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A typical scene in the Council Chamber

A typical scene in the Council Chamber

The lights dimmed in the council chamber at about 9pm when automatic energy saving measures kicked in. This moment may have suggested that, after two and a half hours, it was time for the curtains to come down on the night’s performance, yet there was still important business to discuss and the show had to go on.

The stage set was more functional than the old council chamber in the now partly demolished civic offices. Reproductions of the John Piper tapestries ‘Urban Reading’ and ‘Rural Reading’ hung stage right and a portrait of the Queen hung at the rear. Excitement mounted as the cognoscenti of Reading awaited the last performance this year of the strategic environment, planning and transport committee.

Dramatis Personae

David Absalom. The chairman and head of the committee sits centre stage.

The committee administrator. Sits to the right of David Absalom.

Chorus of council officers. They sit to the left of David Absalom and each awaits his or her call to a solo performance when presenting papers to the committee.

The labour councillors. There are a vast number of these, and they sit in desks to the left.
Tony Page. Deputy leader of the council and lead councillor for strategic environment, planning and transport. He is the lead protagonist of the drama.
Matt Rodda & Rose Williams. Katesgrove councillors.

The opposition councillors. There are three of these, one Green, one Conservative and one Liberal Democrat.

— Act I (agenda items II to IV) —

In which minutes of the previous committee meeting on 15 July 2015 and minutes of other bodies were approved and noted.

— Act II  (agenda items V to VII) —

And another thing...

And another thing…

In which petitions were considered (there were none), questions answered from councillors (there were seven) and members of the public (there were none) and decision book references considered (there were none).

— A musical interlude (agenda item VIII) —

In which there was a presentation from Martin Small, principal advisor of the historic environment planning, national planning and conservation department of Historic England. This served as a support act to agenda item 9 and introduced us to the magic and mysteries of the virtuous heritage circle described in the English Heritage corporate plan 2011/2015.

— Act  III (agenda items IX to XVI)  scene I —

The Act began with a fanfare to celebrate the protection and enhancement of Reading’s conservation areas. A working group had been set up with the Baker Street area neighbourhood association (BSANA) and other community groups to address this. The papers for the meeting included a description of the issues within the three conservation areas considered as part of a pilot project. These were Castle Hill/Russell Street, Redlands and St Peter’s.

Karen Rowland, chair of BSANA, spoke with passion about the potential that had been unlocked by the project:

Today is the best day for Reading’s conservation areas since they were created. Today, Reading Borough Council has said this town is serious, not only about Reading’s historical Abbey Quarter, but about the fifteen conservation areas that we have.

Katesgrove includes parts of three conservation areas; Kendrick Road, Christchurch and London Street/Market Place, so it was not surprising that Matt Rodda said:

From a Katesgrove perspective I think this is absolutely fascinating. The residents there would gladly do what Karen and her colleagues in the other residents’ association are offering to do.

— Act III  scene II —

At the end of the previous scene, a discussion had taken place relating to the use of article four directions which led seamlessly into agenda item ten: proposed article four direction in relation to small houses in multiple occupation to control changes of use of properties on Jesse Terrace. Parts of Katesgrove already have this protection which requires planning permission for these conversions.

— Act III  scene III

In which Reading’s new local plan, the climax of the evening’s drama, was reached. The local plan was required because of the changes in the national planning policy framework that required identification of ‘objectively assessed development needs and provide for them.’ The first stage in production of the plan was a consultation on issues and options.

A key feature of the plan was an assessment of the annual increase required in the number of houses in the borough. In conjunction with the other five Berkshire unitary authorities, this number had been estimated as 699. The challenge that dominated the issues and options paper was where this development should take place and its nature and density. Existing and possible new sites for development as well as existing and new green space designations form part of a voluminous document of 140 pages, the Issues and Options Document.

Councillor Page said:

The new sites in appendix three are not endorsed for any purposes at this stage and it’s an opportunity for the public to comment on, and that list of 32 sites is set out on page 152, and that needs to be emphasised. This is a very comprehensive document that ranges over virtually all the issues of relevance to the future development of the town and I hope that organisations, some of whom are represented here this evening, will take the opportunity of commenting upon it.

He then launched into a soliloquy, making national and local political points on the pressures on Reading’s housing market:

Page 134 gives the figure that the strategic housing market assessment confirms is a net need for 406 affordable homes per annum over the plan period; now that’s the majority of homes each year. Now what’s the likelihood of that being achieved given current government policies? Anybody who was at last week’s presentation in the old Town Hall where we had a lawyer, a housing association representative, spelling out the implications of the current legislation that is going through parliament that will further erode our rights and our ability as an authority to deliver affordable housing; it’s already pretty weak, it will be completely removed if that legislation goes through and that is going to be a major challenge.

