Arts, culture, leisure and community will be at the centre of Reading’s next major regeneration.

Emma Gee, Reading Borough Council’s executive director economic growth and neighbourhood services, outlined the Minster Quarter Central scheme to a group of professionals in UK Property Forum’s first Town Forum event on Tuesday, March 5 at the offices of IBB Law on the top floor of The Blade.

The round table meeting, chaired by UKPF managing director Matthew Battle, centred on the mixed-use Minster Quarter which will include 600 homes, a hotel and other commercial spaces, along with an expanded Hexagon and new public realm.

Delegates heard the Hexagon Theatre expansion, which, together with the new Central Library at the Civic Centre, was boosted by £20 million of Levelling Up Funds, will have a new studio theatre and will eventually act as an anchor for Minster Quarter, looking out onto new public realm. The expansion plans are due to go before planners this month.

Mrs Gee told the meeting: “Minster Quarter Central is the jam in the doughnut of the wider Minster Quarter area so that covers off the Hexagon, Broad Street Mall, MoJ court site and the Thames Valley Police station.

“That is a significant chunk of the town centre – it’s 1970s at its best/worst. It’s a very complex, multi level brownfield site; with a podium and undercroft for the Broad Street Mall and the court, for example. The idea was when we demolished the civic offices back in 2018, we would have a brownfield site just waiting to come forward and be a catalyst for that wider area.”

She said over 18 months the council has worked to get the site to market and find a partner that could meet its requirements and ambitions which include a step-change in the quality of public realm and the way it would respond to the Hexagon and drive footfall.

Working with adjacent landowners, the council is seeking an appropriate mix of commercial occupiers.

Mrs Gee went on: “We don’t want to replicate or dilute what is available in the town centre proper, around Broad Street for example. We wanted something that would respond to its location and recognise we’ve got Broad Street Mall to the north.

“While we don’t have firmly fixed ideas around what commercial floorspace to deliver, we will work really closely with McLaren, who were successful developer, through the process and we will continue to look at options for those ground floor active uses, which are so important to rooting that development in its place, but also supporting the local community that will grow up there over time.

“We must also make sure that the Hexagon Campus doesn’t stand in splendid isolation and that they play on each other so, in terms of next steps for that, we’ve got to get into contracts.

“The policy committee report that we took in January set out the next steps. We will set out the development agreement which enshrines all those principles that we want to see happen on the site and it’s just about now working through starting stakeholder engagement.”

The council made clear it wants a mix of tenures including policy compliant 30 per cent affordable housing, net zero targets achieved and the site to offer high social value. Stakeholders and communities will influence the finer details.

Mrs Gee said: “We are really keen that this is an exemplar in terms of communicating our aspirations for the site and also reflecting the needs of the local communities, local businesses and how we tailor some of that provision in terms of commercial active space to local operators.

“That’s always easier said than done because ultimately the values of those units will drive the whole scheme and I think it’s about having a genuine partnership and continuing to outline what we want to see achieved on the site, rather than just letting it come forward as it will.”

REDA chief executive Nigel Horton-Baker asked whether development partner McLaren Living had been given specific guidance on what must be provided.

Mrs Gee said: “We didn’t specify.  Ultimately the market will drive – to a point – what makes sense in that location, with us very clearly saying we want a mix of uses.

“This is a mixed-use scheme. At no point were we going to allow just resi because at that point it just becomes a mono use residential enclave within a town centre which is not what we wanted to see and I think we recognise that this location, even though we are bringing some 600 homes into it, is part of an active town centre.

“You’ve got the theatre there so it’s going to be lively and it’s going to be an addition to the town centre. It’s going to do something that other areas don’t do and I think elevating and enhancing the theatre and the studio theatre is critical to that.

“Having that destination within that scheme is something that nowhere else can offer currently and I’m really keen that that we make the most of that and we respond to outdoor performances for example.”

She said culture and arts around the Hexagon and its studio theatre would spill out into the new public realm but there would be flexibility around what is provided.

Chris Saunders, technical director for Motion, pointed to the situation around the opening of The Oracle, when much of Friar Street’s retail was pulled away.

“Friar Street is now looking very tired. I think that’s a polite way to put it,” he said.

Mrs Gee said: “I think there’s always a risk of that but I think the nature of this development, and its USP if you like, around culture, leisure and art, is something you don’t see around the rest of the town centre.

“This isn’t going to be ground floor retail like you see on the main drag. It is important to see you’ve got that kind of animation and engagement at ground floor level.”

Linkages, she said, need to knit the scheme fully into the rest of the town centre and areas to the west.

A one-time town planner, Mrs Gee has held leading development roles in Swindon borough and Peterborough city councils where success was achieved with investment from both the Town Fund and Levelling Up Fund. She joined Reading Borough Council two years ago.

She said: “One of the reasons I wanted to get into Reading was that there was a lot of investment but it was not necessarily that joined up and, in terms of a place, you have to have a plan. You can’t just have ad hoc development everywhere which does its own thing.

“For me, being able to influence some of those major developments, and there are a lot of them, is really key to achieving the outcomes that residents and businesses need.”

The quantity of Build-to-Rent housing at Minster Quarter was raised. Charles Bushe, group commercial director for DevComms, questioned whether the community was on board with more BTR. He said public discussions suggest a feeling that there may be too much in Reading already.

Mrs Gee said Reading’s position on the Elizabeth Line meant a level of inevitability of BTR coming to the town but the public’s understanding of the concept prompted further discussion.

