The shelving of a £100,000 report on Reading town centre has been labelled a ‘complete and utter waste of ratepayers’ money’.
Reading Borough Council commissioned consultants Urban Place Lab along with Vectos, Forty Group and WSP to produce its Town Centre Strategy in 2021. But after a draft was completed, the council put the work on hold while officers evaluate the effects of the pandemic.
The council says it need to weigh up post-pandemic trends and ensure it aligns with both the forthcoming Local Plan and Local Transport Plan.
In response to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request from Thames Tap, the council confirmed the cost of the work was £99,950, which included research and development into key issues, an extensive stakeholder consultation exercise and production of initial draft documentation.
But Fiona Brownfoot, retail director for Hicks Baker, who had been awaiting the report, said: “It’s a disgraceful waste of money to spend £100,000 on a report which was completed and delivered to the council by the consultants, and has then been allowed to gather dust.
“Producing reports of this nature will always contain a substantial element of speculation about what the future might hold, so it should have been published as soon as it was completed – doing nothing with it for this length of time probably ensures that it will never get published as the information contained in it is becoming increasingly historic.
“So the whole exercise has been rendered a complete and utter waste of ratepayers’ money and a substantial amount of stakeholders’ time has also been wasted, which will erode any goodwill to assist the council again in the future with any consultation to do with the town centre.
“The only people to benefit from this exercise are the consultants, and they weren’t even local firms.”
The FoI asked whether the report had been completed. In its response the council stated: “The development work on the strategy was conducted during the mid-late stages of the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic and while much of the work conducted thus far has stood the test of time, the long-term impacts of the pandemic – in terms of how people and businesses use and access the town centre, and their aspirations for it, have evolved significantly.
“Thus, developing the strategy during the pandemic involved a significant amount of speculation about which impacts on the town centre economy would be short-lived and which more enduring.
“In the context of this and the imminent review of Reading’s Local Plan, which sets the statutory strategic planning framework for Reading, the council has paused to reflect on the work done to date to ensure that it takes account of the clearer picture which is now emerging, and to ensure that the Town Centre Strategy informs and aligns with the forthcoming Local Plan review and Local Transport Plan.”
In its response the council said that, since shelving the report, it has won a bid for £19.1 million in Levelling Up Funds, which will fund the Hexagon and Central Library developments.
It went on: “These projects and our progress towards finding a development partner for Minster Quarter Central have the potential to be transformational for the town centre and were not part of the regeneration landscape when the initial Town Centre Strategy work was undertaken so we are taking the opportunity to reflect on how the delivery of those projects sits within the context of a Town Centre Strategy before finalising it.”
The council did not give a timescale but said it remained committed to the strategy document and a draft will be produced in tandem with the Local Plan review.
The response concluded: “It will be a forward looking plan that takes account of recent progress towards regeneration in Reading town centre and will play an important part in articulating to our partners and the private sector what our aspirations for our town centre are for the future.”
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