Reading: making its own headlines

Reading, a city in all but name, makes news that is essential reading for aspiring business leaders. Why?

Consider the headlines:

‘The UK’s most successful economic city – for the third year running’ – PwC  /Demos Good Growth Index

‘A top location for business growth’  – LSH report, UK Vitality Index

‘Most prosperous UK city outside London’ – Barclays survey

‘Fastest-growing conurbation in the country’ – EY report, UK Region and City Economic Forecast

‘A top 25 European Business City of the Future’ – FDI European Future Cities Awards, 2016

‘UK’s No.1 regional technology cluster’ – KPMG Tech Monitor

Peter Brett Associates (PBA) partner Scott Witchalls, who has worked on strategic planning with Reading Borough Council and developers over the past 15 years, summed it up recently: “If you compare Reading to a lot of the towns and cities we work in, they would give their right hand for some of the things that Reading has already got. It is way above others in terms of what it can already offer, and in what it is planning to achieve.”

Witchalls also resolved the ‘town or city’ question. “It doesn’t really matter, we just view it as a regional hub. It is the biggest and most successful town in the UK, and compared to cities it would be one of the most successful cities as well. Our planning is around scale, characteristics and growth agenda, so our proposals for Reading are city-type initiatives.”

Where else would you want to be launching, relocating or running a business?

Many have already answered that question.

While big-name stars such as George Clooney, Kate Winslet, Kenneth Branagh and Ricky Gervais have personal links with Reading, it is the names of world-leading multinational businesses such as Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco, Verizon, BG, Foster Wheeler, Bayer, Huawei and Pepsico, now based in Reading’s stylish business parks and town environs, which are the local global stars of the town’s vibrant businessworld.

A skillled local workforce, a supportive high-quality professional services community, a new science park being built at Shinfield, all confirm Reading’s attraction to relocating businesses and as a one-stop shop for overseas companies seeking a UK base.

But the headlines don’t just feature the town’s business attractions:

‘Reading and Bracknell best places to live in UK’ – PwC/Demos ‘Good Growth for Cities Index’

From Reading’s existing showpiece rail station, new hotels, its riverside apartments, world-class university, huge retail choice of The Oracle and Broad Street Mall, plus attractive lifestyle amenities, to the town’s future residential developments at Green Park, Kennet Island, and south of the M4, plus proposed world-class convention centre at Royal Elm Park, it’s plain that Reading is growing dynamically.

So, this special edition on the town provides an informed insight into Reading now, and through a SWOT analysis, its attributes, progress, opportunities and challenges in maintaining its economic prowess and growth as the number one ‘city’ in the UK. 

Thames Tower

Photograph courtesy of Reading UK CIC

Strengths: A town that is making the City take notice

Vital for the profitability of UK plc

Cities Outlook 2016, produced by the think-tank Centre for Cities, ranks Reading second in the UK behind London for the economic contribution per worker (GVA), with an average contribution of £70,900 per person. It also ranks Reading 2nd for the number of businesses per capita and top five for average wages, skills and the dynamism of the business community.

Attractive to City, European and International investors …

At the FDI European Cities of the Future Awards this year, Reading collected six awards, including the Top 25 Overall European Business City of the Future for foreign direct investment (FDI). These bi-annual awards rank European cities of all sizes against various business criteria to assess the attractiveness of each location for future investment.

Reading-focused dealmaking, often involving FDI or City private-equity funding, is vibrant. Only last month, Mapletree Investments acquired Reading’s 79-hectare Green Park, one of Europe’s leading business parks, from Oxford Properties Group. The £563 million purchase aligns with the Mapletree’s strategy for investment in new growth opportunities that possess strong economic and property fundamentals.

… and small businesses too!

Reading is in the top 10 of the urban hub league table created by Octopus Investments, which ranks UK cities most friendly to High Growth Small Business (HGSB).

“I am doing everything I can to ensure that this culture of enterprise continues to grow and that Reading remains one of the economic powerhouses of the UK” – Rob Wilson, MP for Reading East

Superb connectivity

Current plans are for full Crossrail services on the Great Western corridor to commence in December 2019, with two London-Reading trains in each direction per hour. Reading will appear on London’s iconic tube/rail maps, formally connecting it to the City and importantly making it more accessible.

If Reading continues on its upward economic growth trend, this enhanced connectivity will be a key element in Reading’s ability to offer a strong economic alternative to London for both domestic and foreign businesses.

Reading’s past reputation as a travel bottleneck is long gone, says Witchalls: “It’s not merited at all because investment in transportation infrastructure has been exponential compared to other towns and cities in the country. We are almost off the scale of connectivity. Reading’s links are fantastic.”

