UK Property Forums editor-in-chief Alan Bunce offers a personal update on where many of Reading’s major schemes are at the end of 2022 – and spreads some rumours about what might happen in 2023.
In March Cllr Tony Page publicly noted the absurdity that two huge redevelopments, which sit side-by-side, could mean two access roads onto busy Caversham Road instead of one.
While his point seemed a justified one, developers involved have shown little regard for preventing such a daft scenario.
Aviva Life & Pensions, which plans up to 1,000 homes, along with offices and retail at Reading Station Shopping Park in Vastern Road and Hermes, which plans 620 homes on the neighbouring former Royal Mail depot in Caversham Road, don’t seem capable of working together on their schemes.
As a result, it remains possible that two parallel access roads might be built off Caversham Road. The Aviva scheme has gone to appeal and, as the hearing has now finished, we await the decision. But a look at the investor’s closing statement at the appeal seems to illustrate a lack of regard for the local area – and indeed, commonsense.
It states: “It is unnecessary to find a mechanism for guaranteeing that only one access serves both the Hermes development and the appeal scheme off Caversham Road. No highways justification is advanced to support that idea.
“It is certainly not the case that a single access is required in order to ensure comprehensive development – both the appeal scheme and the Hermes scheme could come forward unchanged, both having good access and egress, without there having to be a single joint access off Caversham Road.”
Are there really no adults in the room? Aviva’s appeal is on the council’s non-determination of the plan within the permitted timescale. But all that waiting time seems to have allowed changes.
While a proposed hotel was dropped from the plans some time ago, somewhere along the line the number of homes changed from 750 – 950 to ‘no more than 1,000’.
As you might expect, the council’s closing remarks for the appeal are somewhat restrained. No such inhibitions for Aviva though, which concludes its closing statement with: “Listening to the torrent of unbalanced negativity comprising the council’s closing submissions, one would be forgiven for thinking that the appeal scheme was entirely contrary to policy and guidance and unacceptable in most other respects; but its concerns are very much overstated.”
The council talked at length about the harm the high-rise scheme could cause to the Grade II*-listed Town Hall. Had Aviva had any local knowledge, it could have noted the same authority allowed the monstrous Novotel to be built 100 yards from its valued Town Hall nearly two decades ago.
It would be good to get a view from Hermes about the access road debacle but our calls and emails, both to Hermes and its planning consultant Chartplan, go unanswered.
Cllr Page’s comments on the access road issue were made at the council’s planning applications committee’s March meeting when outline proposals for Reading Metropolitan were voted through. At the same meeting Barry Kitcherside from Chartplan, speaking for Hermes in support of its scheme getting approval, warned councillors of the uncertainty facing the scheme, due to rising costs, if the developer suffered further delay.
He told that meeting: “If it lies sterile for a few more years, we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Well, it’s laid sterile for most of 2022, The council has told us the s106 agreement has yet to be finalised and the latest extension runs out on January 13. It could, however, be extended further. So the decision notice for its outline permission cannot even be issued yet.
Even if that agreement is signed, there still needs to be a reserved matters application and it looks highly likely that, despite Mr Kitcherside’s warnings to councillors, that scheme will lay sterile for a few more years regardless.
On top of that, the dedicated Reading Metropolitan website, readingmet.co.uk, has disappeared. There is clearly much we don’t know.
Mind you, rssp.co.uk, the dedicated site for the Aviva scheme, has also disappeared. Perhaps those websites tick the box for consultation requirements but once they have served their purpose, they become an unwanted reminder of the original promise.
Across Vastern Road, Berkeley Homes hasn’t come back to us on when its consented scheme at the former SSE site in Vastern Road, for which it won an appeal in March for 209 homes, will progress. All three of these schemes involve the council’s desire for a direct pedestrian/cycle route from the station to Christchurch Meadows. Developers of all three have shown little interest in fulfilling the council’s original intentions and the route is going to be rather less direct than it might have been.
Smaller schemes in nearby Caversham Road include a new Bowl Central which has taken a lease at the former Dawsons music shop, S2 Estates’ plans for 29 flats at the former Drews the Ironmongers, a re-thought proposal after the developer lost an appeal for 44, and Bellway’s plans for 60 homes at the former Carters store, still at a very early stage.
Sladen Estates is working up plans for developing Napier Court, three office buildings rapidly being emptied in Napier Road, ready for a likely residential scheme. The developer declined to comment but a Build-to-Rent (BTR) scheme with those views of the Thames must be worth a small fortune.
Agents report that much of the recent take up in small deals in Reading of recent times has been from occupiers moving out of those buildings.
It’s little wonder developers want to get their BTR schemes going. Haslams has let all 252 units at Domain, on the site of the former Wickes/Iceland/York Furniture retail area in Weldale Street, in six months, beating its targets. Haslams told us the demand has not affected the private rented sector (PRS) market so it appears to complement, rather than compete. BTR rents are typically 15-20 per cent higher than PRS.
The next phase in that scheme can’t be that far away.
Coming soon too should be news on a small but interesting BTR scheme in Mill Lane where John Lewis plans to turn its disused collection point into flats, where tenants can have John Lewis furniture. Whether the retailer can keep its good name in the world of property development will be fascinating to watch.
Further north, Beechcroft’s development of the Grade II-listed Caversham Park into elderly accommodation plus houses and flats has gone through a re-think. Interestingly, some of the homes being proposed for the site and the care home, have been made rather plainer than originally proposed so as not to compete with the Grade II-listed mansion which, under the plans, will be converted into assisted living accommodation.
