Parks and Recreation

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In the current circumstances, it doesn’t feel comfortable to be backing proposals for high rise flats whilst comfortably holed up in a suburban family home with a garden. The advantages of city living: being in the thick of the action, near entertainment, transport links and workplaces, have been entirely nullified for an extended temporary period. Towns and regions as concepts are largely irrelevant as only your street and your country really count, together with access to local open space.

Yet it’s been a busy few months of local development news since my last update so here are some of the main stories, inevitably viewed in the context of the Covid-19 crisis.

Vastern Road Riverside

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Berkeley has submitted its plans for the former SSE offices on Vastern Road. This site was always earmarked to provide a continuation of the Christchurch Bridge pedestrian and cycle route into town. To their credit, Berkeley has revised the plans multiple times in direct response to feedback from several public exhibitions and consultations. What’s unchanged is the residential dominance of the scheme, but we do have neatly designed connections to the bridge, towpath and town centre.  We’ve managed to get the riverside café too – albeit that “kiosk” might end up being a better description for the very limited square footage allocated. More topically, with plentiful nearby open space, you can envisage this development being both an attractive and convenient place to live.

Reading Station Shopping Park

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Less positively, plans for the Aldi/TGI/Range site have also gone to the council, but only at outline stage. Expect this site to be sold off once that valuable planning consent is in place. You’re probably already contemplating the impact of a likely significant recession on the slew of development proposals around town. My view is that this station shopping park and adjacent ex-sorting office sites will fall to the back of the queue. They both lack any real wow factor when compared to either the riverside scheme above, or the more ambitious Station Hill with its far more compelling central location on the town side of the station. Every recession takes cranes out of the sky, and this one also poses serious questions about the future of office vs home-working, and therefore the value both of the office space itself but also the homes located around it. Aldi’s going nowhere for a considerable period.

On that substantial question of the workplace, I would certainly not favour playing out the rest of my career from the spare bedroom on Zoom. Whilst it does afford employers the theoretical advantage of access to the best talent anywhere in the world, surely too many employees will agree with me and want the physical interaction with their colleagues. Yet some smaller employers might opt to remove the heavy costs of a physical presence, so that coupled with the downbeat economic situation will likely reduce further office development. Depending on the international financial fortunes of its hitherto gung-ho US backers, I’d expect Station Hill to go ahead, but other office elements – sadly including the Station Road tower and Bristol & West schemes – may look to re-purpose proposed office space, or even sit on the back-burner entirely.

Reading Gaol

It appears the council has missed out on landing the prison site in the government auction. The buyer has not been disclosed, presumably as finer details are thrashed out. With the sudden economic downturn predicted to take a chunk off land values, it wouldn’t surprise me if the deal falls through and the process has to restart. On the fairly safe assumption that some previously unknown benefactor isn’t the mystery preferred bidder, I think we should conclude that would be good news. The power of story-telling dominates modern life, and nowhere in Reading can compete on that front. Ideas have drifted away from larger venues on the site towards more focus on local and regional participation in the Arts. It would be a desperate shame to lose the huge potential of this location to an exclusive dormitory development of premium apartments. There must be more stories to come from this ancient heart of our town, and I predict another twist in the tale.

Reading Golf Club

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Further details emerged of a likely planning application for Reading Golf Club in Emmer Green. A fall in membership has seen the club decide to merge with Caversham Health and invest in facilities there, closing the Emmer Green course in March 2021. The plot consists of a flat field wedged into suburban North Reading containing six holes, and then it dives down a steep wooded slope into rolling valleys and hillsides of South Oxfordshire. From what I can make out, they plan to apply for permission to build on the Reading portion, then its unclear whether subsequent housing proposals within Oxfordshire might follow.

