Aristotle’s supposed saying: ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ has always left me somewhat questioning its true meaning.  It shouldn’t because I’ve lived in Reading all my life, writes John Burbedge.

Reading absolutely proves Aristotle’s statement – it has a synergy that has made it greater than the sum of its parts.

‘Synergy’, today viewed as a modern business buzzword, actually derives from the ancient Greek word synergia meaning “working together”.

In business terms, synergy is teamwork that will produce an overall better result than if each person within the group was working individually toward the same goal.

Clustering is similar, a positive concentration of like-minded talent that develops and enhances a business specialism – the ‘parts’ in Aristotle’s greater ‘whole’.

Reading has those constructive clustered business ‘parts’ too: for example, IT, telecoms, bioscience, professional services, pharmaceutical, logistics, leisure and retail.

‘Synergy’ began to be used colloquially during the 19th century, ironically around the time that Reading began to awake as a market town, gained the boost of the Great Western Railway and established its 3B’s major business footprint – biscuits (Huntley & Palmers) beer (H&G Simonds brewery) and bulbs (Suttons Seeds) – on the way to becoming the greater Reading that it is today.

‘Greater’ that is in its UK economic influence and GDP input, worldwide connectivity and status, and its own local geography, which arguably stretches west-east between M4 Junctions 12-10 and north-south from Emmer Green to Spencers Wood.

‘Greater Reading’ has long since outgrown its borough council boundaries, notably south of the M4 at Shinfield with the new Science Park development. Today ‘Greater Reading’ does not have any defined perimeters, but it certainly exists in the minds of astute and aspiring business leaders.

The population of ‘Greater Reading’ is growing too. In 2015, Reading’s urban area had an estimated population of 232,662 *, making it the largest settlement in the UK without city status.  Yet it is the undisputed heart of the vibrant and commercially important Thames Valley region. * Office for National Statistics (ONS)

‘Greater Reading’ has got things right for business

Reading is a town that operates as a city and is perceived as a city.

Why else would it have been be acclaimed as ‘The UK’s most successful economic city’ (PwC/Demos Good Growth Index); ‘Most prosperous UK city outside London’ (Barclays survey); ‘A top 25 European Business City of the Future’ (FDI European Future Cities Awards, 2016)?

Cities Outlook 2017, the economic performance barometer of the UK’s top cities produced annually by Centre for Cities, continues to rank Reading as one of the most dynamic for business growth, skills and wages in the country.

Cities Outlook again ranks Reading in second place to London for its economic contribution per worker, average workplace wages and the number of businesses per capita. Reading also performs strongly for innovation, business startups, employment levels and qualifications.

And, Reading’s Thames and Kennet river environs, business opportunities and modern lifestyle amenities are plainly attractive to the town’s many high-profile UK and international companies, plus importantly their employees.

Why else would Reading have been highlighted as one of the: ‘Best places to live in the UK’ (PwC/Demos ‘Good Growth for Cities Index’); ‘A top location for business growth’ (LSH report, UK Vitality Index); ‘Fastest-growing conurbations in the country’ (EY report, UK Region and City Economic Forecast); and the ‘UK’s No.1 regional technology cluster’ (KPMG Tech Monitor)?

Noticeably, following its 2016 Year of Culture, Reading achieved prestigious Purple Flag status for its evening and night-time town-centre economy. Purple Flag awardees are recognised for providing a vibrant and diverse mix of dining, entertainment and culture, while promoting the safety and wellbeing of visitors and local residents.

Why else would global and market leading companies such as Huawei, Bayer, Thales, Pepsico, Oracle, Microsoft, Verizon, Quintiles, Foster Wheeler, Symantec, Becton Dickinson, Austin Fraser, IKEA and Tesco distribution choose to base or relocate their headquarters and strategically important sites in ‘Greater Reading’?

Location and synergistic city links

The business synergy of Reading stems from its prized location – close enough to Heathrow Airport and London for international linkage; in convenient striking distance of the rest of southern England and Solent-based ports; plus its setting amid beautiful Berkshire countryside complete with world-renowned sporting venues such as Henley and Ascot nearby.

Location is a massive tick for Reading but the town wouldn’t be successful without the provision of the right ‘city’ infrastructure and support for business.

Infrastructure

A generation ago Reading was rightly being criticised for its inadequate infrastructure, especially transportation. 

Today, the town has arguably the finest railway station in the country, which following its £850 million redevelopment importantly provides excellent travel links throughout the UK. The Elizabeth Line (Crossrail) will arrive in Reading by December 2019. Network Rail is planning a new Western Rail Link to Heathrow that could provide direct access from Reading to Heathrow by the mid-2020s.

The upgrading of Reading’s M4 junctions has reduced rush-hour congestion (still the bane of most busy cities), with ‘smart motorway’ improvements set to begin this year. A third Thames bridge crossing remains a beneficial traffic-easing prospect for Reading.

The award-winning Reading Buses services and park-and-ride facilities encircle the town, and the ReadyBike hire scheme with 40miles of cycling routes completes the synergistic transportation links – each helping to ease town-centre car-parking requirements.

Education

While the growing population has put pressure on the town’s primary schools, Reading has some of the best secondary schools in the country (eg Reading School, Abbey School, Kendrick School) and new schools are being created.

Launched in 2013, Reading University Technical College (UTC Reading) has also enhanced the towns early career options in computer science and engineering.

Reading UK CIC recently completed a three-year City Deal with central government that helped the town deliver nearly 100 apprenticeships, full-time work for 340 and employment support for over 1,000 young people.