Elderly care on this site is a superb solution. These are people who don’t travel at rush hour and are likely to use the local shops in Emmer Green. Beechcroft hopes to secure planning permission by Summer 2023.
Not far away, residents near the former Reading Golf Club site in Kidmore End Road need no reminding that that scheme of 223 homes is going ahead. They fought it all the way and lost but is it really that bad? Instead of fearing extra traffic they could take the view that more homes, the better chance local shops, which are disappearing everywhere, have of surviving.
In the town centre, we are hearing rumours of a 100,000 sq ft letting at One Station Hill to be announced in the New Year. If that were to come true, the prospect of more than a third of Reading’s most ambitious town centre office block being pre-let would be among the biggest news for years.
The empty Clas Ohlson unit sticks out like a sore thumb in otherwise fairly healthy-looking Broad Street. The unit is owned by Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct so a move from its cramped shop across the road would seem plausible.
There seems unlikely to be any immediate news about Minster Quarter, the council’s big town centre regeneration project, as the announcement of a development partner to deliver the site is not due to be made until June 2023.
Perhaps by then Thames Valley Police might have made a decision on the Castle Street police station. The force has already rejected the council’s offer to buy it to include it in Minster Quarter but seems to be failing in its bid to get a better deal.
Whatever happens at Minster Quarter, it is likely to involve Broad Street Mall owner AEW, given the investor bought the mall this year in the knowledge both sites are intertwined. In any case, two councillors and a property agent have told Thames Tap, there is zero chance of the consented 422 flats which previous mall owner Moorgarth must have spent a small fortune progressing, ever happening.
Assuming AEW is a more astute developer, it would seem something very substantial could happen with both the mall and Minster Quarter. In Slough they are knocking down two shopping centres for a gigantic mixed-use scheme and, although the mall has a reasonable number of decent tenants, how much more ambitious could the Minster Quarter scheme be if the site of this 50-year-old centre was included?
Meanwhile The Oracle’s plans for 475 flats on its eastern outskirts look likely to progress sooner.
Two of the most attractive proposals in the town centre, Thackeray Estates’ QVS1 and QVS2, have just got permission which will mean a courtyard, retail, restored listed buildings, an apart-hotel, a 163-room Jury’s Inn and the retention of much of The Bugle public house.
Allowing for the fact that CGIs always make schemes look good, the way Thackeray Estates plan to incorporate The Bugle into the Jury’s Inn makes this grim old pub look better than it ever has done.
Thackeray’s schemes seem to be a significant part of a sort of gentrification of Friar Street, although one of the schemes – Bristol & West Arcade – has a history of problems. The latest setback is the council’s refusal to allow Mountley Group to add two floors of flats. However, the developer plans to come back with an alternative.
Another vacant town centre pub appears to be in good hands. The Horn in St Mary’s Butts, which dates back to the 15th Century, has had emergency repairs and owner Rayners Enterprises has met with Cllrs Tony Page and Karen Rowland. The upshot is a bid to Historic England’s High Streets Heritage Action Zones to fund more substantial restoration. That site could really come alive if the ancient features are restored. Our understanding is a restaurant is a likely option.
The future of the prison is anyone’s guess and our MPs have proved ineffective in pressing for action to stop the Government wasting money by keeping it empty.
Meanwhile things seem quiet around abrdn’s plans for 900 flats across the road at Forbury Retail Park although at least that scheme’s website is still there.
Further south, try as we might, news on Royal Elm Park continues to elude us. We learned more than a year ago that the proposed convention centre at the heart of the scheme to redevelop the car park of the Select Car Leasing Stadium could attract no operators but potential operators who were approached were interested in a smaller arena-type venue.
Since the Burghfield AWE emergency planning zone was extended after Royal Elm Park got consent, any changes to the original plans are going to be difficult and certainly would have to be less ambitious, rather than more. The only news we have been able to get is that it’ll be a long time before there’s any news.
Following delay after delay, Green Park Station must surely open next year. First approved in 2001, this is probably the most extraordinary development saga in town. Not only was it first approved 21 years ago, it was approved again after changes, it’s got all necessary funding – and it’s even been built! Network Rail apparently has to ‘commission’ it now.
If councils and governments want to get people out of cars and onto public transport, they need to provide a bit faster.
Not far away, there are rumours the Wood Group (formerly Foster Wheeler), seems to be close to an 80,000 – 100,000 sq ft deal somewhere in Reading, which would leave a very dated Shinfield Park site, the former Shire Hall, available.
And rumours are circulating that a much talked about 250,000 sq ft requirement of healthcare group Lonza could be satisfied by the firm taking a chunk of Thames Valley Park.
Such a deal would surely affect the chances of the Royal Berkshire Hospital going there. As relocation sites for the RBH go, it’s one of the most promising and has the added advantage of having a car park since the NHS has already secured a deal for the park & ride for RBH staff – a relatively good outcome for that development, considering Wokingham Borough Council’s decision to pull the plug on the East Reading Mass Rapid Transit scheme scuppered what should have been a significant park & ride for Reading and beyond.
Some time in 2023, during the current financial year, the RBH expects to learn how much the Government will give it for redevelopment, which will, in turn, dictate whether it stays or moves.
If it gets enough to be able to move, that, along with its knock-on effects, will probably have a bigger impact on the local market than any other scheme. If there’s only enough money to redevelop on-site, patients can look forward to years of mayhem.
Fingers crossed for a Happy New Year.
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