After a lot of interest in my last post about Christmas trade, I thought it would be good to get the opinions of the great and good on the future of the town centre. To give you an element of relief from my own ramblings, I wrote to some of the town’s movers and shakers to get you some further insight. I’m pleasantly surprised to have received many great responses, so here you are – the views that matter… ok, and maybe one or two of my own as well.
There was an interesting thread on the Reading Forum this week highlighting one or two areas of the town centre seemingly hit most by the latest national trend of struggling high street retail. One poster coined the term “run-downyness” to describe some parts. Should we be concerned? Here’s what the experts say:
Melvin Benn, Managing Director of Festival Republic & Chairman of Theatre & Arts Reading (TAR) writes:
Week after week we see town centre retail shops closing and under pressure from online retail. Town Centres in the future will have to focus on culture and leisure as the draw rather than just shopping as without it, young people in particular will pack up and leave and a town has no future if the young people leave. TAR has a Vision of Opportunity with the Gaol site that will be central to that thought, we believe.
Charles Thompson, Director of Thackeray Estates (significant town centre landowner), comments:
Reading has the opportunity to be at the forefront of technology and new industry. There is a huge opportunity to evolve what the town offers in the arts, culture and retail districts and it will be these factors that define the town and attract business, tourists and residents to create a place of national importance.
Sir John Madejski comments:
Regarding the town centre, as we all know with the invent of the internet so many retail stores are suffering with online shopping. I also believe that the cost of visiting Reading is so prohibitive these days, the cost of parking, that it just puts people off. I think the development of the Abbey Quarter, Museum of Reading, accessibility by rail will make the centre of Reading very significant.
The Station Hill project seems to be moving on at last. The reason why it hasn’t [previously] come to fruition in my opinion is simply economical.
When the multi-millionaire thinks the parking’s expensive…! I guess it’s complicated – you want to encourage greener transport but you don’t want to put people off. Perhaps prices could be increased for all-day parking to discourage car-to-train London-bound commuters, whilst reducing charges for those staying a few hours to encourage shoppers?
Sir John on City Status and infrastructure:
I’ve never been that wedded to the idea of Reading becoming a city. Towns to me seem friendlier. Although Reading is a city in all but name, and I know that the United States prefer cities and consider towns to be almost villages which is one reason for me to be persuaded to City Status. I would also like to know the cost of change i.e. livery etc. Fundamentally Reading still needs a lot of infrastructure development to make it work better; the most important thing being the third bridge over the Thames.
Sarah Hacker, Lead Councillor for Culture, contributes:
Having lived in Reading since I was three I’ve seen a lot of changes to the town centre. I remember the huge improvement that pedestrianising it brought. No more dodging buses, instead we have trees, performances and much improved environment. Nightlife is now so much more than Wetherspoons and a nightclub and I have to admit to be rather jealous of those who have the time to enjoy the restaurants and live music. We have three Arts Council National Portfolio Organisations, the Abbey is reopening in the summer and we have festivals and cultural events throughout the year.We’ve come a long way but I truly believe there is still a huge amount of potential to harness and a lot of ambition. This month we saw the launch of Readipop’s gig guide. The refreshed Cultural Partnership is focusing on how we share the wonderful things we have going on with the wider world and there’s something to enjoy every week. I believe we have a lot to share but we just need to shout a bit louder about it.So I ask every resident to get involved. Go to an event, try something new and tell your friends what we have going on. It’s only by working together that we will realise the full potential of our beloved town.
Daniel Hillman, residential developer (Hillnic), comments:
Reading town centre is becoming more and more vibrant by the month with new and exciting development schemes not only making great progress but shaping the townscape. There has been a lot of talk about Crossrail and the increased value in property pricing and that values have now plateaued as a result, I believe once Crossrail is in place and everyone can see the physical benefits it has to offer then there will be an influx of buyers in Reading town and other key Crossrail areas pushing the values up.
Nigel Horton-Baker, Executive Director of Reading UK CIC writes:
Rooted in a strong retail offer, Reading has outperformed most other town centres in the UK in recent years with low vacancy rates, strong footfall and continued investment in new retail and restaurant premises. However, Reading is not immune from global trends in retail, which makes it increasingly hard to compete on the high street.
