Reading’s Local Plan

The council is currently consulting on the final draft of its “local plan” covering the development of Reading up to 2036.  I’ve taken a look through the document.

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It seems there’s something of a game going on.  I’d appreciate correction from someone closer to the detail, but here’s how I read it.  The government wants more houses built, but it wants councils to decide where to put them.  The trouble is that councils – or many councils – don’t want to build houses because they lose the votes of people living nearby who, as a rule, don’t wan’t new homes in their own back yard.  The government tells councils how many homes must be built, and if councils don’t play ball and fail to produce a viable plan with identified sites to deliver those numbers then the developers are given the advantage in the planning process.  This document is Reading’s plan.  And the magic number is 671 homes per year.

Regular readers will know that I like to make the argument in favour of the growth of Reading.  The principle: more people in the town (including its wider suburbs in neighbouring authorities) means more demand to underpin a wider range of jobs, shops, culture and leisure.  I’d like to see the improvement in those four areas concentrated in the town centre, and the local plan agrees:

“Provision will be made for up to 34,900 sq m of retail and related facilities in Reading to 2036, together with new leisure facilities. Retail and main town centre leisure and culture development, where it would mean a net gain of over 2,500 sq m, will take place in, or as an extension to, the centre of Reading, unless it is on a site allocated for such development. Where a need for additional development has been identified, and no sites are available in or adjoining the centre of Reading, a sequential approach should be adopted to identifying alternative sites.”

But, in a continuation of the recent trend, the town centre is also earmarked for more housing.

“A very substantial amount of Reading’s housing need will need to be met in the town centre due to the availability of sites”

I have a concerns around this.  Whilst acknowledging that town centre apartments are an attractive choice to many and have their place, I still believe that most people would eventually prefer to live in suburban housing.  It doesn’t seem right that central Reading must be given over to apartments simply because Reading is a tight urban borough with no other available land to meet its allocation.

I’d rather see some expansion of Reading outwards.  Avoiding the protected areas to the west and northwest of town, there is land available, particularly to the south.  In a surprise display of cooperation, it appears there are plans afoot for a larger suburban extension to Reading in Grazeley, in parts of West Berkshire and Wokingham authorities.  Planned well, with good transport links into town (read tram!) then I think that could be a success and allow Reading to prosper.

I can hear heckles from the Green lobby.  My point here is that I believe that bigger towns/cities dominated by a vibrant city centre are better (and greener) than building umpteen Didcots.  If we need the homes (as a region) and farmland is to be lost then after genuine brownfield sites have been used we should look to the edges of larger towns, with green transport links into a critical mass of activity in the centre.  I’m keen to see RG1 act as the heart of this area – nobody wants a Farnborough/ Aldershot/ Camberley-like conurbation with no real centre.  So we need to retain some of the large town centre land opportunities for uses that attract people into town, and not give them all up to apartments for people just to jump on a train to London every day.

There is some support for my view in the document:

“as competing centres continue to enhance their offer, it will continue to be necessary to develop and adapt to maintain its [Reading’s] position.”

But I think there is room for more ambition in the plans.  I might be accused of playing intercity top trumps, but it feels like other towns are pushing harder at the moment.  For example Swindon has a plot of land similar to our former royal mail depot.  Both sites are located just to the north of their respective railway stations.  A developer has proposed 1000 flats for Reading’s site.  Meanwhile Swindon has approved plans for a huge regional leisure destination:
“It will have the best ski slopes in the country, the largest Imax in the country, the best bowling in the country and a whole heap of restaurants and retail units to go with it,” comments the scheme’s director.

To be fair, Reading’s proposed local plan considers 1000 homes as too many for our site, and proposes a significant office element.  And there are sites identified for retail/leisure expansion by the Oracle, and at the Cattle Market, but I still consider the scale of the ambitions distinctly unremarkable.

The local plan doesn’t make specific suggestions for sites, but outlines a classification, such as offices, leisure or retail.  In that sense, you could argue it’s not really a plan at all.  I might try to plan my day at work by blocking out some time for “no meetings”, or even “lunch” at a push.  That might give me some moral justification to decline a meeting invite, but all too often I’d conclude it to be in my best interests to accept anyway.  Here, the council might lay down a preference, but it’s the developer with the cash – they determine the specific uses from which they believe they can make a return, often leaving the council with Hobson’s choice.  So I’d like to see them on the front foot telling developers exactly what we would like to see, even if this formal planning document isn’t the place to do it.  So since Swindon brought it up, let’s take a look at bowling: here’s my analysis:

Ten-pin bowling centres per city/town (an exciting evening’s work!)