Career-focused further education links are highlighted by the location of the Henley Business School within the University of Reading’s campus – both world-renowned academic bodies.

Together they all create an educational synergy that develops and helps attract a skilled talent-pool within the Reading catchment area – a key plus for inward investors.

Creating modern business parks

The University of Reading’s new 47-acre Thames Valley Science Park (TVSP) at Shinfield, south of the M4, launches this autumn – and will become a natural national focal point for aspiring science-related businesses.

It will also become a natural working partner to the University’s established digital cluster of more than 70 ambitious startup and early stage companies with high-growth potential. The TVSP already has 80,000 sq ft of fully-fitted laboratory and office accommodation on its Whiteknights campus.

At Shinfield, a further major 800,000 sq ft commercial campus is being developed, with its first ‘Gateway’ building offering 70,000 sq ft of quality offices and laboratories, providing specialist space for innovative technology-based companies.

The ‘Gateway’ will also provide facilities for companies requiring high internet connectivity, clean rooms or similar specialist requirements, plus collaboration and café amenity space.

The TVSP will be positioned as a centre of innovation for the vibrant Thames Valley economy, providing entrepreneurial businesses with access to world-class talent linked to the University of Reading – one of the UK’s leading research-intensive universities.

The European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting is sited just across the M4 but ECMRW assistance would not be needed to forecast a bright future for the TVSP.

In Theale, near M4 J12, Nokia is set to move into 40,000 sq ft at Arlington Park’s triple unit Grade-A lakeside refurbishment The Hive.

Just off M4 J11, the Kier Property 20.5-acre Reading Gateway site, former home of Hewlett Packard, is currently being redeveloped as a mixed-use scheme set to provide 175 homes, a 120-bed hotel, retail, showroom and warehousing units.

At Island Road, near Green Park, Peel Logistics and Rockspring Investment’s new industrial and urban logistics development has arrived this spring, offering three warehouse units of 56,000 sq ft, 73,000 sq ft and 127,000 sq ft.

Greater Reading’s existing modern business parks – from Arlington Park at Theale in the west, to the International Park and the huge Green Park with its M4 landmark wind turbine, to Thames Valley Park and Winnersh Triangle further east – all now offer value-added amenities such as hotels, conference facilities, transport-links, leisure, dining and shopping opportunities.

Interestingly, the three largest office deals of 2016 in Greater Reading were all on business parks.

New town centre office developments

However, Reading’s in-town office sector, increasingly focused near the impressive railway station and heritage Forbury Gardens and Reading Abbey ruins, is fighting back with added-value appeal – space and leasing flexibility, dramatic architectural designs, lifestyle amenities and concierge facilities for office occupiers to create a vibrant atmosphere and collaborative working environment.

Like several other Thames Valley towns, Reading is regenerating its ‘city’ centre, having already pedestrianised its central Broad Street and redeveloped the former Courage brewery site into the major Oracle retailing complex. Above the Broad Street Mall, the town’s other key shopping centre, the 1960s 8-storey Fountain House has been substantially refurbished by owners Moorgarth.

Several previous business locations have been or are being redeveloped with stylish 21st century Grade-A office buildings – and increasingly mixed-use variation.

Opposite Reading Station, the former home of Foster Wheeler, has been extensively refurbished by Landid and Brockton Capital with four floors added and now called Thames Tower offers 186,000 sq ft of Grade-A office space complete with exposed services internal styling and roof terrace views over Reading.

Near to The Blade, Reading’s striking and highest contemporary landmark, The White Building has freshly arrived providing collaborative co-working business space and also a rooftop terrace above its 93,145 sq ft over eight floors.

Previously home to Prudential, the former Alpha Building now rebranded as Kennet Place at the Kings Road/Forbury Road junction is also undergoing a substantial refurbishment and will deliver a further 69,462 sq ft to the market this summer.

Following the successful pre-let of a similar building to energy giant SSE in 2015, the latest phase of M&G’s speculative development – 2 Forbury Place – is due for completion this autumn. At over 195,000 sq ft, it will be the town’s largest new building.

M&G Real Estate’s latest UK market outlook assesses Reading’s office sector as well positioned to weather uncertainty arising from Brexit negotiations.

Residential and lifestyle development

‘Greater Reading’ is also beginning to address its housing shortage.

Taylor Wimpey, David Wilson Homes Southern and the University of Reading – the consortium supporting Wokingham Borough Council’s designated South of M4 Strategic Development Location – are currently progressing construction of roughly 2,500 new homes around Shinfield, Spencers Wood and Three Mile Cross.

Moving closer into Reading the recently approved Royal Elm Park project involves the transformation of undeveloped land into a mixed-use development with Madejski Stadium at its heart, providing 615 new homes, a world-class convention centre, an ice rink, restaurants, leisure and public facilities, and more than 1,000 new jobs.

Meanwhile, as new homes continue to be constructed at Kennet Island, across the A33, developers St Edward are now selling lakeside houses at Green Park Village.

In central Reading, 300 residential units are proposed within the Station Hill redevelopment, along with 930,000 sq ft of highly flexible office space and 150,000 sq ft of retail.

Similarly, potential reworking of the current Homebase and Toys R Us sites off Kenavon Drive opposite the former Reading Prison may include a 19-storey residential opportunity for up to 800 flats.

Reading Prison itself may also be sold for residential development, but the Ministry of Justice will work with bodies including Reading Borough Council and Historic England to ensure the building maintains its ‘historic integrity’.