Some thoughts on 2020 in Reading from Thames Tap news editor Alan Bunce.

One of the few bright spots of 2020 has been a deal that didn’t happen, rather than one that did.

On hearing the news that the proposed sale of Reading Gaol had fallen through, you couldn’t help but feel, even though there’ll be yet more wasted money and delay, there is a much better chance of something remarkable being created.

In theory, it’s a no-brainer. What town in the world which possesses the very cell in the very gaol where Oscar Wilde wrote his famous ballad, would not want to put it on show?

The trouble is we don’t own it. The Ministry of Justice owns it – and clearly doesn’t know what to do with it.

It’s complicated by the fact that while the gaol is listed, it also stands on part of what is now a scheduled monument, Reading Abbey.

Perhaps the prospect that the council is now in a position to push for a sensible outcome for the gaol can help get our minds off the numerous frustrations of the Covid goings-on.

Everyone has their gripes with their local authority but Reading Borough Council has managed to get the people behind it to push for a decent result in this seven year saga.

While the gaol remains a most extraordinary of development sites, the one we get asked about most is Station Hill. The fact developer Lincoln MGT is seeking to squeeze more flats into it could well be seen as a negative.

But perhaps we should be grateful that, after 20 years of nothing happening and despite the various ambitions of Land Securities, Sackville Properties and then Stanhope, we have a developer seeking to succeed despite the colossal obstacles of 2020.

So far, the sounds we’ve heard have been positive but whether the proposed offices in that scheme will emerge, it’s hard to say.

Another mystery is Royal Elm Park, the major mixed-use redevelopment of the Madejski Stadium car park.

Although we have made contact with those behind this, we await any substantial news. Our guess would be a partner organisation may be brought in.

However, the scheme’s centrepiece, a hi-spec convention centre housing up to 6,000 people indoors seems hard to imagine in a world suffering both from Covid and fear of Covid.

Two neighbouring schemes behind Reading Station await progress. Hermes plans a development of 620 flats and some office space on the former Royal Mail site while Aviva plans between 750 and 950 flats as part of its mixed-use scheme at Reading Station Shopping Park (RSSP) next door.

As far as we are aware, both face Covid delays but remain on track.

One of the curious things about the RSSP scheme was to discover that, of all the issues around parking, traffic, height and massing, affordable homes, sustainability etc, the biggest complaint from residents was the loss of Aldi.

Berkeley Homes’ scheme for around 200 homes across the road at the former SSE site will likely benefit from riverside views so expect those homes to be pricier.

Plans for 44 flats at the former Drews shop in Caversham Road have been appealed and, longer term, there are plans for developments either side of it. No doubt that means more flats replacing a small retail park and a self storage warehouse.

And demolition of the former retail park in Weldale Street has gone ahead to allow for the 427 flats at what will be known as Foundry Quarter.

Broad Street Mall has permission for its plans for 400+ flats above the shopping centre.

These seem to have taken attention away from changes within the shopping area including sales and events. Those seem to progress remarkably slowly.

Three new town centre hotels are planned; a Premier Inn near the mall, another which is part of mixed-use No 1 Reading in Station Road and one at the Bristol & West Arcade.

Less pretty but equally as significant, Reading International Logistics Park has just got permission close to J11 of the M4. It will go up on a site where a stunning circular office building called 360 was once proposed.

Given the state of that market, had 360 gone ahead it would probably be being converted to flats by now.

While Amazon has taken McKay Securities’ huge industrial scheme at Theale, another which looked imminent next to J12 of the M4 called Panattoni Park, has, we believe, been dropped. Panattoni has not returned our calls on that one.

A more illustrious industrial scheme at Thames Valley Science Park could benefit the region. Blackhall’s massive film and TV studios could create exciting jobs at a time when they are most needed. Let’s hope the planning process at Wokingham Borough Council is smooth.

North of the town centre, Caversham Park House remain empty. It seems there had once been a possibility of a hotel and about 40 homes in small parts of the grounds. But whatever emerges, let’s hope it allows the public to use it.

On the northern border, Reading Golf Club’s fiercely-resisted plan for 260 homes in Kidmore End Road has been withdrawn with a new scheme due.

A more polarised dispute is hard to imagine but it seems likely homes will end up being built on the land within the Reading borough. Local residents suspect a future development may emerge for the much larger South Oxfordshire section but this is denied by the club.

However, the latest changes to proposed planning reforms suggest Reading may need to accommodate more than it previously planned.

New swimming pools are in the pipeline at Rivermead and Palmer Park but both are to replace lost pools from recent years. At Rivermead the whole 1980s centre is to disappear for a more modern scheme. For many of us the 1980s isn’t that long ago.

This crazy year leaves you wondering what might happen to the 250,000 sq ft of offices being built at Green Park. And, for that matter, the park’s masterplan which includes exciting new amenity space with a possible hotel near the new station.

We should confess, we don’t know but it’s a good question for 2021.

There is clearly a pent-up desire to get on with development in 2021 and, if we can, then Reading might have as good a chance as anywhere to recover from the inevitable financial crisis that looms.

Christmas might not be as merry as we would like so perhaps Happy New Year is more appropriate a wish.

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