We report the highlights and insights from this forward-thinking morning seminar on the ‘Greater Reading’ sub-region, hosted by The Business Magazine on November 27, 2015 and sponsored by award-winning office designers Morgan Lovell, global real-estate services provider Savills, and law firm Shoosmiths.
‘For the second year running, Reading and Bracknell led the PwC and Demos Good Growth for Cities Index 2015, with the most successful economic performance in the UK, based on sustainable growth. With a per capita GDP of £34,978, Reading is also the second most prosperous ‘city’ in the UK, behind London, according to the Barclays Prosperity Map. We are doing extremely well . . . aren’t we?’
David Murray, owner and publisher of The Business Magazine
The workplace revolution that is now changing the Thames Valley forever
“Actually, the future of work is already happening. Changes are not going to go away and ignoring those changes is not an option,” announced Nigel Wild of Morgan Lovell
With the Internet and digital device convenience enabling 24/7, flexible and remote working, and cloud services decreasing the need for inhouse computing and communications hardware, the demand for traditional office space had fallen.
Consequently, the workplace was already changing to meet 21st century requirements, with businesses of the vibrant Thames Valley economy often leading the way, Wild explained.
But the need for staff to meet, collaborate and co-ordinate their work remains essential.
Employers today needed to recognise and understand the value of their people by what they did, not by where and how they did their work, he added.
Refreshment and ‘chillax’ areas for staff were now common in many businesses, and while today’s most adventurous workplace initiatives aimed to boost employee productivity by adding facilities such as selfie tunnels, sleep pods or helter skelters, there was no mistaking the underlying need to provide interesting environments in which people enjoy working.
The future of work was not all about funky design, but about satisfying staff expectations, he stated. With skills shortages and the need to retain talent, suitable workplace design was now a key factor.
“People and property are the biggest cost centres for any business, but what is starting to occur is a shift in emphasis between them.
He exampled a case study whereby one company had reduced its workspace by roughly a third and saved £1.7 million, but importantly also significantly increased pride and satisfaction of staff for their workplace.
As well as being lean, today’s businesses needed to have workplaces that were effective, efficient and enabled expression from their individual workers, Wild advised.
That need for personal expression in the workplace – “the reverse Superman syndrome” – was noticeable among Generation Y and Z employees, he added.
While much office space design had changed today from cellulisation to open-plan, future working environments would incorporate design styling for neighbourhood working, collaboration, concentration and wellbeing, and bespoke features. “Every organisation will have its own unique thumbprint for its workplace styling.
“Actually, the revolution in workplace design is only just starting to take place.”
Joint approach needed to secure our community
Shoosmiths partner Emma Gibson, also a Thames Valley Berkshire LEP director, spoke passionately about Reading and the Thames Valley as a vibrant home for ambitious growth businesses and explained how the sub-region’s location was now internationally viewed as a great place to live and work.
The challenge was maintaining that reputation with tangible support for both work and lifestyle aspects such as business startup, education, and housing – a challenge best met by the regional community, working as a team.
“While we are privileged to run businesses in this vibrant and important area, it is not all roses out there, and there are still issues to be resolved.”
The Thames Valley was an expensive place to recruit or hire people, and still viewed geographically not as a business identity, Gibson highlighted, urging corporate involvement with the LEP in resolving such concerns.
“We all know that we work better as a team. Working with the same aims and goals will ensure that we remain the driving economy that we are today.
“We are a world-class tried and tested business location, with the benefit of a strong community of established and new businesses with high skills and productivity – home to 115,000 businesses including 11 of the top 15 tech companies in the world, the UK’s second highest concentration of SMEs, and fifth for startups.
“This is the biggest, strongest UK region; a community of successful businesses that looks out internationally, the biggest contributor to the Exchequer outside of London, and we should not forget that.”
