Royal Elm Park – Two Sides to the Story

_20160217_213544Last week plans were submitted to the council for the redevelopment of the Madejski Stadium car park.  I covered this topic when the idea was unveiled at a public exhibition in November.  Now that the formal application has gone in, we can take a closer look at the detail.  There will probably be two opposing camps, so I thought I’d present each side of the argument.

Interpretation 1 – Who threw away the family silver?

Back in 1998, Reading Football Club moved across town from the original Elm Park to the shiny new Madejski Stadium.  The 24,200-seat arena was built on a former rubbish dump sold by the council for just £1.  The football club had to spend £10 million decontaminating the site, and in addition contributed £6 million to the construction of the A33 relief road.  According to these minutes from 1997,

The car park space for 2000 has been calculated by a firm of specialist engineers as optimum for this size stadium. It will take no more than 30 minutes to clear the car park when they are full. The car parks will be free.

Another set of minutes from 1997, this time from the council, explains the so-called section 106 commitments made by Reading Football Club as a condition for allowing planning permission for the stadium.

The Section 106 agreement includes provision for:

  • A parking area for at least 600 cars so a Park and Ride system can be introduced to encourage the use of public transport by people coming into the town from the south.
  • Pitches to be used by local people, stadium function rooms to be used at a discounted rate by the local community and the free use of the stadium for local football cup finals

In September 2014 Reading FC was purchased by a Thai consortium.  Among the reams of planning documents uploaded to the council website for the new Royal Elm Park development, one shows the iterations the design has been through.  Interestingly, the first images date from, you’ve guessed it, September 2014.  An interest in developing the land was always stated by the new owners, but it’s noteworthy that ideas were on the drawing board almost from day one.  And the proposals submitted last week don’t differ radically from those initial designs.

Planning applications for large developments tend to come in two stages: “outline” and then “detailed”.  This application has gone straight to the “detailed” stage.  Compare this with the Station Hill development in town, mooted for over ten years since John Madejski bought the land, where not a single “detailed” planning application has yet been submitted.  Planning is an expensive and meticulous process.  Reading FC has absolutely thrown the kitchen sink at it to reach this stage in just 17 months.

There’s no doubting the club’s 100% commitment to this development.  So much so, you could argue, that it might appear to be the owners’ uppermost priority.  The build cost for the scheme is estimated at £200 million.  The proposed 630 apartments will comfortably re-coup that, effectively allowing the developers to construct a major convention centre, with hotel and serviced apartments, ice rink, restaurants, offices and a multi-storey car park, for free.  That’s quite some feat – attractive enough, perhaps, for a group of far-eastern property developers to come half way round the world to acquire a provincial football club that happened to be in possession of this unlikely methane-infused gold mine?

I grant that it’s an unlikely turn of events when assessed from a late-nineties stand point.  But the soaring property prices, intense demand for housing, and a drive to be less dependent on, well, driving, has led to the possibility of a high density development on the stadium car park being viable and potentially allowable.  Nonetheless, the officials who concocted the original £1 sale of this site have probably unwittingly presided over Reading’s biggest ever civic give-away.  Surely the council could have retained at least part ownership of this land?  The family silver, casually thrown away like the household rubbish beneath it.

We all need to hope that mistakes won’t be repeated.  The town is entitled to use of football club car park for 600 park and ride spaces.  If this facility is to be relocated to Mereoak then can the council not demand compensation for the purchase of an equivalent piece of land?  And what about the condition of use of the sports pitches behind the car park for community use?  With those planned to be dug up, surely the council should be in-line for some cash to replace them, potentially in the form of a bumper section 106 payment?

The club intends to mitigate the parking loss by subsidising extra buses.  But buried within the transport statement, you find that they’re proposing the same number of match-day buses, just that each will make two trips around its particular suburban route.  That means fans having to get to games extremely early and/or leave way after the final whistle.  The aim is that the new facilities around the stadium will naturally mean people extending their match-day experience.  Personally, I’ll be in the queue for the first bus home after a freezing February goalless draw on a Tuesday night.

