Reading Metropolitan – Sorting it out

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Plans for the regeneration of the former Royal Mail sorting office went on display this week.  I believe the plans for this prime parcel of land are distinctly 2nd class, and if I had my way I’d return to sender…

But first let’s look at what’s not wrong with the scheme, despite plenty of loudly expressed views to the contrary…

Gentrification

I follow a lot of the social media reaction to property news around Reading – responses to my own posts and blogs, but also to those by local media outlets and others.  There seems to be a contingent that dismiss all attempts to regenerate redundant sites as “gentrification”.  I contest this analysis.  Inevitably, any investment in a new or refurbished building is going to leaving it looking better, looking more “up market” than it did before – that’s the whole point.  I even saw someone bemoaning the proposal for a Premier Inn behind the Broad Street Mall as gentrified.  Now come on – Lenny Henry’s done a good job, but it’s still a bright purple bed and a few thimbles of orange juice for breakfast – hardly The Ritz.  We should welcome the fact that we see the town being re-purposed and re-invented around us, rather than seeing sites decaying through obsolescence.  I know we have social problems, we have homelessness, but we don’t need a revolution at the prospect of a new budget hotel, and here an empty sorting office is contributing nothing to the town.

The Towers

Another frequent complaint: Reading is being spoilt by high-rise buildings.  Whilst some cities – my former home of York, Oxford and many others are rightly pre-occupied with preserving ancient views, Reading has an opportunity to supplement some older treasures with a modern skyline being assembled by this, our generation.  Like them or loathe them, the new towers make better use of limited land, provide a dynamic backdrop to the town, and if nothing else, give us something to talk about.  The 25-storey structure at the eastern end of this site is probably the highlight of the scheme – a design very much of our time and shared between offices, apartments with retail at street level facing the station entrance.

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The Parking

Oh my word.  Some chap at the exhibition was having a proper rant about parking.  There’s only 80 parking spaces for the whole scheme, and with offices, retail and a car club proposed, it’s not actually clear whether any of those will be allocated to residents.  The general public interpretation of this seems to be that these new residents will park their 650 cars (or rather 1300 because everyone will have at least two cars right?) in the nearest non-permit parking zone – which is where, Emmer Green?  These people are going to work in town, or Thames Valley Park, or Winnersh Triangle, or in London.  They’re going to use public transport, which needs further investment of course, but they’re not going to drive a few laps of the IDR every morning just to annoy the locals.

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So why don’t I like this plan?

I think this site could contribute more for the town.  A rare large site, right by the station.  Reading station is, or will be, the terminus for two London commuter routes – the soon-to-be-boosted line into Waterloo, and shortly Crossrail too.  Huge 10-carriage trains designed to shunt London-volumes of commuters into Waterloo and under central London.  Whilst well used at the Reading end, these stopping services are (or will be) generally under half full.  Reading station is, in this regard, a glorified engine shed for London’s commuter trains from the west to turn around and head back into the capital.

Nowhere else in southern England could you better assemble and disperse a gathering of 10,000 people by public transport than here at the sorting office and retail sheds site adjacent to Reading station.  An indoor arena here would make Reading a regional destination, utilise the capacity that already exists on the railway, and provide entertainment to the town without the need to travel to London.  If not an arena, then why not the convention centre?  With plans for Royal Elm Park next to the Madejski Stadium seemingly stalled, why not put it here?  Again, you could bring in your 6000 conference delegates and barely notice the volume increase through the station gate line.  They’d make use of town centre shops, restaurants and hotels, and you’d have the large event halls better located for providing evening/weekend concerts or exhibitions, rather than being stuck out by the motorway.  Even Swindon is building a regional leisure facility – ski slopes and all, on similar land north of its station.  And I’m sure you could think of other ideas yourself – answers on a postcard.

The truth is that this site has wriggled out of public ownership, and having previously provided a core public service to the whole RG postcode, it’s now been sold to the highest bidder, and market forces mean it’s going to become flats.  I do note one particular comment I saw on social media where someone argued that we really ought to be fully supportive of literally any proposal for housing, such is the sheer shortage and the impact that brings.  I appreciate that view, and agree to a point.  But future generations are going to look at this site as a missed opportunity.  Similar fates could await Caversham Park and the Gaol – with both subject to government departments trying to dispose of them for maximum commercial return.  It’s too late for the sorting office, but the Gaol in particular surely must not be allowed to go the same way.

