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.
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:
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: http://www.reading.gov.uk/newlocalplan …or maybe leave your thoughts below for other readers to see – no registration needed.Follow @readingonthames