In addition to motorway improvements, travellers from Reading can reach in excess of 500 direct rail stations, plus Reading is part of a trans-European network.

Integrated academia

The University of Reading is a national and international university, but one which is proud of its local ‘town and gown’ connections. The university encompasses a wealth of academic talent, including the renowned Henley Business School, as well as research capabilities, as evidenced by the ambitious plans for Reading’s new science park at Shinfield. Nearby is the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting.

The White Building

Photograph courtesy of Reading UK CIC

Thames Valley Science Park

Photograph courtesy of Reading UK CIC

Reading: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats

Government Key contribution to UK economy of Reading GVA Cuts in Government funding
Economy Established high-standard business community and workforce
Top 25 European City for Inward Investment
Business-friendly area Esteemed academic base
Lack of technology innovation Business growth Brexit
Infrastructure Near London/Heathrow Reading Station upgrade Crossrail by December 2019 Green Park Station by 2019 GWR electrification
M4 ‘smartway’ plans
Completion of Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system.  (New park-and-ride sites at Winnersh and Mereoak now open) Integrate transport measures to connect Reading and ease any congestion
Build third Thames bridge for vehicles
Regeneration of neighbouring towns/cities (eg Slough, Bracknell, Maidenhead)
Housing Strong housing demand Need for more residential units
Rising cost of home ownership for incoming talent
Property developments to help satisfy demand
eg *Royal Elm Park
* Station Hill
* M4 SDL
* Green Park Village
Lack of affordable housing
Key workers priced out
Other Thames Valley regional shopping hub
Award-winning Reading Buses operator
Lack of identity Low tourism Year of Culture 2016 Reading 2050 vision
Redevelopment of Reading Jail

Weaknesses: A town that needs a unique personality

Lack of identity as a major town in the south

Reading is not on the tourist trail. Nearby towns and cities often have a far more developed cultural identity and succeed in attracting foreign day-trippers from London.

“An absence of personality and identity have been key issues discussed at the Reading 2050 workshops as one of Reading’s ‘could do betters’ – we have to work on creating a sense of place, provide better opportunities for startups and independents and ensure we celebrate our history and diverse culture by weaving these through both current and new developments.” – Kim Cohen, planning partner, Barton Willmore.

Technology mainstream rather than innovation centre?

Surprisingly, although the greater Reading area (including Bracknell, Theale and Wokingham) is home to over 20% of the south’s most successful private, independent tech companies, Reading does not yet feature within the government supported Tech City UK Cluster Alliance.

Many Reading tech companies are now mature operators, but tech innovation, R&D, and business startups are very much to the forefront at Reading’s own fast-growing entrepreneurial Thames Valley Tech hub created by Connect TVT at GROW@Green Park.

Disjointed ‘city’ transport

Although external public transport links have received huge funding, sustainable integrated transport plans within Reading are still to be achieved.

While award-winning Reading Buses is a pioneer of services such as real-time running information, ticketless fares, onboard wifi, sustainable fuels, and 24-hour services, and the ongoing Ready Bike hire scheme successfully began in June 2014, a city-like mass rapid transit system objective remains ‘in progress’.

As Reading Cycling Campaign chairman Adrian Lawson commented In 2014: “They (Reading Borough Council) plan a cycle hire scheme, but what is limiting people in Reading isn’t the availability of a bike but somewhere to ride it.”

Reading has about 40 miles of cycle routes, but many are shared with pedestrians or general traffic, or are not well connected.

Forbury Place

Photograph courtesy of Reading UK CIC

Opportunities:  A ‘city’ with more positives than negatives

Property development is buoyant

“The surge of interest from investors and developers, offers Reading the opportunity for major change and improvement” – Kim Cohen. In 2013, Barton Willmore, Reading UK CIC and the University of Reading began a Reading UK 2050 project to deliver a strategic, long-term vision that will support Reading’s growth and prosperity.

With Kennet Island, Chatham Place and Green Park Village homes under construction, over 600 homes planned for Royal Elm Park, 2,500 for the SDL region, and further mixed-use development planned for both the Station Hill and Reading Gateway sites, Reading is beginning to address its housing shortage.

Recent government initiatives should help further – in his recent Spending Review, George Osborne announced that £2.3billion would be earmarked for private developers to build 400,000 new homes in England, and the relaxation of Permitted Development Rights make it easier for developers to gain planning permission for changes of use from commercial to residential

Culture is becoming a key priority

Reading’s Year of Culture 2016 will be the most important cultural and creative activity undertaken in the ‘city’ in a generation. The aims of the initiative include uniting existing arts and culture organisations, and making Reading a destination for arts and culture in the UK. Every month this year will see a unique theme, from music, to dance, to food, led by a flagship project with a high-profile name.