A further cause for concern is that the ice rink, which Reading is crying out for, actually doubles as a third conference chamber.  There is a dedicated entrance for the ice rink, separated from the plush conference reception areas.  But those lavish lobbies also offer direct internal access to the ice – a link that will be closed off during “normal” ice rink operation.  What’s not clear is how often the leisure facility will be given over for additional conference capacity.  If this building is positioned as a contribution to community facilities in order to achieve planning permission then there needs to be some guarantees put in place to stop this ice rink slowly melting away as conference demand increases.

Finally, there are issues with the links to Green Park.  Much is made of the proximity of the imminent new South Reading railway station at the western end of the business park.  But it is a full 1.1 km from the stadium to the trains.  New housing is planned around the station in the Green Park Village development.  So there will be high density accommodation at either end of the walkway, yet in between is a parkland-style out-of-town office sprawl.  Royal Elm Park features a central piazza the size of Leicester Square.  But 400 yards west is anything but Piccadilly Circus: it’s the Symantec car park – a ghost town after office hours and potentially a dark and threatening walk home for commuters arriving back late at the new station.  If this scheme was always in the offing, why oh why was Green Park’s central Lime Square hub not placed on the mid-point of this walk rather than tucked away behind Costco?  You could have had a ribbon of housing along the axis between Green Park Station and the stadium with all the facilities serving the business park and the housing placed beside it – a modern take on the linear village.  As it is, these new South Reading housing estates are all becoming very fragmented.

Interpretation 2 – Reading steps up to the premier league of business

When it comes to leisure facilities, the absence of an ice rink frequently tops the list of grumbles from locals.  Swindon, Oxford, Guildford, Basingstoke, Bracknell, Slough – they all have them, and now finally the owners of Reading FC are bringing forward plans for Reading to join the list within a major development beside the Madejski Stadium.  But if  an ice rink is about simply keeping up with the neighbour’s leisure facilities, the proposed convention centre next door will see Reading accelerate further ahead of its competition as the stand-out regional commercial hub.

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Sky-lit entrance halls, palatial lobbies and roof gardens will welcome up to 6000 guests at a time.  Those areas lead to the function rooms: two large banquet halls and the ice rink, which can double as a third exhibition space.  The four-storey high banquet halls sit one on top of the other, capable of accommodating 2100 and 1400 delegates respectively in “theatre mode”, or roughly half of those numbers for sit-down dinners.  A 246-bed hotel, together with 102 serviced apartments provide accommodation for longer-distance visitors.  As such, the complex as a whole takes a working title of “The International”.  Expect the venue to become a fixture on the annual calendar of the Thames Valley’s top blue chips, meaning many of their employees based in Reading will regularly enjoy its hospitality.  The facility will be a major boon to the business community and be a serious draw for international investors to look west rather than east when stepping of the plane at Heathrow.

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The ice rink will be a standard ice hockey arena, with 600 seats along a tiered section to one side, and a bar overlooking one of the ends.  Whilst not of the same spectator capacity as Bracknell, it’s still a good venue and could comfortably host regional and junior ice skating events.  The whole building also connects via a new footbridge into the existing much smaller conference centre within the stadium.  I would suggest this is heartening in that it implies longer term plans to retain the two halves of the wider Madejski complex under the same ownership.

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There’s also a multi-storey car park, which goes some way in mitigating the loss of the existing vast car park.  The design for the facade is also a nice touch:

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The highlight of the scheme, particularly for those who are unlikely to be recipients of the corporate wining and dining at The International, is undoubtedly the public square in front of the stadium, together with the restaurants, bars and shops that will surround it.  The vast area will also be suitable for markets and other events.  It will hugely improve the atmosphere of match days at the stadium, where there have long been complaints that the out-of-town location can make for a rather bleak occasion.  Supporters will be easily tempted to arrive earlier to games for pre-match food and drinks, particularly in the warmer months where the open space will be vibrant with outdoor dining and people sat out enjoying the setting.  A tall spike provides a natural meeting point, and the landmark centre-piece for what will truly be a major transformation for South Reading.