Funded by business in a time of austerity, Reading Business Improvement District has invested over £5 million in Reading town centre over the last decade, funding everything from the Christmas lights to security, events and street cleaning. The continuation of the BID will be vital to the future health of Reading town centre, working in partnership with the local authority, transport providers and developers to deliver the Reading 2050 Vision for Reading town centre.
This work is already well underway – the town centre is evolving fast – re-engaging with its historic roots to create a new Abbey Quarter and visitor offer, developing millions of square feet of new office space within easy walking distance of the magnificent new station and converting older unused buildings into new town centre living space. All of these developments will change the dynamics in the town centre and create demand for services in Reading. We see Reading town centre becoming increasingly attractive as a place to live, work and visit, with retail just one part of this offer, albeit an important one. Reading is resilient, attractive to new investment and with advantages that are the envy of many other town and city centres.
I think a winning combination is to stitch together the thread about re-engaging with history and historic buildings, with that of the increasing demand for leisure and culture. That’s the fusion we’re seeing work at the Lido, and with events and performances planned at the Abbey Ruins it should be a success there too, as indeed I’m sure it could be at the Gaol. I’d like to add one more to that list. The Old Reading Plus Facebook page was last week revelling in an incredible local discovery, right in the heart of the town centre. Take a look at the images below, the first from Kerry Kleis, and then from Callum Cromwell.
This is, unbelievably, the Boots stock room on Broad Street. I find these pictures astonishing. Having lived in Reading most of my life, I had no idea this room existed. So what is it? Here’s the history from the old Alt Reading page:
Reading’s oldest cinema, the Vaudeville Electric Theatre opened in 1909 on Broad Street and could originally hold 500 people. After several renovations, by 1921 it was able to hold 1,500 cinema-goers. The cinema featured a huge auditorium with a barrel vaulted ceiling, and seating split into stalls and circle levels. Like many of Reading’s cinemas, it changed hands several times eventually changing its name to the Gaumont. By 1967 the cinema was closed and now has been replaced by a Boots.
So there you have it – the history of the Vaudeville Electric Theatre. Many of us believe that Reading hugely undersells itself. As such, I’d have to describe the use of an ornate 1920s cinema for a shop’s stock room as perhaps the most Reading thing ever. How it is possible to hide a 1500-capacity auditorium in the middle of town and hardly anybody know? It’s not even listed. The internet thinks it’s demolished, maybe the authorities do too? What else are we hiding? Lord Lucan living in a monastery behind the Hope Tap? The local press should pick this up: “97-year-old cinema presumed dead found safe and well behind Boots”.
Boots, thank you for looking after this building, but could you please move into one of the nearby vacated stores and give us this one back? It could be a cinema again, or a snooker hall, or a lecture theatre for the university giving public talks in the evenings, or a conference facility for town centre businesses, or maybe even a market, or a food court like this one in Lisbon:
Finally, back to Sir John Madejski, reflecting on his various endeavours:
The project that has given me the most satisfaction more than anything else is the foundation of The John Madejski Academy in Whitley. The reason being is that it has changed lives for the better and we have sent so many students to university in the last few years; it’s been remarkable. We have a great Head Teacher, great staff and students that really respond in a positive way which has given me more satisfaction than anything else I have undertaken.
I think it’s very powerful that a relatively small project aimed at helping others is Sir John’s highlight. In the town centre, one group clearly needing help are the growing number of homeless people – a problem visible in so many towns. That issue is not the subject of this article, nor could I do justice to its complexity, but perhaps I’ll just finish by saying this:
Reading town centre has thrived for many years and is adept at re-invention. With the help of some of the people who’ve contributed to this feature, it will change, it will grow, and become even more vibrant. I’m optimistic it will become better. The biggest challenge, in my view, is going to be ensuring that everyone can benefit from its success.Follow @readingonthames
Thank you very much to all the contributors for responding to my emails – very kind of you to take the time. You’ve heard what they say – what do you think? Comments welcome – no registration needed.