There are many maps and tables in the local plan document.  I invite the council to include the one above!  Surely a bowling complex could be accommodated in the centre somewhere?  The Broad St Mall basement?  The old civic centre?  And there’s got to be a much bigger opportunity around the station.  With the unrivalled connectivity offered by Reading Station – the terminus of frequent local services from Waterloo, Newbury, Basingstoke, Oxford, and imminently from London with Crossrail – I’m calling for an indoor arena.  Nowhere else in southern England outside of London could you so easily disperse an 8-10,000 crowd onto public transport at 10pm after a show.  If Station Hill, and the Royal Mail site, and Apex Plaza, and Friar’s Walk, and the Cattle Market, and the old SSE site, all go to residential-dominated schemes then the opportunity will pass.

Perhaps the council could be more pro-active.  I saw an interesting story on tvproperty last week.  Woking council has purchased offices in its town centre just to prevent them being converted into flats:
“Over recent years Woking has lost vital employment space and we recognise that the current investment market is reluctant to invest in speculative office developments. Without prime town centre office space, there is a genuine risk that jobs for local people and future employment opportunities could be lost.” 
Could Reading’s council acquire a site near the station if the market would only deliver flats?  And it’s not as if the private sector has done much with Station Hill anyway?

I would suggest that Woking simply has a slightly more advanced case of the same issue affecting Reading – the fate of being subsumed into London.  The capital creates a constant flow of candidate commuters seeking to escape the city for cheaper housing or the prospect of weekend cycling in the countryside.  Reading is a prime destination and market forces left unchecked will see swathes of central Reading given over to London overspill.  I know housing is a major issue here, and the town centre should play a part in boosting supply, but Reading needs to concentrate on generating critical mass of its own – regionally significant retail, leisure and culture.  The Gaol offers hope, but it will need more, and we need a local plan to deliver it.

The local plan consultation is open until 26th January.  Have your say here: …or maybe leave your thoughts below for other readers to see – no registration needed.

Reading’s Local Plan

18 thoughts on “Reading’s Local Plan

  1. I usually agree with you on most things, but in this case I think housing is the answer. The town is desperately short of apartment blocks and has historically had far too much office space laying empty for years. Good residential developments bring life to a town center and the leisure facilities come along with that usually. I do agree on the Conference center or New music Theatre though. That would be great!

    There is lots of land in south Reading being unused at the moment and the recent news that the south MRT scheme is progressing is great for the expansion in this area.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thanks Zag! Agree that a few apartment towers adds vitality – although I know they have some opposition. It’s when, in an attempt to accommodate families too, you end up turning large central plots into bulky perimeter blocks with private inner gardens/courtyards, that’s what makes me fear bigger opportunities for those sites are being missed. And the family accommodation (of which I agree there’s a shortage) could be a combination of suburban expansion and inner city brownfield sites.


  2. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful analysis. I am concerned that Reading will become a dormitory town for exhausted commuters into London.Whilst I understand the need for more housing, the most recent developments seem to consist almost exclusively of 1-2 bedroom apartments and a few expensive ‘exclusive’ developments. I think this trend will lead to an unbalanced non-thriving environment. Where are the homes for families, medical facilities and leisure facilities (apart from shops)? Sorry, this is just a less articulate way of saying the same as the original post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. dangrey says:

      I think that’s a low risk. I don’t what the figures are, but I suspect it’s a large majority of workers who live in Reading work in Reading, with only a small number commuting to London. Also… what’s wrong with living in Reading and working in London (providing they’re not driving)? These people will still go out in the evening in Reading, shop in Reading, join Reading clubs etc.

