Town centre bids for success

AbbeyQuarter

Would you vote for an extra tax?  You might be surprised to hear a voting process is underway right now in Reading for exactly that.  It’s a simple Yes/No referendum.  On this occasion, it’s not residents being polled – frankly nobody’s in a hurry to ask the public to make any more binary political choices at the ballot box.  But thankfully it’s not us being taxed either.  The votes on two separate town centre “Business Improvement Districts” (BIDs) ask local employers to agree, by way of a majority, to a 1% levy on their business rates (taxes) to fund a range of initiatives to “enhance their trading environment”.

This scheme has actually been running across the central shopping area since 2006.  It’s renewed by a new poll every few years, and the current vote would see it mandated until 2024.  It brings in around half a million pounds per year, which is then spent across a number of themes:

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Some of the big expenses include: cleaning the streets, seasonal illuminations, floral displays, and extra security staff to work with the police.  You might expect all of these to be provided by the council.  However, given the budget constraints at town halls nowadays, it’s clear these would be considered nice-to-haves and likely unfunded.  Without the BID, which is run entirely separately and with no budget from the council, there would probably be no Christmas lights or summer flowers.

Thankfully, there’s still some money left after that lot, much of which goes towards organising events, initiatives to boost independent retailing, and funding wider marketing of Reading as a shopping and leisure destination.  There’s a multitude of other things too, all designed to bring people into town, to ensure they have a good experience while they’re here, and ideally to spend a bit of money at the same time.

From a resident’s perspective, I believe it can only be great news that local business is prepared to finance these projects.  I hope that a majority of occupiers will maintain this proactive attitude to help keep the town centre a safe, clean, and vibrant place to visit or work.  However, if I were a town centre a business, having agreed to contribute, there are a couple of questions I’d be asking the council in return.

Firstly transport.  Improvements are too slow.  I’ve seen a few buses lately with their destination dot matrix changed to “Bus Full”, yet the traffic seems as bad as ever, whilst shopper footfall is down (albeit only in-line with national trends).  I’m not sure how that all adds up.  Garrard St car park is to be demolished with no announced plans, temporary or otherwise, for replacement parking.  If there were a long term strategy to reduce parking on environmental grounds, balanced by investment in better bus services and new infrastructure for public transport and cycling, then fine.  But where are those improvements?  I took the bus to the station (from Caversham) this week.  It took an age to inch through traffic, unable to “rat-run” how I might in the car, and it was standing room only.  By the time I got to town I could have done all my shopping on my phone and got straight back on the bus home.  Beleaguered retailers are putting their hands in their pockets to fund the maintenance and the promotion of the town centre; it’s up to the council and government to fund the transport network to get people there.  So what’s the plan?

And secondly on leisure.  Too often we hear that various facilities we lack can’t be viable otherwise someone would just step in to provision them.  Yes, there are business cases that need to stack up, but I think it’s also about who happens to have what idea at a certain time with a particular project or scheme… in short, chance.  I tested this theory by emailing the directors of the largest bowling companies asking why they don’t open in Reading town centre.  Several similar responses – here’s a quote from one:

“I would be very interested to see any details you may have on suitable locations in Reading as currently we are not aware of any suitable premises.”

I don’t know whether I’m looking to the council or Reading UK (the organisation running the BID) but there’s clearly an opportunity to take the initiative and round up the sort of new operators that might make a difference to the town, and find a home for them within existing or new developments.  Instead of waiting for retailers to fail due to falling footfall, let’s hurry along bringing greater diversity to the high street, and with it the visitors that will keep the shops in business.

Back to the BIDs, this time around there is an ambitious proposal for a second BID area.  This isn’t unprecedented nationally – Birmingham has twelve separate schemes – but it is new for Reading.  The plan is for an “Abbey Quarter BID“, focussed on the predominantly commercial areas surrounding the Abbey Ruins.

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Approval for the programme will depend on support from corporate occupiers.  And the benefits to them are subtlety different to the central retail area BID.  Alex Brannen, Communications Manager at Reading UK, which manages the existing Central Reading BID and is behind the proposals for a new Abbey Quarter BID, explains further:

“The Central BID has shown its worth over the last 12 years by leveraging significant levels of private sector investment to support the town centre as a great place to visit, shop, work and live. The proposals for a new Abbey Quarter BID, similarly, are designed to support business growth by positively exploiting its fabulous heritage, making full use of the untapped opportunities the waterways afford and linking in to possible developments on the Reading prison site. Reading businesses based in the Abbey Quarter (and beyond) see the retention and recruitment of staff as their biggest challenge. By promoting and investing in the Abbey Quarter, we can establish it as a unique, iconic business location and a great place to work.”

Whilst focussed more towards employee benefits, I still feel that there’s significant mutual advantage here.  Employers, their staff, and the wider Reading public all gain from having a more attractive, safe, and well managed central area.  And the opportunity to breathe more life into the Abbey Ruins through events and leisure activities is an exciting one.  Clearly, a final piece in the jigsaw would be a cultural hub at the Gaol.  No news yet on that, but surely the BID would pave the way for it to be incorporated fully into the town centre.  In my view, it’s a bid for success, and if you’re a local business entitled to vote for its inception I’d strongly urge you to consider supporting it.  Voting is open now, and runs until 21st February.

