In fact, it ended up preoccupying her life for two-and-a-half years, she said.

But rejection stirred the library to rethink its whole strategy. “It gave us an opportunity to rethink our library from a fresh perspective,” she said.

“Instead of thinking outside the box, we thought outside the ring road.”

The ceremony came to an end with the Swindon council leader informing guests that “Swindon is open for business”.

So. were there any lessons that Oxford could learn from Swindon? “Well, we always do what we can to facilitate the right outcome,” Mr Bluh told me. “When planning issues arise, Swindon is pretty flexible. We manage to deliver most of what is wanted.”

A mobile rang. I resisted asking whether it was the vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University.