Clearly, this is a highly controversial plan in the local community, but the club scored a major PR success by opening the normally private course for public exercise during the current lockdown. I’ve walked it a couple of times and it’s a stunning location that I’d never previously visited. The long 14th, essentially forming a northern boundary to Reading, running 500 yards east-west through a dry valley with woodland either side is magnificent (pictures above), and the club proposes that become a permanent country park if its plans are approved. Councillors will doubtless try to work with the club to improve proposals, hopefully collaborating with South Oxfordshire on suitable protection of the remaining open space. But this could be a scheme with some positive community benefit, beyond the ever-debatable “much needed local housing”.

Broad Street Mall

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The application for Broad Street Mall’s residential scheme squeezed through last month. The regeneration of the sterile perimeter along Hosier St and Queens Walk is probably the main advantage to the project. The idea of decking the sunken IDR section to provide a new public park has taken elevated importance, quite literally, in the current crisis, and surely must now be considered a significant council priority and pre-requisite for this scheme being a success. A new park would be vital to these new residents, but equally valued by visitors and office workers on lunch breaks alike.

New Transport Plan

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Politically, I tend to find myself sympathising with the incumbent. Too often people lack appreciation of the challenges of leading within under-estimated constraints, and reconciling conflicting needs and advice of diverse groups of citizens, experts and businesses. I maintain that outlook nationally as well as locally, and to both major parties. I feel the term “opposition” is incredibly unhelpful, and “alternatives” would be better. Wouldn’t it be far preferable hear “the spokesman for the alternatives presented a different positive choice for the current challenge”, rather than “the leader of the opposition described the proposals as an outrage and urged people to protest”? I’ll vote for an alternative. I won’t vote for a protest.

Nowhere does this philosophy apply better than transport. My lockdown analogy draws on our family’s surge in time spent on board games. Politicians love to play Battleships. The first sight of a transport flagship and out come the torpedoes. Sunk without trace in recent years: the counter-intuitive yet potentially ingenious one-way IDR; the obvious missing link for bus & bike between Napier Rd and Thames Valley Park known as the MRT; various talk of trams; Third Thames Bridge (repeatedly); expensive external transport studies have come to nothing; and I’m sure there are more. The marksmen have come from different sides, whipping up hostility from motorists, environmentalists and neighbouring councils. Even the notable success of the Christchurch Bridge had to withstand significant artillery fire, based on budgets and cycling absolutism.

I’d take the MRT as a prime example of a lack of collaboration. It was coupled with a similarly unpopular park & ride scheme by the entrance to Thames Valley Park. If we were to have one scheme but not the other then it would have been far preferable to have the bus/bike link road to allow new routes and express bus journeys, and then to use the land allotted to the park & ride for a new park, easily accessible for Newtown residents as more than adequate compensation for the loss of the road-width’s space along the riverside. As it was, we got the park & ride, but not its link to the town centre. In fairness, compromise requires efforts on all sides.

Perhaps the Battleships analogy works for the newly published strategy. Expecting volleys of fire, the council has set sail with a veritable armada. We’ve got “Demand Management” promising some OR ALL of: a clear air zone, workplace parking levy, emissions-based charging, and road user charging. But can the enemy sustain its attacks on those whilst also taking down the other proposed initiatives: a third bridge AND North Reading Orbital Route, 5 (five) new park & rides, electric vehicle infrastructure, a second tilt at an East Reading public transport priority scheme, and more cycling investment including another look at a bike hire scheme? There’s only so much ammunition – only so much protest capacity.

Sadly, in Battleships the big boats are the easiest targets, and often it’s just your little two-er surviving at the end. In Reading terms that’s been a bus lane here and there. But the council means business here, and surely one of the flagships will reach port? If not then, assuming a gradual return to something like previous normal life, we all lose as nothing changes on air quality and congestion. How about we hold fire on the torpedoes and suggest positive alternatives to aspects of these schemes we don’t like? Let’s play Ticket To Ride rather than Battleships.

Summary

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Photo by Neil Klopke, included with permission.

Lockdown or otherwise, there’s a lot going on. Yet every one of these developments will be re-evaluated in the context of the current Coronavirus crisis, with its economic aftermath, and its longer term societal impacts.