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Even if we accept the 650 flats, I still have quibbles with the plan.  The token half-dozen townhouses are completely pointless and look silly next to the high-rise apartments.  The architect even said that there are redundant arches under the railway tracks that Network Rail are investigating letting out.  These are directly opposite, so why not use that townhouse plot for workshop/studio space for small enterprise to combine with the railway arches for a niche creative business hub.

For what they are, the plans are decent.  The health centre went down particularly well with the locals at the event, as did the relatively modest heights adjoining Caversham Road.  And aesthetically the buildings look reasonable – certainly a vast improvement on a nondescript mail sorting shed.  I’d expect the council to rubber stamp the proposals fairly swiftly.  But compared to what might have been, the scheme is – to be frank – nothing to write home about.

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That’s my view.  It always good to hear yours!  Comments welcome and can be left without registration.

Reading Metropolitan – Sorting it out

14 thoughts on “Reading Metropolitan – Sorting it out

  1. Another fantastic article, keep up the good work!

    Now, for a bit of a rant and something which I’ve said quite a few times about our lovely City (purposely saying City and not town as I know there are several that take delight in reminding people “it’s a town, not a city”).

    That is sort of part of my point. Reading seems very much split, and often the louder voices are the older residents (is my impression). Those that *STILL* refer to John Lewis as Heelus, and the Broad Street Mall as “The Butts” … no problem with that, but they refer to it by those names, not because they’re fond of the memories, but because they’re stuck in the past.

    They’re the sort that moan continually about apartments and flats, saying “Why would anyone want to live there?” as if they’re some old Aunty moaning about modern life. The same sorts all live out in Woodley I’d imagine, in a 3 bedroom semi-detached and spend their weekends watering their plants.

    I’m sounding quite arrogant I guess, but it’s just epidemic and symptomatic of the issue and it’s these sorts that (I feel) are holding Reading back. I’m tired of hearing those same people, stuck in the past and apparently trying to grab on to Reading by the scruff of the neck and hold it back.

    Some people in this town do realise it’s a centre for business, it’s got a fairly vibrant and diverse night life, some fantastic music coming out of the town, a developing centre and spreading outwards where it can. So those moaning continually about “another apartment block” … what do you want? Do you want the same decrepit building (like those on Station Road) which just stands there vacant? The constant moaning EVERY time about parking, “where will these people park?”. It’s not your issue people.

    Saying all of this, I do realise that we can’t just chuck up block after block. I don’t want that. But I do welcome higher buildings, they improve the skyline and backdrop. They take most advantage of the land available. It’s the same things that they’re doing in every City across the country, and every built up place.

    You mention Oxford in the article. We don’t have what Oxford has which is landmark building after landmark building. We have an opportunity for something else, to have a town with modern building structures, an interesting skyline, a town bursting out at you.

    Rant over…

    Thanks for the great article.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Chris Bonham says:

    I agree that the token town houses would be better as business units, in conjunction with railway arches.

    I also think that the tower is the best part of the scheme. Linking to Gary’s points about parking and suburban dwelling older residents, tower flats and businesses are not aimed at those who will drive. Young professionals are the target audience for the flats, who want the benefits of city centre jobs, amenities and nightlife in walking distance or a short public transport journey away. They tend not to own, or want to own, cars.

    A far larger scale case study, but Mark Ovenden investigates changes brought by tall buildings in Manchester in this programme for BBC Radio 4: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000182g
    Judging by this, it’ll be 10 years or so before any young professionals living in the tower (or elsewhere in central Reading) would consider moving out to Woodley.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Moira Gomes says:

      I threw my comments into the ring because Reading deserves a venue that stops people having to travel to London. I have nothing to complain about flat living- I do myself. But right next to the station? Vibrations and dirt the block could soon appear run down. Self clean Pilkington glass might be an answer at least…The idea of developing the arches is excellent, I’m all for entrepreurial spaces-but houses on that site would be farcical for the same reason as flats. Anyway they would appear minimalist. I’ve nothing against high rise- but not for families of course. In that case we do need far more houses with provision of green areas/ but not near railways.
      Bus provision has to be improved. I hear the company complain it’s not used. I haven’t seen usage figures, but I accept buses don’t carry many people. Why can’t we persuade them to use single deckers? But more scheduled? It seems wasteful to me that double deckers run nearly empty giving an illusion that the service isn’t needed! Not true, especially to get about in the evenings!?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I totally agree about the parking. People who complain about traffic for a scheme like this are incredibly mis-informed. Literally 99% of people will use public transport(which is actually great news for the town to sustain and fund new services). Schemes like this need a few token parking spaces for visitors or the disabled and that’s it. I personally welcome any scheme that builds new housing and encourages people to get out of their dirty diesel planet choking machines and start living sustainably near their places of work.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. “The truth is that this site has wriggled out of public ownership, and having previously provided a core public service to the whole RG postcode, it’s now been sold to the highest bidder, and market forces mean it’s going to become flats.”