Your comments always very welcome – registration not required…
Town centre bids for success

6 thoughts on “Town centre bids for success

  1. Reading needs to contract, not expand, business-wise…
    No more big corporates, on sustainable-development grounds; transport infrastructure is near to breaking point – should we test the point anyway?
    Is/why is Rdg Buses struggling?
    More investment/attraction of independent businesses – we’ve lost too many great independants recently; the remainder and new ones need more support.

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  2. Reading General says:

    I’ve said it before but successful town centres are all down to access. I think our town centre is busy and fairing better than others because of the access available by rail at the moment. There is an enormous catchment area for this town because of the amount of lines from different directions filing into the station, and with the station improvements, this area is pretty well set up. What isn’t set up is how people move around the town itself, and by town I must clarify that I refer to all suburbs regardless of political boundaries so this would include Woodley, Earley, Purley, Calcot and close by expanded villages Spencer’s Wood, Shinfield and Three Mile Cross. This could also include Theale and Winnersh but these places have great rail access so a decent option is already available for the time being. Now we can all complain and suggest that the council’s traffic lights are what stops us moving around easily but it’s really a lack of alternatives to the car that holds the town up in areas. Now some people are never going to get out of their cars for convenience or personal status reasons but i’m sure there are plenty who would if other not so daunting options were available. Sadly, at the moment, the bus is our only option. Unless the government were to suddenly notice Reading’s contribution to the economy and give up money for an alternative, but after extending the vastly expensive crossrail to our town rather pointlessly, they probably consider that is enough money spent on us and how the overwhelming majority of Reading residents move around our local area every day is not a high priority.
    Now some thinking has to change with regards to the buses by the council and Reading buses themselves as at the moment they are both starting to drift into the national thinking that local public transport is only for those who don’t or can’t drive. Reading buses approach has been better than the larger operators such as stagecoach or go ahead since deregulation but I think a level of complacency has set in. When you win industry awards for customer service why would you upset the balance? Because winning awards is no longer enough to create access to the town. One is the stakeholder of the other, but the two organisations don’t work that closely to improve what we already have and this is the area that needs working on. Let’s not make the same mistake as Bristol by spending millions of pounds on a slightly improved park and ride to battle congestion, as in our town getting people from other surrounding towns into the centre isn’t that difficult because of the station, let’s instead concentrate on how people move around the town itself.
    The first, and very cheap, area to look at is the amount and distance between bus stops. Up in Tilehurst we have the example to follow with bus routes that is the 17. It moves relatively quickly towards town because of the trolleybus era distances between stops on Norcot Road. It slows down on the Oxford Road because here is an area where at least one stop could be removed. The town centre is another area that could lose a stop but once through it speeds up again towards Earley because of decent stop distance. Compare this to the 26 through Ford’s Farm and Southcote Estate where I estimate almost five stops could be removed. These are all areas where a little bit of co-operation with the relevant council could see journey times improve to the town centre and making a journey on more than one bus across town not so daunting. The next and slightly more expensive area is how the buses move around the town centre. The one way, anti transport loop created when pedestrianisation was king in the 90’s clearly doesn’t work that well anymore and if I was in charge (probably good that i’m not) I would be reopening Broad Street for buses to cross East to West. More likely, Garrard Street needs to come back into use and controversially a section of roadway across in front of the Town Hall from Market Place to Friar Street. Routes then need organising in order of importance and how many people they can move per hour to decide where and how many stops they will have in town. Three or four main road crosstown routes like the 17 from each suburban centre interchanging in either Friar Street or Garrard Street is what is needed. Not every bus will be able to stop outside the station but the trade here is bus frequency and getting the people to the centre quickly. These crosstown routes should be what the councils focus their transport improvements on. For example, re-organising the stops on the Wokingham Road between the Three Tuns and Loddon Bridge, rearranging the traffic lanes at the Three Tuns crossroads and providing the opportunity for buses to turn somewhere other than the huge roundabout by the cinema would be a quick and easy extension for the 17 and an improvement for public transport in this area for little expense. Improve the frequency to an area, speed up the journey and more people from there will choose it as the option to use to get to town. Even better, routing buses through one side of the cinema car park under the arches the park and ride used to use and along a new carriageway would enable them to reach Winnersh Triangle without sharing the Loddon Bridge roundabout with regular traffic.Little improvements rather than big infrastructure projects go a long way over time
    Cheers

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks RG! Great thoughts. I agree that a lot comes down to transport/access. You’re probably right that lots of small improvements would add up to a surprisingly high benefit. Personally I think bigger schemes are needed in parallel.
      Extension of the 17 (or some of them) does seem like an obvious improvement though doesn’t it!

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  3. Reading General says:

    Fair enough, but something in the town centre has to give to accommodate transport, that is simply the solution I would go for if town planning was my job and I was given a blank canvas. Broad street is the widest street through the town centre east to west and the one street built to take the weight of whatever transport mode could potentially run along it. The corporation had it right in the first place with the layout through the town for the trams and then the trolleybuses. I always speculated when the closure of Broad Street occured that a much larger area of the town centre could be pedestrianised if Friar Street was chosen instead. This would have led to Market Place, Town Hall Square, Queen Victoria Street, Cross Street, Station Road and part of Blagrave Street. This would have been a much better layout for public transport to move through the town centre quickly and provided better interchange between buses.This would now be harder to achieve anyhow as Station Hill is no longer a through route. I have clearly riled you with my ridiculous ideas about transport but this is why I have pointed out that a more likely solution nowadays is to make use of Garrard Street to provide some more room, though any layout of the transport moving through the town will not be simple after the changes made in the past.
    Cheers

    Liked by 1 person

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