Personally, despite some advantages of the simpler lockdown life, I’m looking forward to a return to something like normal. All of our fantastic local events are cancelled, there’s no sport, our town centre is deserted – who could even imagine ever again the kind of scene shown above? 

Joining in appreciation for our fabulous and courageous key workers has been a huge highlight. But whilst it’s great to be part of a street, I miss being part of a town. Reading and re-invention go hand in hand. If we continue to show positivity, ambition and pragmatism we can ensure new scenes of a thriving, and perhaps greener town emerge. But our leaders – incumbents or alternatives, will have some brave decisions to make.


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Parks and Recreation

12 thoughts on “Parks and Recreation

  1. Reading General says:

    The optimist in me says the recent events have provided an opportunity to strike, to change the way we operate as a society in many areas. This is all speculation but I think its possible to see a rise in town centre and local centre use. During this period, we have seen a rise in people taking to the streets on foot, I’ve even seen people walking around Calcot, this has never happened before! This could mean that people realise they can go further than they thought on foot and things were not as far away as perceived through the windscreen of their car. It is likely that we could see a drop in people travelling at peak times by rail to other towns for work. Perhaps, rather than working from home or travelling great distances to work, a middle ground could be found that sees more people work in town centres in shared office space, not the premises of their company but somewhere with equivalent broadband and other facilities. Physical meetings taking place in situations where off peak travel would be required rather than everybody trying to be on the same train in the morning. Breaking the inter urban travel routine is a huge key to a better environment, physically and mentally. Space on roads and particularly railways can be freed up to bring goods to us, the original point of most railways (the Great Western was an exception). So where government investment is concerned transport investment (not that money will be available for a bit) should local local local.

    As far as RBC’s new transport plan is concerned, I am in the alternative camp. RBC are still just looking at ways to avoid traffic (and as such avoiding key traffic generators and the densely populated areas) rather than replace traffic. Adding what appears to be skip stop buses to an already full of buses town centre is not the way forward. Serious proposals should be looking at consolidating routes, improving what corridors we have before adding to an already complicated travel network. The Fast Track public transport corridors on the plan above, all avoid densely populated areas and some avoid populated areas completely. You cannot just try to replicate the most popular peak time journeys by car and hope people get out of them, you must consider greater use, people using the transport every time they wish to leave the house to do something around the town, be that work, leisure, late night entertainment or a visit to the hospital. This is the area that improvements need to concentrate on, moving around the urban area. If you concentrate on how people move around the town as a whole rather than how people from elsewhere get into the town centre you stand a better chance of reducing congestion. Sure begin these routes at park and ride sites on the edge of town but run them through the populated areas too, minimising stop distances as opposed to stopping on every street corner. This gives the chance for the transport to have a much bigger impact on as many peoples lives as possible.

    Reading has the rail section sorted, there are plenty who live in the surrounding towns and countryside who have a much better opportunity of access to at least the town centre than most who live in the urban area itself, just movement around the town to areas beyond is hard. It’s not a difficult job to figure out a simple, cover all transport network for the town (I personally estimate four to five routes crossing town would see most areas of population covered to access the whole of Greater Reading) but I recognise it is a difficult job for the council to do with the limited power they have and the political opposites on the boundary that simply don’t want to be included in something they see as Reading’s problem. Providing something that is climate friendly and has more capacity than the double deck bus is also a difficult job to plan for as it upsets so many individuals. But RBC need to think a little bigger, they need to be figuring out how to turn that queue of traffic on Caversham Bridge into a public transport mode. They can’t just sit back and assume government funding for projects will never come in large amounts, that might be just around the corner, so they need to be prepared with a real, European style solution for better using the corridors we have. This in turn creates far more opportunity for the road space to be used by cyclist and pedestrians too, changing the lives of people who may not even use the public transport. If they plan it right, rather than decking the IDR in the future, they could be filling it in instead, you never know.