As part of Reading’s Year of Culture, a ‘Step into Reading 2050’ bus sparked the public imagination with ideas on what Reading could be like in 34 years – its futuristic visions of Reading locations designed to transport people into a smart and sustainable future town.

Transport links are being integrated

Network Rail is developing plans to build a 3.8km rail tunnel as part of a new Western Rail Link to Heathrow (WRLtH) to London Heathrow Terminal 5. The proposed rail connection, which could be operational by 2021, will speed up journeys to the UK’s busiest international airport, by allowing passengers to travel to the airport from Reading without going into London Paddington.

Reading Central Station has recently undergone a major renovation, and work is still ongoing to develop its wider transport links. This includes Reading’s biggest cycle parking hub, with space for around 600 bicycles.

The Royal Elm Park development next to the Madjeski Stadium will host a series of new transport measures, such as subsidised local public transport, a new transport hub and shuttle bus services to help relieve matchday congestion.

Station Hill

Photograph courtesy of Reading UK CIC

Threats:  A ‘city’ that needs to resolve its growth issues

Central government funding cutbacks

Reading has been quite reliant on funding from central government sources, either directly to Reading Borough Council or via the Thames Valley Berkshire LEP gaining Local Growth Fund support for its Strategic Economic Plan. Private investment has underpinned many Reading developments.

Reading’s highways maintenance budget, for example, has more than halved over the last two years to just £1.35m for the current 2016/17 year. Initiatives such as the Local Sustainable Transport Fund have also been cut severely.

Since 2005, Reading has had a Business Improvement District (BID) with an agreed levy on local businesses to fund extra services – Reading town centre has been transformed as a result.

While the government’s Business Growth Service was axed in March 2016, the Reading-based Thames Valley Berkshire LEP Business Growth Hub, delivered by VitalSix has continued to operate.

Riverside location carries risks

Reading’s continuing development is constrained by its existing infrastructure and housing stock, which are the legacy of a manufacturing town that has grown exponentially and diversified into services over the past 40 years.

The combination of climate change and Reading’s proximity to the River Thames, has given rise to increased flooding in recent years. Ironically, opening up Reading’s waterways could increase development values quite significantly.

“Reading is definitely getting there in helping to meet residential demand, but its biggest problem is the constraints of its boundaries, its floodplain and the limited number of available sites.  It needs to balance employment opportunities with in-town residential accommodation.” – Scott Witchalls

Housing shortages for skilled workers

The housing market in Reading has been very buoyant, but according to local professionals, the buy-to-let market has been a key driver, with young workers finding it extremely difficult to secure accommodation.

“Buyers are finding better value than in London, although if property prices continue to rise at the same pace, that may no longer be true.” – Jeremy Leaf, former chairman of Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

Land Registry data from February 2016 showed that Reading was the UK’s housing hotspot, with prices rising 16.1% over the previous 12 months to an average of just over £270,000.

Brexit or Bremain?

Reading has traditionally been an attractive place for foreign companies to set up, given its cost-advantages and proximity to London and Heathrow. As such, Reading has benefitted more than other cities from the free movement of trade and workers, so a vote to exit the EU could have more severe ramifications for Reading.