One of the proposals that will allow developers to designate affordable housing, i.e. a 20% discount for up to five years in lieu of any other contributions. A 20% discount on market rates in Reading does nothing to help affordable housing. At ten times average salaries you would need a 50 to 60% discount to bring houses within the reach of people on average pay and it isn’t going to happen and the government is not interested in achieving that.

I’ve just finished reading, and I would commend this through to Councillor Hopper [Conservative], a Bow Group publication that’s just come out. Bow Group, the longest established Conservative think tank in the country that is now advocating restrictions on foreign investment because of the damage it is doing to the price of housing in London and the home counties and we see it in Reading. Inward investment, particularly from the middle east, is contributing to a massive escalation of house prices. Now, God, if that had been the Labour party suggesting it a few months ago it would have been the Kremlin arriving in town but no, it comes from the Bow Group!

I would say to Councillor Hopper and others that they need to get wise to the realities of the pressures that are driving house prices up in Reading and our ability to respond.

The consultation will take place in January 2016.

— Act III  scene IV —

In which railway enthusiasts in the audience who had waited patiently for almost two hours hoping that in 2018 there would be trains to spot on the platform of Green Park Station, were disappointed that no trains had yet arrived and the results of the review being undertaken by Sir Peter Hendy into the electrification of the line were still awaited.

— Act III  scene V —

In the final scene we were transported from the green hills of environmental achievement to the fog of air quality. This gave the opportunity for the protagonist, Councillor Page, to deliver a political blow to his opponents.

The performance report on Reading’s climate change strategy 2013-2020 included an action plan and stated :

The latest local area carbon footprint data (2013) showed Reading borough had reduced its carbon emissions by 27% reduction per capita since 2005. It is the best performing local authority in Berkshire and amongst the best per carbon emission reductions of the 413 local authorities in the UK.

A note of tragedy was struck by Councillor Ricky Duveen (Liberal Democrat) when he said that the post of sustainability manager will be cut under current proposals, so the current performance could be the swan song for one of the soloists from the Reading Borough council officer chorus.

The last soloist from the chorus reported on air quality and the action plan update. The final page of the 347 pages of papers for this committee is a map of Reading’s air quality management area within which lies a large part of Katesgrove.

The dramatic tension built up to the cathartic climax; a political drama over the lack of Green Party support for the park & ride scheme. Councillor Rodda posed a question to Councillor Jamie Whitham (Green Party) :

Given your interest in this – great to see you are now sharing our interest in this issue – would it be wise for the Green Group on Reading Borough Council to reconsider its opposition to park & ride because park & ride schemes like the Hillbrow one, which your colleagues unfortunately are now opposing, are a major way of reducing vehicle traffic into Reading town centre.

Councillor Whitham did not agree that park & ride necessarily reduced emissions because, in his view, it did not reduce car journeys into the town unless car parking spaces in town were removed.

Councillor Page pressed the point home:

I mean, Councillor Whitham, you can do better than that. The fact is that the Oxford Greens, the Brighton Greens, all support park & ride because they recognise that it’s the start of a process to get people out of their cars and using public transport in a way that they might not do and that’s what we’re doing at Mereoak.

And I just want to further rebuke you and your colleagues for spreading the falsehood that the park & ride site is part of resurrecting the cross town route. It is not, We are committed to, and on record, to deliver a public transport link which is what the cross town route never was. We are talking about a new a new public transport link from the station to Broken Brow and East Reading and then going on to Bracknell eventually. That’s the scheme that the Berkshire local transport board is supporting, I chair it; we are getting LEP support for it. It is not the cross town route and the sooner you and your colleagues stop spreading that alarmist nonsense – I know you are desperate, you know that we are breathing down your necks in Park ward and truth goes out of the window in that campaign – but the fact is we are committed to a public transport link that will improve the environment in East Reading and you are opposing that scheme and you should be ashamed of yourselves.

[Exeunt omnes

Reading literati go home, sated with drama

Reading cognoscenti go home after the drama, sated with Ciceronian oratory

The next performance by this committee will be on 5 April 2016.


Links

  1. John Piper’s tapestries, of Urban and Rural Reading, used to hang in the Kennet Room in the old Civic Offices. They are too large to be used in the new offices, but can currently be seen on display at Reading Museum, A Sense of Place Exhibition.
  2. Webcast of the Strategic Environment, Planning and Transport Committee Meeting 24 November 2015 The webcast is split by agenda item.
  3. Pilot Project to Protect Reading’s Conservation Areas
  4. How do you protect our environment and historical sites?
  5. DEFRA air quality information
  6. Newtown campaigners object to park-and-ride close to Kennet Mouth
  7. Council Committee Meetings Calendar
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