      What leisure facilities is Reading lacking? I think it needs a 50m pool, but nothing else is obviously missing to me…


      1. indeed, 50m pool. Bowling, as I mentioned. An arena, an Imax, and if you’re pushing it, skating & skiing. More broadly, something like Norwich’s Forum to house the library and local media together with some event space. Frequently mentioned is an indoor or covered market, or a permanent food market. And I’ve heard calls for a dedicated art gallery, and more specialised i.e. less multi-purpose theatre space.
        Not saying we should get or need them all, but the local plan names none of those, and allocates so much land to flats (agree some is a good thing) that I fear Reading’s role “maxing out” without some of these potential wider regional attractions.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. dangrey says:

        Ha ha, good points all! I wonder if planners and developers think Bracknell has our skating and water park needs met? It’s a real shame there’s no snowdome in the Thames Valley — Milton Keynes is a right trek –but I suspect land prices are too high. But if the council puts enough land aside for leisure in the Local Plan and lets the market get on with it, maybe we’ll get something. I do wish the council had more ambition around swimming though. That needs to be council-lead really.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Peter Pratt says:

    I would like to put in my two’penneth. The first is that Reading must be pro-active in the extreme to be in control of the development on every side of its borough borders. The current boundary is ludicrous. To the west, huge swathes are for all intents and purposes, Reading. To the east, even more pay their Council tax to Wokingham but again, are Reading.
    I agree that there has to be a balance between business and residential development in the town centre. You make the point about leisure activities, bowling in particular. Reading has had bowling alleys in the past. I think I am correct in saying that they failed commercially. If there is to be this activity in the town centre there will have to be a change of culture. Somehow we have to encourage travellers onto public transport to avoid too much space being used for car parking. A strategy that would encompass not only buses, but also more lateral thinking on how people get to and from their homes or out-of-town parking to the hub of Reading, should devised.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. dangrey says:

    Regards homes for families/’aspiration’ homes — don’t forget that the baby boom generation will die. I think a lot of people forget that our ‘aging population’ won’t actually live forever.

    There’s also a generation now who don’t think twice about raising a family in an apartment. So many of my peers don’t want houses with gardens to maintain, nor do they want to spend their money on a building larger than they need, or further from what interests them — shopping and eating in the town centre.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. dangrey says:

    …But I must thank you for writing this. I think you do a real service for Reading, championing the town and highlighting issues and developments which otherwise many would miss. This, the consultation on a new local plan, is one such development.

    I don’t RBC is doing much wrong here. I think allocating land for particular broad purposes is no bad thing as it is the market which pays for development, not councils (though I agree that it is bizarre that there’s no bowling in Reading). I would present Exeter as a cautionary tale: there the city council (effectively district, not unitary like Reading, but equally controlled by Labour) is very prescriptive in their local plan. The result is:

    * no A grade office space in the city centre
    * an enormous number (thousands) of student flats being built but no homes for local people in the centre, resulting in an empty city centre for 22 weeks of the year
    * no bus station, as the council has closed theirs before appointing a developer for a new one
    * a large empty site in the town centre because the council wants to a build a new swimming pool on it, but can’t afford to build their exquisite plan (all the tenders came in higher than they expected)
    * the council wanted to build a new gym on the site too, but new cheap 24 hour gyms have decimated their customer base
    * Crown Estate pulling out of a major new development as a result
    * developers being turned away from other sites as the council tries to rescue its plan
    * no theatre larger than 500 seats as the council refuses to support building one
    * no new swimming pool to replace one which has been fire damaged and another that is leaking.

    Now, Exeter is an extreme example of cocking up, but it is a prime example of what happens when an authority fights the market. Reading, by going with the flow, is likely to end up with a mix of development which is actually supported by the market and by implication, wanted. Swindon’s grand plan does sound exciting, but there will be a developer with a business case and finance behind it. If Reading BC wants the same it needs to find a developer or a consortium with the cojones to do it — it mustn’t try and DIY it.

    PS I’m not aware of ‘developers getting the upper hand in the planning process’ if a LA doesn’t allocate land to housing, but LAs do get a substantial New Homea Bonus if they do — it’s in the order of thousands of pounds per unit. That, and the new council tax they’ll earn, is very persuasive to councils when they’ve seen 30% funding cuts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. really interesting example from Exeter there, thank you. I guess there’s a balance to be struck. Perhaps fighting the market is tough, but the Station Hill story hasn’t exactly been a success either, and Chatham Place ended up omitting all of its more exciting proposals: IDR decking, swimming pool and large square.


      1. dangrey says:

        I think what’s often over-looked is that in any endeavour leadership is not enough — you need competence too. Exeter CC has strong leadership but lacks competence. Whoever owned Station Hill lacked both.