Photograph courtesy of Reading UK CIC

Reading: Planned and Potential Development Projects

Project Area sq ft Timescale Benefits
Thames Valley Science Park, Shinfield
The University of Reading is one of
the UK’s leading research-intensive universities, and Phase I of Thames Valley Science Park is already established on the University’s main Whiteknights campus
Phase I (completed)
*30,000 – Science & Technology Centre
*45,000 – Reading Enterprise Centre
*75,000 – R&D Centre for Mondelez
Phase II (planning consent granted)
*200,000 development on 45 acre green field site
1st Phase II building due by 2017
*70,000 –
Gateway Building
The park’s ‘Gateway Building’ will provide offices and fitted laboratories for biomed, biotech and health sciences related companies as well as facilities for companies requiring high Internet connectivity, clean rooms or similar specialist requirements
It will also comprise amenity space of a café and meeting area and will be positioned as a centre of innovation for the vibrant Thames Valley enterprise economy
Reading Gateway site
The site near M4 J11 is identified as a South Reading Strategic Development Site, designated for employment, residential, leisure and small-scale retail
Current consent for 427,000 of distribution warehouses Site acquired in Oct-14 Kier and Investec are planning a major mixed-use scheme on this site, which previously contained Hewlett- Packard’s offices
Station Hill redevelopment (SH3)
From the revitalised rail station on its
doorstep, the new buildings at Station Hill will make for an impressive and inviting gateway to Reading centre
*930,000 of highly-flexible office space
*150,000 of retail
*300 residential units
With nearly 930,000 sq ft of office space, this mixed-use development by Stanhope/Benson Elliott is the largest of its kind in the Thames Valley
A further proposal by Sackville Developments to extend the current SH3 development footprint includes additional flats, shops, “a range of town centre uses”, public realm works and associated infrastructure
Royal Elm Park
This project involves the transformation of an undeveloped parcel of land into a mixed-use development with Madejski Stadium at its heart, providing more than 1,000 new jobs
*World-class convention centre
*630 new homes
*A new mix of leisure facilities, including an ice rink, restaurants and a large public square
The development will promote this area of Reading and engage the public more with Reading Football Club.
In particular, there will be a series of transport measures including subsidised local public transport for supporters, a new transport hub, and shuttle bus services to work in conjunction with the arrival of Crossrail and the opening of the new Green Park station in 2019
Winnersh Triangle
An 85-acre, mature business environment, which offers office and industrial business space for a wide mix of uses, including headquarters buildings, R&D, technical, life sciences and logistics
Two key projects for 2016:
*60,000 Grade A office
*52,000 office redevelopment
By end 2016 Winnersh Triangle has 1.4 million square feet of built stock with more than 60 diverse companies employing 4,500 people on site
The Park sits in a superb strategic location just five minutes from the motorway network and less than 25 minutes from Heathrow International Airport, and even boasts its own rail station with direct services to Central London and Reading
South of M4 SDL
Taylor Wimpey, David Wilson Homes Southern and The University of Reading are working together as the South of M4 SDL Consortium to provide an overall area strategy for development
2,500 new market and affordable homes in:
*Spencers Wood
*Three Mile Cross
Wokingham Borough has to meet sizeable targets for new housing over the next decade
The Wokingham Core Strategy for the Borough has allocated the south of M4 Strategic Development Location (SDL) area as one of four strategic development sites which will deliver the new homes Wokingham needs up to 2026
Thames Tower
Opposite Reading Station, the Thames Tower office refurbishment is currently underway
The new Thames Tower has been redesigned with the addition of three extra storeys. Completion 2017 Additional Grade A office space
Forbury Place
The final office building of three is under construction on this site, walkable from Reading Station
Scottish & Southern Energy (SSE), has recently taken 186,000 across eight floors at No 1 Forbury. No.2 Forbury completion in summer 2017 New headquarters offices for SSE. Consolidation of 1,900 regional staff in Reading
Additional Grade A office space
Kenavon Drive site Forbury/ Kennet area Potential reworking of current Homebase and Toys R Us sites with 19-storey block of up to 800 flats. Local planning screening advice stage Boost to residential provision, plus commercial, community or retail floorspace, and revitalisation of the Kennet riverside public realm
Reading Jail Currently offered to market for redevelopment bids and proposals. Opportunity for mixed use and the highlighting of town’s heritage with Reading Abbey and Forbury Gardens on adjoining sites
Royal Elm Park

Photograph courtesy of Barton Willmore

Conclusion: Reading is definitely going places

Overall, our SWOT analysis illustrates a mood of buoyant optimism, with Reading’s strengths and opportunities outweighing any inherent weaknesses or threats visible on the horizon.

The near-term challenges will be to capitalise on this economic momentum and prosperity, in line with the town’s long-term goals, in order to develop a unique personality for Reading as a smart and sustainable city.

Long-term, Reading needs to take advantage of its key attributes – location and technology – to take responsibility and control of its own destiny.

Reading is in the right place geographically – why else would Tesco distribution, and recently IKEA, SSE, Bayer and Thales make Reading their new home – but this ‘city’ needs to be seen as going places.

Crossrail, GWR electrification, Green Park station, improved rail links to Heathrow and the M4 smart motorway will be valuable assets for Reading as the Thames Valley’s regional travel, logistics and distribution hub.

Alongside those significant improvements in its external transportation links, Reading needs to improve its internal offering.

“Funding use in relation to Reading’s future growth strategy needs to be really carefully managed, because sustaining more congestion is not the right answer for a future city,” says Witchalls.

“Any further growth needs to be squarely focused around integrated movement by passenger transport, cycling or walking – which is why Mass Rapid Transit has been in the strategic plan for some years now.”

And better use of Reading’s core of technology talent?

“We are making some headway. Reading, for instance, already uses predictive systems for assessing transport trends; systems that could also be rolled out across the healthcare, energy, and education sectors. The potential is huge,” adds Witchalls.

“We have the expertise and foundations to do all of these things, and by promoting the capabilities of the Thames Valley, we could help drive significant investment and deliver the capacity for development and growth. The future is on our doorstep.”