You can’t write a blog about Reading without tackling the longest standing local talking point. Awful traffic jams on all approaches to the existing Caversham and Reading Bridges are the bane of lives both sides of the river – it’s not hard to see why more capacity is needed. When it comes to Reading’s Third Bridge saga, the only difficult question to answer is for exactly how many decades this idea has been discussed and procrastinated: I’m afraid I can’t do any better than ‘many’.
The latest, and arguably most promising surge for a solution has been led by Reading East MP Rob Wilson, and was triggered by the flood-induced closure of Sonning Bridge in early 2014, which had led to monumental jams in Reading and Henley. According to a recent update, traffic modelling work has been conducted and options are being investigated as part of a “strategic outline business case”. Then, this week Rob Wilson released a technical document about the traffic modelling. A cause for optimism? Well, the fact that politicians from both counties are gathering together for regular meetings on the subject augers well. As does the fact that the Oxfordshire representatives are holding back from asserting their historic vehement opposition at least until the traffic study has taken place and the evidence is presented. In this particular (and relatively rare) instance, we probably can’t ask too much more of our political representatives.
The new crossing would be between the “David Lloyd roundabout” in Thames Valley Park, and the Henley Road. Impatient for news of this developing scheme, I stumbled across a 2014 online Chronicle article interviewing David Sherriff – the owner of some of the land at the Caversham end of the proposed route. I went to see him to find out whether he is a part of the current process. To my slight surprise, he isn’t.
David Sherriff is the Thames Valley entrepreneur and philanthropist behind the Caversham Marinas and Redgrave Pinsent Rowing Lake. He tells me he’s one of three land-owners on the north side, and that they would all be supportive. In fact, Mr Sherriff is more than supportive – he’s had an architect draw up a conceptual plan. His design would include a roundabout near the north bank, to serve the various businesses within the lakes area, followed by a section on stilts across the rowing lake, and then the span across the river itself with 5 metre clearance. There would be no piles interrupting the navigation of the river or operation of the rowing lake. It would carry a two lane (one each way) road.
“It’s just so simple” – he says to me on several occasions. One of Mr Sherriff’s concerns is that the various design consultancies – should things get that far – will over-engineer the solution resulting in a prohibitively expensive scheme. Whether he’s right about that or not I can’t say, but what is clear is that he knows this site intimately having spent much of his career (and money) working to bring about the rowing lake. He has been given Honorary membership of Oxford University Boat Club, who use the facilities, and he’s been thanked by senior politicians for his contribution, without which the 2012 medals table would undoubtedly have been at least slightly less incredible. The boathouse also bears his name.
Mr Sherriff and a handful of other parties together own (or have owned) vast swathes of the former gravel pits. The landscape is similar to that at Dinton Pastures in Hurst, also a former extraction site. Mr Sherriff has not embarked on the picnics, playground and pedalos route taken at Dinton. As a Caversham resident myself, it’s perhaps slightly disappointing that he hasn’t, given the runaway all-age success the Wokingham Borough facility has become. And when you think that car park and cafe must be grossing somewhere near the domestic product of a Mediterranean country, I do wonder whether he’s missed a trick. But his priorities, he tells me, must be his customers – boaters at the Marina, and the wildlife. He interrupts our conversation excitedly, “Look!”, as a deer scurries across the track beside us. The most consistent further use of the lakes, therefore, is elite sport. Mr Sherriff has further plans in that area, although he can’t divulge them at this point. Exciting though that sounds, hopefully the community will have access as well as the country’s top sports men and women.
So is this bridge a done deal? Sadly not yet. I see three main risks: politics, money, and Google – arguably the three biggest forces in today’s world. Let’s take each in turn – first Google. These days, drivers rely on technology to tell them how to get from A to B. Routing algorithms, predominantly Google’s, determine how the road network is used. The long standing argument against the Third Bridge is that it could funnel traffic from East Reading and the A329(M) heading for the North up through rural South Oxfordshire to the M40. This is one of the key questions the data modelling needs to resolve. I’ve tested Google: Sutton Seeds roundabout to Birmingham is 1 hour 46 minutes via the A404(M), whilst Henley Road to Birmingham via Nettlebed and Watlington is 1 hour 49 minutes. So theoretically, any traffic south of the river should be several minutes better off still using the M4/A404(M) rather than the new bridge. In fact, some residents in the eastern parts of Caversham might be tempted to head south first across the new bridge to jump straight onto the motorway network to ultimately head north on the M40. I do acknowledge, however, that the margins are fairly tight so this does warrant the current detailed investigations.
Next money. The cost of the scheme has been suggested as well upwards of £100 million. Post Brexit, government funding might be harder to come by, especially in the South. However, with Reading’s vitality strangled by congestion caused to a significant degree by through traffic, I would expect this “strategic business case” to identify some whopping economic benefits. There is also the possibility, albeit a disappointing one, that motorists might directly finance the scheme through tolls used to pay back loans for the construction. This week Rob Wilson published a technical document on the current study. Over 100 pages on methodologies and formulae; the only thing I gleaned from it is that the consultants have been asked to model a toll bridge scenario, alongside a free-to-use scenario. But one way or another, the bridge can be financed.
Finally, there’s the politics. All the while that one side of the river is in favour, whilst the other opposes, it’s just a one-all score draw, with the default of ‘no change’ winning through. That’s despite the reality that the perceived risk of impact to a few hundred people is holding back a huge quality-of-life and economic benefit to many thousands. The concerns, of course, are legitimate, even if expressed from much further up the valley in Oxford (ironically boasting just the 8 Thames bridges of its own). It’s clear that political geography has proved the historical barrier, rather than the narrow span of water itself. The current scientific approach is the correct and only way to find a solution that genuinely benefits everyone.
Oxfordshire continues to express concerns, and in an article this week their leader Ian Hudspeth sets out that some investment in South Oxfordshire’s road network would be a pre-condition to their support. But when you remember that their pre-conditions have hitherto included the freezing over of hell, they’ve actually come a long way and are now presenting a quite reasonable position.
A few years back, I drove an American through the evening traffic in Sonning. “Why don’t you guys just build a wider bridge?”, he asked. I couldn’t really give an answer (without a 1500-word essay). It really should be that simple. At the end of the day, this project is a bypass for Sonning too. It would free that village, its long-suffering residents and its ancient hump-back bridge of a twice daily petrol-powered tidal wave, to which I must admit I contribute. Sonning’s most celebrated resident is now George Clooney, since Uri Gellar left. But there’s another famous face in Sonning: one Theresa May. So if it does all come down to politics, it is just possible that things might go our way… at long last.Follow @readingonthames