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In Conclusion

Two interpretations, which actually don’t really contradict each other.  There’s a lot to be excited about within these proposals.  There is a clear appetite to get shovels in the ground quickly.  So the onus now moves to the council, who need to play a strong hand to ensure that all parties: the local tax-payer, the football supporter and the football club, can emerge as winners.

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Royal Elm Park – Two Sides to the Story

16 thoughts on “Royal Elm Park – Two Sides to the Story

  1. Anonymous says:

    Very interesting read. What I wonder about is if we have the option to extend stadium capacity which I think is vital for future ambitions. If the development around the stadium prevents that possibility it would be concerning.

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  2. Mike says:

    A fascinating read, thanks.

    As a Reading fan, I’m both excited and concerned. Royal Elm Park is clearly a development fit for a Premier League club. However, I think we’ll only ever see large investment into the club itself once spending on REP has finished. As you’ve pointed out, REP is clearly their main priority, not the club. Football is an emotional sport and, as a fan, you want your owners to be emotionally attached to your club – not for them to see it purely as a gateway to making money. I just hope they have enough money to finish the development in the event they’ve underestimated the cost.

    I wonder, will REP be owned by Reading FC, or the Thai consortium?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sarah Edmund says:

    Do we reckon this development will drag people from the town centre and subsequently leave it a bit of a ghost town e.g. restaurants being used on site not in the town?

    Also will there be the infrastructure e.g schools/healthcare/supermarkets to support the influx of people? Not just on this site but there are plenty of other residential developments in the area also replying on the current infrastructure?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Sarah. I don’t think there’s really anything that might be termed “high street retail” planned here. The biggest threat to Reading’s town centre shopping area is probably the Bracknell regeneration that might dissuade shoppers from that direction from shopping here.

      On infrastructure, I think we can presume more schools, doctors surgeries etc will be provided. Tesco et al will happily sprout up to serve new markets. Meaningful transport infrastructure improvements seem much harder to secure as part of these developments.

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      1. Sarah says:

        Thanks for your response. Very interesting… Do you think that the Bracknell regeneration will have any impact on REP getting planning permission in November then?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. No, I don’t think Bracknell will impact Royal Elm Park (REP). I think REP’s facilities will be aimed at match day trade, conference/hotel users, and new local populations. So town centre businesses needn’t worry about that. But the town centre might be more concerned with the possibility that Bracknell and Wokingham residents could be slightly less inclined to choose Reading for a weekend shopping trip once they have a reasonable option in Bracknell

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      3. looking at the planning application page on the council’s website, there’s an ever-growing list of documents showing the various parties gradually thrashing out all the potential concerns – environmental, traffic etc. I think they’ll only put it to the committee when it’s highly likely to get through.
        I hope the council have negotiated a good deal for residents in terms of compensating funding for infrastructure, leisure etc
        http://planning.reading.gov.uk/fastweb_PL/detail.asp?AltRef=160199&ApplicationNumber=160199&AddressPrefix=&Postcode=&Submit=Search

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      4. Sarah says:

        It seems as though it will get through, probably the only thing there will be a lot of discussion on is affordable housing.

        Where there many problems with other developments such a green park or other residential developments that REP could face?

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Anonymous says:

    As an ice hockey who support the Basingstoke bison, which regulary sells out that a capacity of only 600 seat is nowhere near enough, league rinks have a capacity of at least 1500 or more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re absolutely right – it’s not a venue that could support a top Ice Hockey team – I guess Bracknell has that gig sewn up anyway. Hopefully it can still provide a home for junior teams, and provide a good leisure facility for the town.

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