Plans for the regeneration of the former Royal Mail sorting office went on display this week. I believe the plans for this prime parcel of land are distinctly 2nd class, and if I had my way I’d return to sender…
But first let’s look at what’s not wrong with the scheme, despite plenty of loudly expressed views to the contrary…
I follow a lot of the social media reaction to property news around Reading – responses to my own posts and blogs, but also to those by local media outlets and others. There seems to be a contingent that dismiss all attempts to regenerate redundant sites as “gentrification”. I contest this analysis. Inevitably, any investment in a new or refurbished building is going to leaving it looking better, looking more “up market” than it did before – that’s the whole point. I even saw someone bemoaning the proposal for a Premier Inn behind the Broad Street Mall as gentrified. Now come on – Lenny Henry’s done a good job, but it’s still a bright purple bed and a few thimbles of orange juice for breakfast – hardly The Ritz. We should welcome the fact that we see the town being re-purposed and re-invented around us, rather than seeing sites decaying through obsolescence. I know we have social problems, we have homelessness, but we don’t need a revolution at the prospect of a new budget hotel, and here an empty sorting office is contributing nothing to the town.
Another frequent complaint: Reading is being spoilt by high-rise buildings. Whilst some cities – my former home of York, Oxford and many others are rightly pre-occupied with preserving ancient views, Reading has an opportunity to supplement some older treasures with a modern skyline being assembled by this, our generation. Like them or loathe them, the new towers make better use of limited land, provide a dynamic backdrop to the town, and if nothing else, give us something to talk about. The 25-storey structure at the eastern end of this site is probably the highlight of the scheme – a design very much of our time and shared between offices, apartments with retail at street level facing the station entrance.
Oh my word. Some chap at the exhibition was having a proper rant about parking. There’s only 80 parking spaces for the whole scheme, and with offices, retail and a car club proposed, it’s not actually clear whether any of those will be allocated to residents. The general public interpretation of this seems to be that these new residents will park their 650 cars (or rather 1300 because everyone will have at least two cars right?) in the nearest non-permit parking zone – which is where, Emmer Green? These people are going to work in town, or Thames Valley Park, or Winnersh Triangle, or in London. They’re going to use public transport, which needs further investment of course, but they’re not going to drive a few laps of the IDR every morning just to annoy the locals.
So why don’t I like this plan?
I think this site could contribute more for the town. A rare large site, right by the station. Reading station is, or will be, the terminus for two London commuter routes – the soon-to-be-boosted line into Waterloo, and shortly Crossrail too. Huge 10-carriage trains designed to shunt London-volumes of commuters into Waterloo and under central London. Whilst well used at the Reading end, these stopping services are (or will be) generally under half full. Reading station is, in this regard, a glorified engine shed for London’s commuter trains from the west to turn around and head back into the capital.
Nowhere else in southern England could you better assemble and disperse a gathering of 10,000 people by public transport than here at the sorting office and retail sheds site adjacent to Reading station. An indoor arena here would make Reading a regional destination, utilise the capacity that already exists on the railway, and provide entertainment to the town without the need to travel to London. If not an arena, then why not the convention centre? With plans for Royal Elm Park next to the Madejski Stadium seemingly stalled, why not put it here? Again, you could bring in your 6000 conference delegates and barely notice the volume increase through the station gate line. They’d make use of town centre shops, restaurants and hotels, and you’d have the large event halls better located for providing evening/weekend concerts or exhibitions, rather than being stuck out by the motorway. Even Swindon is building a regional leisure facility – ski slopes and all, on similar land north of its station. And I’m sure you could think of other ideas yourself – answers on a postcard.
The truth is that this site has wriggled out of public ownership, and having previously provided a core public service to the whole RG postcode, it’s now been sold to the highest bidder, and market forces mean it’s going to become flats. I do note one particular comment I saw on social media where someone argued that we really ought to be fully supportive of literally any proposal for housing, such is the sheer shortage and the impact that brings. I appreciate that view, and agree to a point. But future generations are going to look at this site as a missed opportunity. Similar fates could await Caversham Park and the Gaol – with both subject to government departments trying to dispose of them for maximum commercial return. It’s too late for the sorting office, but the Gaol in particular surely must not be allowed to go the same way.
Even if we accept the 650 flats, I still have quibbles with the plan. The token half-dozen townhouses are completely pointless and look silly next to the high-rise apartments. The architect even said that there are redundant arches under the railway tracks that Network Rail are investigating letting out. These are directly opposite, so why not use that townhouse plot for workshop/studio space for small enterprise to combine with the railway arches for a niche creative business hub.
For what they are, the plans are decent. The health centre went down particularly well with the locals at the event, as did the relatively modest heights adjoining Caversham Road. And aesthetically the buildings look reasonable – certainly a vast improvement on a nondescript mail sorting shed. I’d expect the council to rubber stamp the proposals fairly swiftly. But compared to what might have been, the scheme is – to be frank – nothing to write home about.
That’s my view. It always good to hear yours! Comments welcome and can be left without registration.