In the current circumstances, it doesn’t feel comfortable to be backing proposals for high rise flats whilst comfortably holed up in a suburban family home with a garden. The advantages of city living: being in the thick of the action, near entertainment, transport links and workplaces, have been entirely nullified for an extended temporary period. Towns and regions as concepts are largely irrelevant as only your street and your country really count, together with access to local open space.
Yet it’s been a busy few months of local development news since my last update so here are some of the main stories, inevitably viewed in the context of the Covid-19 crisis.
Vastern Road Riverside
Berkeley has submitted its plans for the former SSE offices on Vastern Road. This site was always earmarked to provide a continuation of the Christchurch Bridge pedestrian and cycle route into town. To their credit, Berkeley has revised the plans multiple times in direct response to feedback from several public exhibitions and consultations. What’s unchanged is the residential dominance of the scheme, but we do have neatly designed connections to the bridge, towpath and town centre. We’ve managed to get the riverside café too – albeit that “kiosk” might end up being a better description for the very limited square footage allocated. More topically, with plentiful nearby open space, you can envisage this development being both an attractive and convenient place to live.
Reading Station Shopping Park
Less positively, plans for the Aldi/TGI/Range site have also gone to the council, but only at outline stage. Expect this site to be sold off once that valuable planning consent is in place. You’re probably already contemplating the impact of a likely significant recession on the slew of development proposals around town. My view is that this station shopping park and adjacent ex-sorting office sites will fall to the back of the queue. They both lack any real wow factor when compared to either the riverside scheme above, or the more ambitious Station Hill with its far more compelling central location on the town side of the station. Every recession takes cranes out of the sky, and this one also poses serious questions about the future of office vs home-working, and therefore the value both of the office space itself but also the homes located around it. Aldi’s going nowhere for a considerable period.
On that substantial question of the workplace, I would certainly not favour playing out the rest of my career from the spare bedroom on Zoom. Whilst it does afford employers the theoretical advantage of access to the best talent anywhere in the world, surely too many employees will agree with me and want the physical interaction with their colleagues. Yet some smaller employers might opt to remove the heavy costs of a physical presence, so that coupled with the downbeat economic situation will likely reduce further office development. Depending on the international financial fortunes of its hitherto gung-ho US backers, I’d expect Station Hill to go ahead, but other office elements – sadly including the Station Road tower and Bristol & West schemes – may look to re-purpose proposed office space, or even sit on the back-burner entirely.
It appears the council has missed out on landing the prison site in the government auction. The buyer has not been disclosed, presumably as finer details are thrashed out. With the sudden economic downturn predicted to take a chunk off land values, it wouldn’t surprise me if the deal falls through and the process has to restart. On the fairly safe assumption that some previously unknown benefactor isn’t the mystery preferred bidder, I think we should conclude that would be good news. The power of story-telling dominates modern life, and nowhere in Reading can compete on that front. Ideas have drifted away from larger venues on the site towards more focus on local and regional participation in the Arts. It would be a desperate shame to lose the huge potential of this location to an exclusive dormitory development of premium apartments. There must be more stories to come from this ancient heart of our town, and I predict another twist in the tale.
Reading Golf Club
Further details emerged of a likely planning application for Reading Golf Club in Emmer Green. A fall in membership has seen the club decide to merge with Caversham Health and invest in facilities there, closing the Emmer Green course in March 2021. The plot consists of a flat field wedged into suburban North Reading containing six holes, and then it dives down a steep wooded slope into rolling valleys and hillsides of South Oxfordshire. From what I can make out, they plan to apply for permission to build on the Reading portion, then its unclear whether subsequent housing proposals within Oxfordshire might follow.
Clearly, this is a highly controversial plan in the local community, but the club scored a major PR success by opening the normally private course for public exercise during the current lockdown. I’ve walked it a couple of times and it’s a stunning location that I’d never previously visited. The long 14th, essentially forming a northern boundary to Reading, running 500 yards east-west through a dry valley with woodland either side is magnificent (pictures above), and the club proposes that become a permanent country park if its plans are approved. Councillors will doubtless try to work with the club to improve proposals, hopefully collaborating with South Oxfordshire on suitable protection of the remaining open space. But this could be a scheme with some positive community benefit, beyond the ever-debatable “much needed local housing”.