    Still a great blog
    Cheers

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thanks RG. I hope you’re right about people re-discovering the relative ease of walking and cycling, and retaining those habits post crisis. But I do think when you look at the success of Oxford’s park & ride system, you can’t really avoid the conclusion that it’s still a model with a big part to play in the future. Journey times, convenience and frequency are key, and I’d worry your suggestions might compromise those to too great a degree vs park & ride with segregated bus links into town.

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      1. Reading General says:

        Looking at Oxford’s long established Park and Ride system, Oxford is in a situation where it doesn’t have the choice of multi storey car parks in the middle of town. It is also not as easy to move around the centre by car as it is with Reading, there is no IDR, so those with this knowledge would be drawn towards Park and Ride easier. It is of note that the park and ride buses in Oxford use stops en route into the centre, although not every stop and not on each route. I’m not saying park and ride doesn’t work in Reading, it’s just not as desirable to the average person in a car to begin with. When I first drove the Loddon Bridge park and ride it was an enormous success, but it did have a flaw, particularly on Saturdays. The car park would be full by 10 o’clock, great, but then it would be followed by a couple of hours driving fresh air about every 7-8 minutes. The buses carrying nobody because no more could park and go to town without someone else going back. That’s public transport doing nothing. Sure the council is happy they have a full car park and the bus company is happy as it’s a contract and they get paid regardless if anybody travels or not. On a side note the two councils that shared it 50-50 then ruined it by being indecisive about how it worked. I think what’s left of it going to Winnersh Triangle Reading Transport actually run themselves.

        My point is that express and all stop buses duplicating the same or similar routes is not economic nor convenient, even if it is a means to a long drawn out temporary end. Rolling around carrying nobody in both directions is not a solution, especially if we are looking for daytime and nightime revenue to support it and appeal to the most people. Having two types of service is also confusing for many, so we should be aiming for keeping the transport as simple as possible, again promoting it’s use.

        If all vehicles are doing the same frequencies can be kept high, frequency is lowered by variation. If a tram route was being built, it wouldn’t be considered to run it in the same manner as Oxford’s park and ride, it would take the middle ground and avoid having duplicate bus routes on the same corridor. Additionally, a tram route would take up less road space in the centre than buses running duplicate routes. In Europe a tram route would be far more focused on serving those that live in the town rather than those travelling to it, their systems have a tendency to run through the houses rather than looking for avoiding routes. They do find broader longer distance sections to run, but these tend to be much further out from the centre, beyond the distances say of our town centre to Winnersh Triangle. In the UK we normally look for traffic avoider routes such as old rail lines for trams and minimise street running, and if none of these are available we do nothing. Environment aside for a moment, the main thing we are trying to achieve (I hope) is to rid ourselves of the traffic that holds any road based public transport up in the first place, therefore trying to avoid these areas is a falsehood. Denying travel opportunities by bypassing areas doesn’t give the best model for return nor have an effect on the lives of enough people. I personally don’t consider our town physically big enough to require express routes into the centre, and public transport isn’t trying to be the same as a car, it’s providing a different alternative.

