Re-imagining Reading’s future

    Boyes Turner partner Derek Ching explains why policymakers should re-imagine Reading’s future

    Reading faces an era which is both challenging and full of opportunity. As society evolves and lifestyles change, land use necessarily must follow that evolution or risk turning large areas of our country into redundant space and therefore ceasing to usefully contribute to the economy.

    Those responsible for deciding upon the nature of future development of property whether landowners, developers, regulators or politicians need to build their plans around not what is currently being provided but what are the expected demands over the next 20-30 or even more years. This goes far deeper than the local plan review process.

    Key features include:

    • The growth of London as a mega-city and its impact on Reading
    • The planned/expected increase in population in the central Berkshire area
    • Increasing pressure for greater sustainability for communities
    • Changing work patterns
    • Changing shopping patterns
    • A desire for enhanced quality of life.
    Derek Ching

    There is a danger that too much development is constrained by concepts which originate in patterns of land use which date from the 1950s and 1960s. While attempts have been made to update planning policy and legislation (eg through modifying the Use Classes Order) modern cities may require a far greater degree of fluidity when considering land use patterns.

    Reading can currently be parcelled up into a patchwork of distinct areas defined by historic perceptions of land use – retail and leisure, residential, offices, light industry, heavy industry and by how we move around (principally by motor car).  Policymakers find themselves running to keep up with how modern society operates and need to anticipate how a conurbation like that in Reading will evolve. We can choose to follow the trend or get ahead of the curve.

    There are some signs of these pressures already as the decades old focus on homes for purchase has been shaken by the growth of the rented sector and the realisation that a significant proportion of the population will not in the future be able to afford to own a home without subsidy either from relatives or from the State.

    Equally the disruption to retailing caused by internet shopping and growth of logistics businesses catering for deliveries creates demand for a different pattern of distribution space and the increasing destruction of the traditional concepts of high-street shopping and even mall-based shopping.

    The separation of home and work life enjoyed by our parents is also a passing concept. Technology permits work from anywhere, anytime. What degree of working from home causes an infringement of the current concepts of a residential dwelling within Use Class C3? When does having an office based at home cease to be merely ancillary? Surely we should allow for such flexibility.

    At the start of the industrial revolution Victorian business owners built houses for their employees/servants in the immediate vicinity of the factories and mills. The arrival of the motor car brought us increasing distance between business and production areas and the places where people live. At its extreme, this creates a pattern of travel involving several hours per day per person. As it is increasingly realised that this pattern of life is not sustainable (whether looking at it in terms of carbon footprint, economic efficiency or simply the sheer waste of people’s lives) design and use of our built environment will have to look radically at how to reduce this dislocation.

    The rush to create small poorly thought out flats from former offices under permitted development rights is a symptom of the pent up demand for urban living.

    The old concept of the office has to adapt to changes brought about by technology too. The massive footprint old style offices are making way for more flexible business space. Lawyers used to documenting traditional commercial leases have to be increasingly imaginative as will landlords who face the choice of adapt or face the prospect of increasing redundancy for their portfolio of out-of-date office blocks.  Measuring investment returns on serviced flexible workspace demands a re-think of traditional property investment assumptions.

    Drawing these threads together means there is a need to re-imagine how planners and developers view the future of how we use Reading and its residential suburbs and business environs.

    • Residential and home working flexibility, even having a self-contained business suite as an adjunct to home. (Living above the shop re-written for the 21st century).
    • Residential living adjoining a business hub serving multiple residences.
    • Mixed uses allowing for changes in proportions of different types of use without constraints from a sclerotic planning system based on decades-old concepts which even today separate residential and non-residential use, as if all business use still involved metal bashing black smoke industry.

    With imagination and some leaps of faith Reading can evolve into a vibrant sustainable urban centre with space for the young, families and elderly. Homes can be created in close proximity to workplaces, leisure space and health and care services but it demands flexibility and willingness to challenge historic assumptions, whether on the part of investors, developers, legal advisers or planners.

    Derek Ching is a partner in Boyes Turner’s development and housebuilding team.

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