        Sadly, the money is ‘running out’ again as we head towards erecting trade barriers to our largest export market and lose access to 60 trade deals with countries like Japan and Korea. That’s setting our economy on a different trajectory, so developers are cutting costs or dropping developments entirely.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. IC says:

    One thing that the plan should include is more specific proposals for the development of the area between Oxford Rd, St Bary’s Butts, Castle St and the IDR.

    I’ve thought that levelling most of it and landscaping it with an underground car park would leave a prime site for a mixed use skyscraper just set back from the corner of St Mary’s Butts and Oxford Rd.

    The ground and possible first floor would be retail and the next few floors public areas such as a new library, civic offices, a nursery, gym, doctors surgery, hotel and maybe even a small bowling alley!

    The upper floors away from street noise could then be residential and it could be topped off with a panoramic restaurant.

    It would only overlook Howard St so there is no limit to its size. I would have thought 30 floors would do. Such a building would be a landmark to rival the Oracle and ought to attract world class architects.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. nice, idea. I think that kind of landmark would be fantastic. I believe the local plan would support it, but probably only nearer the station, and I can see maybe that would be appropriate. But there is the precedent of Fountain House above the mall.
      As for the Broad St Mall, the current owners are trying to revitalise the existing building. My fear is they’ll then bung a couple of floors of flats on the roof, effectively entombing it for all time 😦


      1. dangrey says:

        I wasn’t aware until very recently but it’s often the flats built above shops or whatever is on the ground floors of city-centre buildings which actually makes the return on investment.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Reading General says:

    It worries me handing so much of the Town Centre over to residential, it is indeed the step to becoming dormitory. Future commercial development can be hampered with so many people living nearby potential sites and the last thing this town needs is to lose work from the centre. Regardless of whatever transport provision is in place for business parks, the Town Centre is still the most accessible part of the town because of this town’s best asset, the railway station. Thousands of people are in a single train journey away from this point and to waste enormous development space such as the sorting office site on residential to be filled by people who could potentially leave the town each day would be signing a death warrant. We are led to believe that these residential developments breath life into the Town Centre, but take a look at the space around the Chatham Street buildings or the lack of life on London Street other than queuing traffic during the day, i can’t see the sorting office site or former civic centre site being any different. I am not fully against residential in the centre, building upwards on small plots is fine, its groundscraping space wasters like that proposed where Friar Streets Sainsbury’s is currently sat.
    Many places much larger than Reading wish they had the connectivity of our General station, Bristol for example (Temple Meads lies on the far side of an I.D.R style dual carriageway from the centre), and it is that which is key to Reading currently still maintaining a larger inward than outward flow of workers. But this balance could be tipped if too many people believe estate agents nonsense about Crossrail, which many seem to think is a brand new railway to london and going to solve all our problems. Many of the current Town Centre residential developments feature boards around them highlighting the ever unbelievable 25 minutes from London by train (crossrail being a stopping service isn’t mentioned) and half an hour from Heathrow airport (by car at 4am i guess) even 10 minutes from the M4. Most omit to mention being in our Town Centre some don’t even mention Reading at all. Come and live in Reading, a fantastic place to leave!
    Reading’s house building problem is the fault of (as everything else is) the boundaries never changing post war. The extended suburbs didn’t develop in a natural way like other parts of town within the borough (although i have a wokingham district council development study book form the late 70’s about Lower Earley and Woodley Airfield that quite clearly admits to them being Reading suburbs). If you take a look at Earley crossroads on google earth you will see that on the borough side the housing is fairly dense, and on the district side it is low density. Shops and amenity in key areas are missing, Lower Earley only has two shopping areas and both are hidden from the main roads. Even roads in the immediate post war areas are two narrow for buses to pass each other easily. If these areas were built by Reading Borough Council far better planning would have taken place, densities would be sensible and finding space for 600 odd new homes a year wouldn’t be so much of a problem. I once again consider if Thames Valley business park were housing and the amount of homes the A3290 space could take if it wasn’t there.
    Sadly, unless local councils drop politics or central government steps in the boundaries are never going to change and i think we will accept our fate as another london weekend place with a massive traffic problem, as i will probably just move further west away from the culturel vacuum of london.

    Still a great blog, keep the civic pride.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thanks RG. I think Crossrail hype is only going to grow next year. Yet it’s essentially a more frequent stopping service to Paddington. Ironically, that should only really be a boost for commuting INTO Reading from the east, rather than from here to London.


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