In many ways COVID-19 has changed so much of our economic landscape – forcing us re-evaluate how we live, work and do business. And yet so many of the pillars that underpin our economic success story in Reading still apply, writes Nigel Horton-Baker, executive director, Reading UK.
Continued future growth will not come out of the aether but will be based on the back of long-standing confidence in resilient Reading, a place of innovation and dynamic businesses, well connected to the world economy, but most of all from the people who make it a great place in which to work, live, do business or visit.
The global economic crisis of 2008/9 seems a lifetime ago now, partly because Reading recovered so quickly from the downturn. The resilience of Reading’s business mix ensured that it was best placed to grow quickly and attract investment, and in the ensuing decade Reading has attracted a stellar catalogue of investment and has captured global businesses that would be the envy of any business location on the planet. In recent years, it has also diversified its business infrastructure to offer the largest concentration of co-working space in the South East, with almost 300,000 sq ft of flexible space available to support start-ups and dynamic SMEs.
Reading has been the fastest growing economy in the Thames Valley over the past 20 years (EY UK and Regions Economic Forecast 2020) and pre-COVID its future growth (2020-2023) was forecast as a UK-leading 2.2%. Although Reading has among the highest productivity per worker in the UK (average productivity of £83,800 per job – Centre for Cities Cities Outlook 2020), that growth has been based on much more than just GVA. Reading has excelled in Good Growth, performing well in a range of key indicators including employment, health, income and skills (PWC/Demos Good Growth for Cities 2019). It is that good growth and quality of life that attracts talented people to relocate to Reading and persuades businesses they will be able to recruit easily here and bring their existing workforce with them.
The vibrant Reading town centre, with ongoing investment from two successful Business Improvement Districts and thousands of new homes being built alongside the western terminus of the Elizabeth Line, is a real draw for business, while expanding business parks at Green Park and Winnersh Triangle link in to major transport investment such as the new Green Park Station, ensuring the Reading economy can retain its place at the global top table.
People are what have powered Reading since Henry I built Reading Abbey in the 12th century. Our modern-day knowledge economy is dependent on our highly-skilled workforce and our future growth strategy will be based on those people who have innovated and diversified during COVID, who have kept our services going despite the risks and who are champions of their communities.
Our economic recovery plan puts Reading’s people and workforce at its very heart. A post-COVID economic landscape is an opportunity to create a more inclusive, kinder and smarter Reading, a destination for innovators, business and visitors, a real community for people who see the world slightly differently having been through lockdown.
As the economic development company for Reading, Reading UK has been telling the compelling story of Reading’s success for more than a decade. Now it is incumbent on us to work with a wide range of stakeholders to ensure that growth continues in the new world, but that it is also a smart, sustainable growth that appeals to the many people looking for a refreshing new way to live and work.
Reading UK’s board of directors are shaping the economic recovery strategy for Reading around the themes of Smart Reading, Inclusive Reading and Destination Reading. Here is a flavour of that plan in the words of three members of the Board.
Scott Witchalls, director urban places and smart cities, Stantec
“Innovation is at the heart of our plan and will be critical in supporting sustainable economic growth as we recover from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. We’ll be working to understand the benefits new technology could bring to enable smarter, inclusive and cleaner working and prioritising investment in more sustainable, lower carbon practices so we can create a smart-technology enabled economy. ‘Smart Reading’ is all about rejuvenating the most vulnerable sectors of our economy and our town centre, safe-guarding the health and wellbeing of our employees and continuing to build on the innovative, creative and entrepreneurial strengths of Reading so we can come out from this crisis stronger and smarter than before.”
Paul Newman, group executive director, Activate Learning
“COVID-19 will undoubtedly have an impact on Reading’s local workforce and labour market. During this time, we’ll need to work closely alongside our key partners and organisations within the community to help meet the immediate needs of local people who may be facing redundancy, unemployment and young people who may be approaching the workplace for the first time. This is an opportunity for us to work side by side, as One Reading, to support those most in need and to ensure the economic recovery of our town – for businesses and individuals.”
John McLaughlin, area general manager, Hilton
“Reading is still a great location for a visit or a ‘staycation’, a trend which may well be on the rise as less people travel and holiday abroad. With its great location in the middle of the Great West Way, Reading is a perfect base to explore both the town’s rich heritage and nearby attractions. ‘Destination Reading’ is about ensuring the economic recovery of our hospitality, retail and leisure businesses by positioning Reading as a welcoming, safe, smart, sustainable and cultural destination, now and in the future. The COVID-19 pandemic means we’re likely to see a shift in the way people live, work and travel, and we’ll need to recognise this as we look to safely reopen the town centre and responsibly re-engage with our leisure and business visitors”.
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