Broad Street Mall
The application for Broad Street Mall’s residential scheme squeezed through last month. The regeneration of the sterile perimeter along Hosier St and Queens Walk is probably the main advantage to the project. The idea of decking the sunken IDR section to provide a new public park has taken elevated importance, quite literally, in the current crisis, and surely must now be considered a significant council priority and pre-requisite for this scheme being a success. A new park would be vital to these new residents, but equally valued by visitors and office workers on lunch breaks alike.
New Transport Plan
Politically, I tend to find myself sympathising with the incumbent. Too often people lack appreciation of the challenges of leading within under-estimated constraints, and reconciling conflicting needs and advice of diverse groups of citizens, experts and businesses. I maintain that outlook nationally as well as locally, and to both major parties. I feel the term “opposition” is incredibly unhelpful, and “alternatives” would be better. Wouldn’t it be far preferable hear “the spokesman for the alternatives presented a different positive choice for the current challenge”, rather than “the leader of the opposition described the proposals as an outrage and urged people to protest”? I’ll vote for an alternative. I won’t vote for a protest.
Nowhere does this philosophy apply better than transport. My lockdown analogy draws on our family’s surge in time spent on board games. Politicians love to play Battleships. The first sight of a transport flagship and out come the torpedoes. Sunk without trace in recent years: the counter-intuitive yet potentially ingenious one-way IDR; the obvious missing link for bus & bike between Napier Rd and Thames Valley Park known as the MRT; various talk of trams; Third Thames Bridge (repeatedly); expensive external transport studies have come to nothing; and I’m sure there are more. The marksmen have come from different sides, whipping up hostility from motorists, environmentalists and neighbouring councils. Even the notable success of the Christchurch Bridge had to withstand significant artillery fire, based on budgets and cycling absolutism.
I’d take the MRT as a prime example of a lack of collaboration. It was coupled with a similarly unpopular park & ride scheme by the entrance to Thames Valley Park. If we were to have one scheme but not the other then it would have been far preferable to have the bus/bike link road to allow new routes and express bus journeys, and then to use the land allotted to the park & ride for a new park, easily accessible for Newtown residents as more than adequate compensation for the loss of the road-width’s space along the riverside. As it was, we got the park & ride, but not its link to the town centre. In fairness, compromise requires efforts on all sides.
Perhaps the Battleships analogy works for the newly published strategy. Expecting volleys of fire, the council has set sail with a veritable armada. We’ve got “Demand Management” promising some OR ALL of: a clear air zone, workplace parking levy, emissions-based charging, and road user charging. But can the enemy sustain its attacks on those whilst also taking down the other proposed initiatives: a third bridge AND North Reading Orbital Route, 5 (five) new park & rides, electric vehicle infrastructure, a second tilt at an East Reading public transport priority scheme, and more cycling investment including another look at a bike hire scheme? There’s only so much ammunition – only so much protest capacity.
Sadly, in Battleships the big boats are the easiest targets, and often it’s just your little two-er surviving at the end. In Reading terms that’s been a bus lane here and there. But the council means business here, and surely one of the flagships will reach port? If not then, assuming a gradual return to something like previous normal life, we all lose as nothing changes on air quality and congestion. How about we hold fire on the torpedoes and suggest positive alternatives to aspects of these schemes we don’t like? Let’s play Ticket To Ride rather than Battleships.
Lockdown or otherwise, there’s a lot going on. Yet every one of these developments will be re-evaluated in the context of the current Coronavirus crisis, with its economic aftermath, and its longer term societal impacts.
Personally, despite some advantages of the simpler lockdown life, I’m looking forward to a return to something like normal. All of our fantastic local events are cancelled, there’s no sport, our town centre is deserted – who could even imagine ever again the kind of scene shown above?
Joining in appreciation for our fabulous and courageous key workers has been a huge highlight. But whilst it’s great to be part of a street, I miss being part of a town. Reading and re-invention go hand in hand. If we continue to show positivity, ambition and pragmatism we can ensure new scenes of a thriving, and perhaps greener town emerge. But our leaders – incumbents or alternatives, will have some brave decisions to make.
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