Crossrail set to boost travel capacity and connectivity
The well-attended seminar was also fully briefed on the major Thames Valley transportation bonus for the sub-region ‘due to arrive at a station near you’ – Crossrail. Now under construction, Crossrail is set to go live in the London area during 2017 with services from Reading added towards the end of 2019.
John Goldsmith, Crossrail community relations manager, explained that Europe’s largest construction project would bring increased passenger capacity, travel connectivity, reliability, infrastructure and station improvements while providing significant economic benefits to the Thames Valley overall.
“You will be able to get on a train in Reading and go all the way out through London to Essex, which will make a big difference to rail travel from here. Crossrail is a new service. We will not replace the fast service to Paddington,” said Goldsmith.
With Crossrail trains being twice as long as the existing rolling stock and passenger flow enhancement at several stations, capacity will be significantly boosted, he noted.
The Crossrail stopping service would also provide further travel options, including connectivity to Heathrow, and effectively a larger workforce catchment area with employees being able to travel out of London more easily.
New ‘green’ trains and carriages plus electrification, track and signalling improvements would also assist reliability – with two London trains per hour from Reading and four from Maidenhead.
Crossrail stopping trains from Reading to Paddington will take 50 minutes, but without changes to underground services, locations beyond will become more time-competitive with Canary Wharf reachable in 67 minutes.
Where will we house our growing workforces?
Savills director Philip Brown’s presentation highlighted the need for more housing for the Thames Valley’s growing population and business workforces, particularly with developments such as the new Science Park at Shinfield and Crossrail making the sub-region more commercially attractive.
While the Government’s 2010 ‘localism’ planning reform was helping to ease permission approvals, it was also creating housing demand pressures on Green Belt and suitable business locations.
Legislation now required local authorities to make plans to meet their Objectively Assessed Need (OAN) for housing. Some had not kept pace with government OAN targets or growing demand, often due to outdated population projections. Planning approval pressure was now also mounting due to lack of five-year housing land supply, Brown explained.
“That’s not to say planning in the Thames Valley is not working. I think it is, and Reading is a good example.”
However, housing availability, and importantly an acute shortage of affordable housing, were key issues for the Thames Valley, he stated.
“Infrastructure is definitely driving the Thames Valley, but we are currently on the cusp of a round of new plan-making which will direct and dictate how much housing will come forward and exactly where it will go,” Brown revealed.
“Without a doubt, we are going to see an increase in housing delivery, which will have some economic benefits, but it is not going to be without some pain as local authorities wrestle about how much housing and where.”
Heathrow decision is put on holding stack approach
Festive celebrations were ruined for Thames Valley businesses, and Heathrow officials in particular, as David Cameron’s airport committee delayed, until at least this summer, its promised end-of-2015 decision on whether to build a third runway at Heathrow.
The committee called for more environmental evidence, while accepting that there was clear need for new airport capacity in south-east England to be built by 2030.
The Government was widely criticised by key organisations for ‘dithering and delaying’ and its ‘disgraceful vacillation.’ It has been estimated that not expanding Heathrow on the current proposed timetable could cost the UK economy £5 billion.
At the Reading & Thames Valley 2025 breakfast seminar Clare Harbord, Heathrow’s corporate affairs director, had been upbeat about gaining the Government’s support for a new Heathrow runway before Parliament rose for its Yuletide break.
She spoke passionately about the vital need to create a hub airport for the UK and the Airports Commission’s “… very, very clear recommendation this summer (2015) for Heathrow. We are now waiting for the Government response and the green light for this incredibly important private sector infrastructure project worth £16 billion.”
Detailing the potential business and economic benefits created by an expansion of Heathrow, she highlighted “… this once in a lifetime, generational opportunity for Reading and the Thames Valley. This moment in time is really important, not only for the future of Thames Valley businesses, but also the future of the UK.”
If the Government had made a decision at the end of 2015, supporting the proposed Heathrow expansion, Harbord predicted that construction of the new runway could have begun in 2019 and the first planes would have been taking off by 2025.