She said: “I think because it’s such an emerging asset class people don’t understand it. There are a lot of benefits of Build-to-Rent over private sales where there is a high proportion of Buy-to-Let, in terms of community cohesion, the minimum length of lease, how long people stay and the amenities provided.

Mike Shearn, development director for Haslams Estate Agents, endorsed the lack of public understanding, highlighting one development where people have pulled out of house purchases because there were BTR houses among them.

Mr Shearn said: “They say, ‘there’s affordable housing over there, I don’t want to live next to affordable housing’.

“It’s not, it’s Build-to-Rent but they say ‘yes, it’s affordable housing’. So people don’t understand what it is. That’s part of the problem, but it (BTR) is part of the solution.”

He estimates that tenants in Thames Quarter, Reading’s first BTR scheme, are almost 100 per cent from outside Reading, many from abroad including from Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.

Infrastructure, including childcare, schools and healthcare was raised by Gordon Cook, project management lead partner for Thames Valley for RLB. The issue of whether those services could cope, he said, was a common topic among the public.

Mrs Gee said the council engages with primary care authorities but she said the town has sufficient school places, notwithstanding the nationwide shortage of SEND places.

She went on: “There is a balance and, from a policy perspective, you can try and meet the different demand and uses.

“Ultimately, the market will come in and it will buy land or property or buildings and it will develop those out. And, from a Government perspective, towns like Reading are expected to take more growth.

“Reading is so tightly bounded that a lot of our focus will be on going up in the town centre.

“That’s naturally where in Reading you can go and there is an expectation, in terms of housing numbers coming from Central Government, that Reading is one of 20 towns and cities that has to take a greater number of housing units.

“So how do we make sure that our requirements are clear from a planning perspective to support that level of growth?

“It’s about working proactively to think about how is the transport infrastructure supporting people in getting to work and getting around to live their day-to-day lives. How are we providing all the services and amenities those residents need and how do we work with all those sectors, including health and education partners, to find routes to delivery?”

Provision of power has emerged as a problem which impacts housing delivery in Reading and other areas across the county and work is under way with SSE on how to keep up with levels of growth.

Mrs Gee told the meeting: “Energy solutions are really going to be a knotty problem for us to resolve alongside SSE who ultimately will want to plan for reinforcements.

“At this point that will hold back investing and it will hold back growth. And we need to look at solutions to that collectively. We want to do some more work around district heat networks for example.

“We’ve got Heat Network Delivery Unit funding to explore how we use the Thames and how we make use of other sources and that’s complicated. It takes time.

“I think the commercial world behind that is not really fully understood yet. Some places have done really good work but the council wouldn’t be able to fund that sort of thing on its own.

“How do we unlock public private investment in our place recognising ultimately we can’t do it on our own?”

The issue of power has parallels at SEGRO’s Slough Trading Estate. Thames Valley director Jo Jackson noted the similarities in both increasing building heights and issue of power supply.

SEGRO is already seeking to make land work harder through building taller and Slough Trading Estate’s place as the second largest cluster of data centres in the world makes power supply a key factor.

She said: “I don’t think the data centre sector is fully understood. It’s been a sector preferring to stay under the radar and, therefore, people don’t appreciate how important the sector is to the UK economy and our everyday lives. The UK is very attractive because of the laws and security here and, with the emergence of AI, the demand is only set to exponentially increase.

“However the UK will need to ensure a continued power supply to meet this demand otherwise data centre operators will just go to another country that can provide power.”

Mr Horton-Baker pointed to waste as a service impacted by growth, particularly at PDR schemes.

He said: “Waste has been an increasing problem. It’s okay in the new developments like Thames Quarter and Ebb & Flow, it’s kind of built in. But at a lot of the Permitted Development schemes, it’s causing a problems. With the older buildings along Broad Street, Friar Street and Queen Victoria Street, flats are going in above and people are living there.

“At home we just put our waste out and trucks come along at the end of the drive. Here, where do you put it? You put it on the high street. That’s not acceptable but there’s no rear loading.”

Bus services were raised as another issue. Woodley resident Mr Saunders said with his partner in Tilehurst, three authorities are involved to make bus journeys and they have little interest serving areas outside their districts.

With so much financial pressure on so many major schemes the Minster Quarter project is a bright light, according to Brian Dowling, partner at Boyes Turner.

He said: “I’ve got some experience of the bigger regional schemes and it’s so hard to keep them going, frankly, and make sure that they stack up financially.

“So it’s really heartening to hear about Minster Quarter coming forward because it’s got all the cultural applications in it.”

The long-standing and thorny issue of city status for Reading was the only area where there was a divergence of views.

Mrs Gee said, speaking for herself rather than councillors, she was unconvinced that it matters.

“I think people see Reading as a city anyway,” she added.

But Mr Horton-Baker believes it matters in terms of aspiration.

He said: “If you think of yourselves as a little town I think you think small, you think insular. I think we’ve got to think outside the box and think as a city.”

Terri Warren, senior associate with IBB Law, said the firm had committed to a long lease at The Blade and planned to continue investing in the town, which she called a ‘sustainable and great place to work’.

She said: “I think the tenants and everything we’ve got here speaks city. We are a city in everything but name and if the aspirations and the capital goes ahead as planned, then what is a label, quite frankly?

Mr Saunders said: “I’ve never known a resident to think ‘How am I going to decide where I live? Is it city status or not?’ and it’s the same with commercial people. It irrelevant, it’s about; have I got a market there or can I sell stuff?’

Image (l-r): Terri Warren, Matthew Battle, Mike Shearn, Nigel Horton-Baker, Gordon Cook, Jo Jackson, Chris Saunders, Brian Dowling (back), Emma Gee (front) and Charles Bushe.

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