I think residents underestimate the influence they have on the development of our town. One small decision locally stood out for me over the summer: the refusal of flood lights for existing tennis courts in suburban Reading. Whilst the main reason for refusal was linked to the light directly, the documentation reveals local complaints related to noise were also upheld:
“Youthful high spirits!” Look, I’ve nothing to suggest the correct laws and processes weren’t applied. Maybe those laws should be reviewed, but my main point here is that we need people to be more community-spirited than the folk at number 23. Wouldn’t it be great if people directed their energy and influence to making exciting new things happen, rather than constantly protesting against the endeavours of others? As it happens, this week – Wednesday 5th September – you have a chance (actually a second chance) to do exactly that. The council is consulting on initials ideas for the regeneration of a swathe of central Reading, including Hosier St, the former civic centre site, and the police station. I went to the first consultation earlier in the summer.
As you might expect, given the way I’ve introduced this piece, there were a few grumblers at the event. There was the usual dissent around proposals for flats: there are too many, they’re too small, they’re too expensive, they’re too tall, they’re fundamentally wrong, but the underlying truthful complaint is that for a small number of nearby residents their properties may briefly fall into a new building’s penumbra shortly after sunrise for a week each year. The proposals are very significant for the future of the town, and there is room for improvement, but we need some more constructive criticism than the above.
There are some good ideas in the initial plans. Firstly, they’ve broadened the scope to offer a vision for a wider area to include sprucing up all the streets adjoining the Broad St Mall, and the area surrounding St Mary’s Minster. Secondly, they’ve included a public square in front of the Hexagon, and thirdly, and potentially most importantly, they’re thinking ahead by covering the wider area even though the timescales for when the different plots come up for redevelopment might differ.
However, I would like to see more ambition in the plans. When this area was developed fifty years ago, it included a shopping mall, civic centre, courts, a police station and a theatre. A consultation back then (if they happened) would have focussed on discussing new facilities needed to support, entertain and administrate a growing town. This time around, it’s not that much of an exaggeration to say we’re being asked what shape of flats we’d like.
My main complaint is the tiny amount of space at ground floor (or podium level) devoted to retail or leisure. There would probably be a couple of coffee shops along the edges of vast perimeter blocks of flats that hide away significant areas of precious town centre land as private gardens for their residents. I understand the demand for housing, but to give up so much highly accessible central square footage is, in my view, a disappointingly tame surrender to market forces. Only a small change could correct this… see the current land use plan below:
Rather than having retail/leisure below the built-part of the apartments, why not allocate the full ground floor (podium) areas A & B, and place the private residential gardens above? It’s quite typical to elevate the private gardens above ground floor level – such an approach has just been approved at the Homebase/Toys R Us site, albeit much of that ground floor area will be residential car parking. This idea would create opportunity for space-hungry facilities we currently lack… maybe ten-pin bowling, or an indoor/covered area for a much larger, better and more permanent market, or indoor golf, or snooker/pool, an ice rink, or even a larger supermarket with underground parking – at least that might tempt its shoppers to wander outside and spend some money at other outlets?
The specific use isn’t the crucial matter, the point is that we should be aiming to add some facilities that the town lacks. For all the many small good ideas in these plans, it lacks a big idea. This is council-owned land – they have an opportunity to accept marginally less than the commercially optimum outcome if by doing so they can cajole the right operators to come in and provide something interesting. I note some quotes in The Oracle owner Hammerson’s half year results:
“Footfall levels declined in 2018, with a reduction of 1.6%, although… four of our centres reported increased footfall. The weakest performance was at The Oracle which… [was] impacted by recently opened competing schemes in Oxford and Bracknell.”
It’s good news to have vibrant towns and cities around the region, but Reading needs to respond to this competition. We were overly exposed by concentrating so heavily on the provision of high street multiple retailers. We have a chance here, with council-owned land, to provide housing but also some new high profile leisure/cultural offerings that will tempt people from the wider region to restore their occasional trip – ideally by bus or train – to central Reading (in addition to supporting their own local centres). That’ll boost the footfall in the town centre as a whole, safeguarding existing retailers (and their jobs) whilst making further development of broader cultural and leisure facilities befitting of a regional centre viable. The Abbey Ruins re-opening is great, the Gaol project would be incredible, but we could do so much more.
All that said, it’s a big positive, in my view, that this underused area is coming up for regeneration and that we have a chance to share our views. The consultation event runs from 3pm to 7pm Wednesday 5th September 2018 in the Hexagon foyer. Perhaps you’d like to call by and throw in some positive suggestions as to what you’d like to see in this prominent town centre location? Doubtless the folk from “number 23” will be there trying to stop it entirely. Let’s muster a noisy and high-spirited response.
If you can’t make it, here’s the link to all the materials and a form to feedback your thoughts directly to the council. And of course, comments and discussion here is always nice – no registration required.Follow @readingonthames