    –The heart of the issue. Have you read the 2011 Local Planning Policy Framework? When the Tories ripped up Regional Spatial Strategies and the Planning Policy Guidance that underpinned them, it was very much with the aim of removing democratic control of planning and replacing it a market-based system, with adversarial conflict resolution.

    This in itself might not be a bad thing — stuff gets built, while less public money is spent on construction. Happy builders. But it does mean that anything being built is strictly with the goal of making money in the next 3-5 years, not a day longer.

    When I was at school in the 90s, we learnt how the UK population had stopped growing. EU immigration reversed that. But with immigration ending soon, we might be looking at the housing bubble bursting soon, on top of all the lost trade with the EU.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That sounds like a Brexit rant; it wasn’t meant to be! It’s more that now construction is driven only by commercial lenders looking to maximise returns, and with councils only having the recourse of arguing their case against an application in front of a government inspector with the penalty of losing the lucrative Section 106 money if they lose, we (‘the people’) have basically lost control of planning, and just get what we’re given. 😥.

      (As an additional problem the 106 cash, New Homes Bonus etc. is desperately needed to pay for services now council funding has been halved. So there’s even more risk on the council if they dare oppose any application made to them.)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Seth says:

    Thanks as ever for writing this one up.

    I agree Reading station is now or will become one of the few sites in the south where you can reliably disperse large numbers of people by public transport, but there are very few 10,000+ arenas that are sustainable in the UK (I think even Bristol have had a lot of problems getting even their plans going, and they’d have a better claim on one than Reading would).

    Something like the 6,500 capacity Bournemouth International Centre may be more do-able, but even with good public transport connections any major conference centre/arena needs an awful lot of space for parking and service yards, which doesn’t exist on this site. Almost all of these venues have historically needed a lot of municipal subsidy or investment to at least get them started and I can’t see that happening these days.

    It might be a good spot for a new Hexagon, but even that wouldn’t leave much space for whatever part of the development was going to make money.

    Given current economics I think something like what is proposed is what you are bound to get on a site of this nature. Even given proximity to the station it is difficult to see in the current environment what retail other than a Tesco Metro/Sainsburys local would go in to any retail units.

    My only other comment is that it seems a bit unfortunate that this is being developed independent of the Vastern Road retail park. Put that together with the sorting depot and you’ve got a very sizeable development area.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Seth. Great points. Agree that the more ambitious ideas would probably need the full site including the retail park/TGIs. Although the Royal Elm Park concept was on a fairly tight plot with the two main halls one above the other.

      Like

  6. Frank Long says:

    I think one thing worth thinking about is how this shapes the space between the train line and the river, which today is very much a transitional space between the city centre feel of Reading and the village of Caversham. This moves Reading further north, not a bad thing, but there are big bottlenecks north of the trainline and that does need to be taken into account in at least some form.
    There are 3 bridges over the river, but there are also only 3 routes under the train tracks and this is between those two pinch points.
    Perhaps some sort of underpass from the North side to the south side of the train could be made as part of this, which would then remove lots of buses and taxis from those pinch points?

    Wouldn’t make much of a difference, but it’d make a little.
    I am in favour of this, it’s a pretty ugly and dull design in my opinion, yet it is needed.

    The other way of getting around the “this isn’t for families” aspect of it is to require bigger, 3 and 4 bed apartments, as opposed to the just about 2 bed apartments that are standard in such developments

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Stephen Rumble says:

    Great article. Just to confirm, this is purely the sorting office site? Aldi, the Range etc will remain?

    The townhouses are pointless and your idea about using the railway arches to create something a little more interesting is a good one.

    I thought there was outline planning permission granted to the new owners of that retail park (which I think is Aviva).

    We could end up with two developments that clash with each other?

    Like

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