Like so many places, the challenges brought on by the pandemic have magnified some of the underlying structural issues facing our retail-dominated town centres. So, what does the future look like? Reading town centre is at a crossroads. Do nothing and we may well risk the prospect of a desolate town centre - but act now and we have time to reshape and rethink Reading for the future. Reading UK's Executive Director, Nigel Horton-Baker explains why the new Reading Town Centre Strategy may just make the difference - and how you can help shape and guide it.
We can see the dramatic changes in our town centres taking place in front of our eyes. A recent report by CoStar Group stated that the UK has lost 83% of its main department stores in the five years since the collapse of the BHS chain. A study of some of the UK's largest chains, from 2016 to the present day has shown a decrease from 467 stores to 79. While we know our town centre shops, hotels, bars, restaurants and night-time economy, along with our arts and cultural sector, have been hit badly, we expect much of it to recover. However, retail is a concern as it also has to overcome longer-term trends we've seen such as online shopping, a challenge even before the pandemic.
All this reinforces the fact that a strategy to recover and future-proof the town centre is needed; a strategy to take the town centre forward and help achieve our 2050 Vision. It's also why Reading UK, manager of the two Business Improvement Districts in the town centre, is working with the Council to prepare a strategy and action plan.
Get involved and have your say
Given the challenging our town centres are facing, it's so important that businesses in Reading town centre, and the wider borough, engage in this work, and give your views. To tell us what you think please spare 10 minutes to fill out our Reading Town Centre Strategy Questionnaire and help us shape the response.
Read on for Nigel Horton-Baker's thoughts on the town centre economy and the challenges and opportunities he feels need to be addressed in the strategy.
Reading has ridden previous recessions, often reviving ahead of many other towns and cities. Just prior to the pandemic recession, Reading was identified as the fastest growing economy in the UK. Benchmark data analysis has shown that Reading has a strong retail sector demand. The ‘Core Catchment’ area covers some 288,000 people and the town centre achieves around 81% of the market demand from this population. In addition, Reading secures around a third of the wider catchment area population spend of some 870, 000 people. This position is stronger by comparison with Southampton, Derby, Cardiff and Guildford. [Source: Retail footprint Acorn]
Retail and hospitality
Reading’s regional catchment area was able to sustain its John Lewis store and House of Fraser for the moment, though unfortunately lost Debenhams. On a more positive note, Reading has also opened a shiny new Primark store and also retained the only Clas Olsen store in the UK, when all the other branches closed.
The other good news is that Reading has seen a plethora of new retail deals, mainly in hospitality, over the last 8 months, with smaller units closing but being bid for by new chains as well as independents. Reading recently witnessed the return of Wendy’s Burgers to the UK which has been a great success since opening.
Maintaining the regional retail core position of the town centre, should I feel, be the presumption at the centre of the new Town Centre Strategy. But the Strategy work is flagging up many challenges that mean Reading Town Centre will once again need to adapt and repurpose. Online shopping, the reduction in office workers in the town, recruitment challenges, and the pressure to change shops to residential are all among the main pressures on retail. Hospitality, however, is well placed to grow - and there is already evidence of restaurant chains queueing at Reading’s door.
Access to the town
As always, we are still seeing gridlock on the roads at peak times! It's important that we continue to grow the use of public transport, our great Reading Buses service, encouraging cycling and walking. Maybe it’s time to raise the profile of the need for a third river crossing again and allow car access for those who prefer it (but at a price!) and further encourage electric vehicle use.
The rise of residential
The opportunity cost of change may be residents replacing office workers in the town centre. Policies and plans to 2036 extrapolated to 2050 show that there could be in the region of 40,000 people living in the town centre rising from 4500 now and 16,000 in 2036. This means Reading must be more ‘liveable’. Community facilities, health, education and meeting and green spaces will be much more important and must be planned for, perhaps forcing vehicles to the edges of the town centre. We will need to cater for different household sizes and needs, across the spectrum from students and young professionals in shared single bed units to family type accommodation and finally to retirement housing, taking note of more sustainable and spacious design models in European cities like Dusseldorf. The town centre also needs to be open and accessible and attractive to all residents of the borough.
We also think we should relook at the Inner Distribution Road (IDR) again - the collar round the town centre. How can we green over it and bridge it making the town centre more accessible to the households on the other side such as the new Huntley Wharf housing community developed by Berkley Homes?
Reading as a business location
With Crossrail coming, we still believe our prime offices will remain and will continue to attract global companies and key growth sectors such as IT, digital, finance and real estate - even if they have a smaller footprint with people working from home and using the office as a hub and meeting place. As we grow our visitor leisure offer, easy regional and national rail access will be a key component of our sustainable tourism offer. We are already experiencing recruitment challenges in some retail and hospitality sectors. However, we are hopeful that new job opportunities will inevitably arise and we need to ensure local residents are given the opportunity to access training and jobs in the town centre.
Overall, there could be more scope for start-up business space and pay-as-you-go meeting spaces, as well as increased training and education spaces. The Curious Lounge combines both digital training and access to new employees, as well as corporate meeting and training spaces for companies down-sizing and looking for a pay-as-you-go option. There could therefore be more space for independent shops, perhaps creating a strong core independent quarter that everyone knows, rather than the indies being spread out across the town. The Lanes in Brighton always spring to mind.
Culture and the arts
Last but not least, the cultural sector needs to be supported to recover, bringing forth its regenerative powers to the town centre economy. A strong arts scene, which Reading UK has championed consistently since 2016 Year of Culture, is key to attracting young people, students and young professionals - but it needs infrastructure and facilities for dancers, painters, musicians, actors etc, as well as events and festivals that represent the diversity of the communities in our town. This is why we need to double our efforts to secure control over the future of the Prison, make plans to reuse retail and office spaces for the arts, support new facilities like Reading Rep’s new theatre next to the College Campus on King’s Road (opening this month), as well as building our reputation as a City of Festivals, Culture and Diversity as set out in the 2050 Vision. Even bid to be the UK City of Culture by the end of this decade!
Climate change and sustainability
The golden thread of the strategy has to be environmental sustainability and will be looked at from every angle to reduce carbon emissions and set out how we can meet our goal to be net carbon neutral by 2030. It is a huge task. The behaviours of town centre residents, businesses, the public and voluntary sectors as well as visitors will be key to the success of that goal.
Moving forward with the strategy
2021/22 is just the start of the journey, as we recover from the pandemic and adapt to different ways of life. The Council plans to bring forward the consultants’ strategy recommendations with a draft road map and early interventions in 2022. There will need to be a financial plan, plans to use the Council’s powers and a need to engage with the plethora of land and property owners across the town. Only then can the journey of adaption, change and transformation get underway to make Reading city future-proofed. A journey we hope business, residents and visitors will jump on board with and help deliver.
The start of the journey is now – please take the time to complete our Reading Town Centre Strategy.