Looking down my (admittedly not especially long) list of email subscribers, it’s clear I’ve collected a fair few from the property sector. I’m glad to have you here. My theory being that having some community-led optimism and engagement in the changing face of our town is a positive thing. The world is moving fast, and differences are stark between town and city centres that continually reinvent themselves and, well, Northampton. Reading is the right side of the line, and to stay there we need the people with the money to have confidence to invest locally.
We understand that Reading Gaol is soon to be auctioned off, so below I’ve put together a little investors’ guide to help those considering a bid. Because whilst it’s great you’re keen, on this one specific and rare occasion, in the nicest possible way, please sod off.
Top 3 Reasons to Buy the Gaol
1) Really straightforward site to build on
This almost goes without saying. You can pretty much crack straight on with your flats. Obviously, you’ll need planning permission, from the council, who hate you, unless you want to build a theatre, which you don’t. They’ve also adopted a load of policies to make it really hard to build on. But I’m sure it’ll be fine. Just a bit of red tape. Although the council does have almost complete freedom to deem what would and would not constitute significant harm to the setting of the historic Gaol. I have a sneaky feeling new flats would be judged harmful, whereas a theatre would enhance the setting. Not to worry, just make the flats look a bit like a theatre and I’m sure it’ll be fine.
2) Only minor delays to get going
Clearly there’ll be a brief delay for a spot more archeology. But you’ve always wanted to meet Tony Robinson, right? And if they find that buried king within the remains of the scheduled ancient monument of Reading Abbey that lies under the site then there’d probably only be a further minor pause for the ensuing media melee. You’re in no hurry though? You guys say “time is money”. I’ve never figured that one out myself – don’t think it’s true.
3) Building just ripe for conversion
Even if the new build ideas run into difficulties, I’m sure you’ll be good to go with converting the main building into luxury apartments. Obviously the rooms are a touch small. I’ve heard you can’t even fit in one of those under-sized double beds you people use in your show homes. But maybe single beds are the way forward? Or you could just knock down some walls within the literarily-immortalised 1844 Grade II listed structure, which I reckon is completely fine.
Hopefully those points provide a compelling case to get bidding. But purely for reasons of due diligence, I feel I have to set out a few very minor arguments against such an investment.
Possible Reasons to Stay Away
1) Legality issues
There are concerns around the legitimacy of providing homes on this site. The legal precedents here are well established. In 1934, Parker & Parker first ruled “Houses cannot be built on the jail”. That verdict was upheld in London by John Waddington in 1936, and as recently as 1991 by the Hassenfeld brothers.
To property developers I say this: building houses on the jail is literally against the rules of your own game.
2) Disease and pestilence
King Henry, whose Abbey sat on this site, died in France from eating lampreys. It is said that fumes from his corpse were so potent that they killed a man charged with transporting his body back to Reading for burial. More recently, the fine rows of chestnut trees beside the prison wall have succumbed to disease. Can anything survive here? Who would want to live in a place like this? Maybe as a developer you could allocate one of your ground floor flats as a communal decontamination suite? Don’t worry – you could call it a concierge – make it a selling point?
3) Crossrail’s never going to happen, and will be rubbish anyway
I know you’re excited, but Reading’s commuters are less enamoured with the arrival of the Elizabeth Line. It will be a stopping service that’ll make the Waterloo line seem like a bullet train. When it eventually opens, Reading’s London-bound workforce will be able to stare out of the window for two long, pensive hours every day, musing over thoughts such as “I wonder whether there’s an East Drayton?”
4) Everyone will hate you
Let’s not forget, very many Reading folk feel too many sites have been sold off for flats. And whilst much of that trend is, in my view, positive reinvention of sites that had outlived their former need, there is a wide sense of frustration that some locations haven’t been put to more exciting uses. Acute though the housing need is, can’t some of you property types occasionally build something more exciting? Even if for no other reason than to provide something for the folk living in all your other new flats to actually do?
This time there is hope. A local group led by Reading Festival boss Melvin Benn have created a charitable trust, with the support of national arts agencies, to buy the Gaol, build and then run an Arts centre that could be a fantastic facility for Reading, Berkshire and the wider Thames Valley. After all, it’s the only local place with the cultural and historical backstory to create a truly inspirational regional Arts centre. With patience, and many rounds of fund raising, I’m sure they can be successful. Of course, that is unless some other blighter snaffles the site first. Are you really going to bid against a charity?
Anyway, up to you…
– Viewing highly recommended.
– No onward chain.
– Over 60’s only under Homewise’s lifetime lease plan
If there’s any chance the Ministry of Justice is reading, there’s always the thought you could just ditch this whole charade, talk to the council now, and do a sensible deal to sell Reading’s Gaol for the benefit of the people in the town? After all, Reading has taxpayers too.
Local MP Matt Rodda has a petition making exactly this point. It’s worth signing up.. just in case I’m a better estate agent than I realise…Follow @readingonthames
Your comments, as always very welcome – registration not required…