The proposed bus, cycle and pedestrian link from Tesco on Napier Road to Thames Valley Park was a prominent issue in the local elections, particularly in its immediate neighbourhoods in East Reading. Intriguingly, a whole series of revisions to the plans were published the day after the polls closed. One might instinctively assume this must be cynical timing to prevent “bad news” being released to voters before the election, but I think it is probably more accurately explained by the “purdah” rules that prevent policy announcements in the run up to elections. In this case, I think the changes would have been positively received by those closest to this issue, and in my view, make the case for this new infrastructure even more compelling.
Here are the main changes, with quotes from the application documentation:
- Narrowing of the road by 1m
The viaduct has been narrowed by 1m for a short section to the east of the River Kennet, where the viaduct is at its closest point to the towpath and River Thames to the north. This in turn reduces the total width of the proposed footway and cycleway for a short section from 5m to 4m.
The width of the main public transport carriageway remains unchanged. The viaduct has been narrowed along this section in order to position the structure further away from the river edge and towpath, and to thereby reduce potential amenity impacts on users of the towpath and river.
- At the Tesco end, the road is positioned closer to the railway line
The route alignment to the south of Tesco and west of the River Kennet has been amended as a result of the proposed 132kV SSE cable underground diversion and the removal of overhead pylons. This will allow the route alignment to move further south away from Tesco and The Coal woodland, thereby reducing potential impacts upon local biodiversity and trees.
- Tesco to lose a few parking spaces
A number of replacement car parking spaces, which were originally proposed to aid compensation for those lost within the Tesco car park (July 2017 Submission), have been removed. This comprises the loss of 30 spaces, a further 19 spaces compared to the July 2017 Submission, thereby representing a very minor reduction in the overall number of parking spaces within the car park. Site observations and a meeting with Tesco confirmed that their car park was not fully utilised.
- Trees preserved as a result of the above
824 sqm of semi-natural habitat previously proposed for replacement car parking in July 2017 Submission will be retained and protected within The Coal, Kennetmouth and Kings Meadow East LWS. An additional 28 trees will also be retained. As such, the amended scheme now results in the total loss of 58 trees and planting of 77 new trees.
- Change of design of the ramp up to the bridge
The viaduct will be constructed with a central single-column design, instead of the originally submitted two-column design in the July 2017 Submission, along the length of the viaduct east of the River Kennet. The concrete columns will flare out to support steel beams which have in turn been moved further under the viaduct to enhance the sense of openness.
The proposed single columns are considered to be more elegant and reduce the footprint, compared to the two-column design in the July 2017 Submission, as well as create a sense of increased openness for towpath users. This design also facilitates use of a narrower pilecap which allows sufficient space for the proposed 132kV SSE cable underground diversion.
- Lighting changes
The proposed lighting on the viaduct has been amended from the high-level column lighting in the July 2017 Submission to continuous low-level LED linear lighting within the upper rail of the northern parapet on the viaduct and bridge, facing southwards (i.e. away from the River Thames) to light the pedestrian / cycle way only.
This will reduce potential landscape and visual impacts of the structure (compared to the submitted design) and provide adequate lighting levels to illuminate the proposed footway/cycleway and minimise light spill from the structure on to surrounding habitat.
- Prominent Willow Tree now to remain
The July 2017 Submission has been amended to include retention of the Willow tree east of the Kennet Mouth (T88). This amendment is facilitated by proposed amendments to the column design referred to above.
- New mooring platforms and planting
Three timber mooring platforms are proposed as part of the riverbank enhancements (alongside the marginal shelf landscaping improvements). These would be new river elements which will provide additional short-stay mooring facilities, which are lacking in the area.
The mooring platforms and the new riverbank edge would help to improve the interface of the site with the River Thames and enhance people’s experience of the edge of the River Thames in this location.
- Mosaic retained
The existing mosaic will be carefully lifted, repaired and reinstalled into a new area, which is more visible to passers-by.
New seating would be provided at the relocated mosaic and near to the location of the timber mooring platforms, where enhanced views of the river may be enjoyed.
You can view the planning documents at the latter end of the list of documents on the application: http://planning.reading.gov.uk/fastweb_PL/detail.asp?AltRef=171108
My own analysis of these changes is that they collectively amount to a significant change. The plans were originally submitted last July. Planning can be a bit of a game, and sometimes applicants return with pre-meditated amendments to appease opposition with a “compromise” they always wanted. I don’t think that’s the case here. The plans were submitted nearly a year ago – a charade could have been played out much quicker. We have to consider the possibility of a legitimate process where campaign groups and official bodies have raised concerns leading to improvements to the plans!
The council’s press release ascribes the amendments to “extensive consultation with statutory consultees and feedback received through the statutory planning process.” I think that means, in non-statutory terms, that the locals kicked up a proper fuss and we’ve gone away and tried harder. Whether the campaigners feel this new plan meets their needs is up to them, but I think they’ve been successful in so far as that we’ve seen so many alterations.
Clearly, a significant development is that the overhead power lines and pylons will be replaced with underground cables. Ironically, the removal of the unsightly wiring will come just a couple of years after Network Rail have installed their own unsightly overhead lines just a few yards away. But it does free up the crucial space to retain trees. With so many parties involved: the power companies, Network Rail, two councils, the environment agency… I can only imagine how complicated pulling together a scheme like this must be. Hopefully, they’re almost there, because Reading needs some serious investment in infrastructure.
The other evening I was driving (evil me, I know) around Sutton’s roundabout, and I saw a Thames Valley Park shuttle stuck stationary on the junction just queuing for the privilege of inching down London Road. The bus was full with standing passengers – a really poor commuting experience. Without a fast public transport link, it must raise questions about the sustainability of Thames Valley Park (TVP) – home of Microsoft and Oracle – as a blue chip business base.
Yes, you could opt for a “stick” approach of congestion charging, but that would hammer town centre business and retail. We need the “carrot” of attractive public transport before resorting to that. This new link would be used by more than TVP office workers. It would serve park and rides, and also potentially a Woodley express every 15 minutes. The way to make public transport more attractive is to increase frequency and reduce journey times. This will do both. Other new bus routes would surely follow. Furthermore, the link would be suitable for a tram (or modern equivalent) upgrade extending down the A3290 hard shoulder to Winnersh Triangle.
Let’s think further ahead. Even if Uber takes over and becomes the dominant mode of transport, the lack of road capacity into town would still constrain access. The park and ride by the river could be re-purposed as an “Uber station” with taxis dropping off and picking up, with fast buses/trams into town every couple of minutes. However you look at it, this route will play a crucial role sustaining TVP, but more importantly to me, it will enhance access to the town centre from the outskirts of town. Ultimately, having more people with easy access to town will sustain and enhance job prospects, retail, leisure and culture. If you want your new theatres, favourite shops, leisure facilities, restaurants, cultural events… then you need efficient, convenient, and ideally green transport to get to them. And that’s what the East Reading MRT will do.
Comments always welcome, and no registration required.