        Now, lets use the difficult part of town as an example, we are trying to replicate what a tram would do with a large, multi door bus and we have built a (controversial) park and ride on the site of Abbey Rugby Club. The plan is to run it straight down the Peppard Road into town working on the basis that it is a successful car park, has removed traffic along that corridor and had an effect on other corridors. The vehicles ticketing is off bus both at the park and ride site and any other stop and, conveniently to begin with, only one bus route currently uses it that road so we won’t be duplicating any other routes. So after leaving the Park and ride site our next stop will be somewhere between the top of Courtney Drive and Kiln Road, this leads to the elimination of Tower Close and Rosehill stops but is compensated by frequency of the service. After setting that example, the next stops would be The Pond by Emmer Green shops, next at a median point between Buckingham Drive and Surley Row, next at a point between Balmore Drive and Newlands Avenue, next Prospect Street. Now here you could go left or right and choose either bridge but as more road space can be set aside over Reading Bridge plus a dense population off Gosbrook Road, I’ll head left. The Next stop would be outside Elizabeth House beside Westfield Park, then one by the petrol station on George Street and from there straight to the Apex Plaza in town. Nine stops to town from the park and ride and a maximum journey time over that distance of 15 minutes. The frequency of service draws people to the corridor from the surrounding streets and the vehicle moves quickly through a number of factors combined. With only two to three large, tram like stops in town, the route then continues out the other side with similar distances between stops along the Basingstoke Road perhaps until it reaches the already existing park and ride at either the Stadium or Mereoak, or even to the Stadium and then Green Park rail station, depending on infrastructure over either the A33 or the M4. From the northern point of the Borough to the souther point could, in theory, be no more than 40-45 minutes if the corridors are set up correctly. The car parks could still fill up to capacity but the vehicles no longer just carry fresh air around. This is improving both your current bus route and creating a fast public transport corridor.

        This is theory that could apply to six other corridors with some other bus routes sharing sections of the corridors and the long stop distance. Reducing stops is not a new idea in Reading, it was done in the second world war to the trolley bus routes and can be seen to great effect along the Oxford Road from Kentwood to Norcot Junction, along the length of Norcot Road, and on the first stretch of Basingstoke Road, but there is even scope for improvement on those stretches for a more modern demand. Applying efforts to corridors like this also puts the transport in a position to increase capacity if necessary without increasing the amount of vehicles by either simply extending the capacity of the vehicles or swapping modes, either way it would still take up less road space than rigid independently moving buses, It can be done, I’ve spent years contemplating it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Reading’s bus network is extensive and already affordable. The town is already full of buses and I doubt adding more would do much. The main issue of Reading is its anti-car stance. It may of seemed trendy in the early 2000s when diesels and petrol we’re churning out emissions, but with a future of electric cars coming, RBC can’t pretend cars are going to disappear. The town needs drastic new routes built, especially cross river and an east to west route running north of Caversham. Car growth will continue to rise and for as long as Reading channels all the traffic from the A329M/M4 through cemetery junction there will be congestion. The idea of charging motorists for driving through the town when it is RBC council who forces drivers to go through the town is ludicrous. I am sure the citizens of Reading frequently drive through Sonning, but you don’t hear them demanding charges for their bridge. Third bridge, northern relief road and the Napier road/A329M link similar to the MRT, but as dual lane, shared one bus and one car lane to bypass cemetery junction is what is needed. Then a fourth bridge in Norcot could be looked at. This town needs to get its act together its a shambles with the inaction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Reading General says:

      All of these schemes mentioned involve the over the border councils, as most of the construction would be in there districts. Reading can only hope to get them onboard with light proposals. Electric cars may be coming but building more space to accommodate them is really not what the rest of the world is doing. More roads more congestion. You only have to look at the serious scar the IDR has left on the town, large parts demolished but it was still not enough. As a nation we need to face facts, that there will never be enough road space and parking for all of us to drive. Reading Borough Council have tried their best to accommodate the car in what is a town which has a unique physical and political position with it’s constrained boundaries and statistics that don’t tell the whole truth. If RBC were really anti car, the buses would move far quicker around this town. London Road from Sutton Seed’s roundabout inbound would be a bus lane, cars would just have to queue, and they wouldn’t have let Hammerson build an enormous multi storey car park where the bus garage used to be.
      It is clear that this town cannot accommodate the motor car to levels seen elsewhere without wholesale demolition, so unfortunately, much like Oxford, it’s a place that has to take a different approach. It would be nice if the surrounding councils built roads around the town as a bypass, you could accuse them of being anti car as they haven’t, but would this take the pressure off the town centre and ease congestion? Probably not. Reading (as a whole town including the non governed suburbs) has to face up to the fact that less cars is the only future for it, if we want to move around it quicker and have a better quality of life.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. interesting points David & RG. I do think it will be interesting if technology conquers the environmental and safety dangers of motoring. Lots still to do there – as we’ve covered before it’s not just having electric cars but also the sustainability of the battery production/disposal, and preventing negatives impacts from parts and surface abrasion. But I have faith in human ingenuity and these problems may well be solved. But I agree, if convenient motoring does indeed become a hallmark of future urban success then Reading has a weak hand and will be at a disadvantage. As such, I’m broadly supportive of the proposed mix of strategies to keep our options open.. trying to ride two horses, to use a transport themed idiom!

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      2. I completely agree that a mixed strategy is required, however I still feel that despite the boundary issue facing RBC eg for the third bridge, I feel the council offers little in return to South Oxfordshire council – real compromises should be proposed, perhaps a large housing estate in between Playhatch and North Eastern Caversham to meet South Ox’s housing targets in exchange for the third bridge and the northern bypass? I know this may be idealistic but I feel something needs to be done instead of continuing in this stalemate. Left Uni about two years ago, having written my dissertation on the strategic road network, so seeing unfinished road projects and how their incompleteness causes major issues really gets me fired up!

        In regard to the IDR, and how you consider it a mistake, I would disagree. Once again the mistake was it was never finished, with the missing free flowing junction, south of forbury park and kings road, along with the ridiculous idea to add traffic lights connecting the A33 to a grade separated system.

        Recently saw an article that showed the vast majority of traffic moving through Reading and the IDR was not actually terminating in Reading, but in other towns – a direct result of there being no bypass on the northern side of the town to the A329M/M4 or any decent north to south routes for traffic entering west Reading. So I really disagree that the building of the new bypass roads would have little effect on congestion. The town needs to grow and the roads and inaction are strangling it.

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  3. furtle says:

    agree to most of the article, though i think the current crisis has shown the aldi needs to stay. there arent any other shops north of the station unless you count waitrose : expensive .. and empty shelved .. no other options. to me having a shop outside the main station makes sense for fresh food on the way home…

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    1. thanks Furtle. Yes, the Aldi is certainly very convenient for many people. There is provision for a supermarket within the designs for the sorting office site, but as I said in the article, who know when these schemes will now come forward.

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  4. Rex Butters says:

    Perhaps the most enjoyable and lucid analysis that I have read in a long time.
    Clearly.time for the Borough Council to put aside the rose tinted glasses and consider rhe achievable.
    Piling flats in the Central area North of the railway sans car parking does not seem a good way forward. If people work from home, what of the office spaces then? Listen to the discussin RBC.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Reading General says:

      Forgive me for being naïve but why the concern about car parking spaces in flats that are not yet built?
      Surely the town centre is more connected than anywhere else in the town or even anywhere else in the south of England. I’m not a fan of over doing the amount of residential in the town centre, it has the habit of hindering future development by protest from people who will move on within a couple of years, but I would think it strange if any town or city comparable in Europe attempted to accommodate parking for that many flats in their centre. I cannot think of a reason why anybody would buy or rent a flat in one of these buildings and expect a car parking space, or even what they would need a car for in the first place. I’d like to see less residential and any necessary office space in the town centre but I don’t want to see any more cars, and I thought that was the idea behind these buildings in town.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks Rex & RG, I agree on limiting parking. But the developers normally want to include as much parking as they can, because there is demand for it. It’s the council typically limiting the spaces, due to the impact of extra cars on the network and the environment. I think many people living in these flats want their cars for weekends, to visit people, get out into the countryside (which is a draw for people choosing Reading over London) and for hobbies/sports etc. I’d be interested to see some figures, but I wouldn’t be surprised if pre-crisis Saturday traffic in Reading was just as heavy, when measured across the whole day, as weekdays. The answer must surely be (electric) car sharing / car clubs etc, and convenient app-supported taxi options to provide that weekend freedom with good convenience. Then we can avoid huge residential town centre parking.

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