This Monday, Reading Council will decide whether to support proposals to utilise Reading Prison for the development of a new theatre and a range of complementary uses (including enabling development) in accordance with the vision set out by Theatre and Arts Reading (TAR).
There are a number of possible outcomes for the site but the final scheme will need to respond to a range of policy aspirations within a viable commercial model. In this blog, Lichfields considers how the preferred masterplan might deliver a suitable mix of uses for the site, and the scale and range of economic benefits that might arise from different development scenarios.
The heritage-led re-use of historic sites can offer an unrivalled richness of regeneration outcomes. Historic England’s recent Risky Business? report (researched and written by Lichfields) illustrates the considerable potential that such sites can have to deliver environmental, social and economic benefits alongside conservation. The study, which focused on successful Heritage at Risk! projects in London, drew on available metrics from project evaluations, planning applications and interviews, and was supplemented with estimates of economic impact using our ‘Evaluate’ tool. The research demonstrates that historic sites can deliver tangible regeneration impacts at the local level, revitalising local landmarks, investing in local services, creating cultural destinations and optimising the use of land.
Reading Prison is not ‘at risk’, but it is an incredibly important and sensitive historic site in the town, which has been awaiting a new use since 2014 when the Ministry of Justice announced its closure. It occupies the site of the former Reading Abbey, founded in 1121 and once one of the most important pilgrimage centres in England. The entirety of the prison site is scheduled and of high archaeological potential (Henry I was buried in the Abbey and his remains may still lie within the prison site), and the standing remains of the Abbey which lie adjacent are listed Grade I. The prison building itself was constructed in 1844; it is listed Grade II as an important example of the ‘separate’ system which was established at Pentonville just two years earlier. The gothic design, by Sir George Gilbert Scott and William Moffat, features an attractive central octagon and crenelated north front, and the prison has particular historic value for its association with erstwhile inmate Oscar Wilde. He served two years at the prison between 1895 and 1897, describing his grim experiences afterwards in his poem, ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’.
The prison is a key part of the Abbey Quarter, a conservation and interpretation initiative focused on the Abbey remains and neighbouring Forbury Gardens (Grade II registered), and the Town Hall and Museum, which aim to deliver a clustered leisure, learning and visitor centre. This part of Reading is experiencing a tourist renaissance, following the reopening of the Abbey last month. The recent meanwhile use of the Prison for the Art Angel installation has been a big splash nationally and shows the site’s potential as a cultural destination.
The prison is also a key regeneration opportunity at the heart of Reading. It is allocated within the 2009 Reading Central Area Action Plan as part of the East Side Major Opportunity Area which, amongst other objectives, seeks to provide ‘a more defined urban area than currently exists, of medium to high density’. Policy R3b envisages the site’s regeneration for residential, commercial officers or a hotel. The Council’s 2015 Outline Development Framework for the site, adopted in 2015 as a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD), expands on its heritage and archaeological opportunities and sensitivities, including recognising the scope to remove or replace the unsightly 20th century buildings which surround the listed cruciform building.
Drawing on our experience in producing the Risky Business? report for Historic England, and in securing conversion and reuse of historic prisons at Gloucester and Portsmouth, we thought it would be interesting to consider how the site might come forward in accordance with the SPD, and to establish the type and broad scale of economic benefits that different masterplan scenarios could deliver.
Whilst these scenarios have not yet been viability-tested or subject to a detailed consideration of archaeological and other constraints of the site, we established three options to test different intensities of development all three scenarios aimed at delivering the following objectives:
A masterplan (massing and layout) which ensures that Scott’s prison remains the architectural centrepiece of the scheme
Preservation of key views to the octagon and north front; building heights broadly following that established by the existing prison walls (approximately 3 storeys)
Removal or redevelopment of unsightly C20th buildings which detract from the prison’s setting
Improved permeability into the site, which is currently encircled by prison walls
Activation along the River Kennet to the south and creation of new public space
Scenario 1. Mixed use
This scheme seeks to optimise the mix of uses within the site, with the prison itself becoming a hotel (38 bedrooms based on the precedent established at Oxford, albeit this may be a conservative estimate as Reading is larger), and the surrounding blocks redeveloped for a total of 7100sqm commercial floorspace, 500sqm community space and 93 dwellings. The scheme envisages 2850sqm office space in two 3 storey blocks framing views into the north and east of the site, with taller blocks to the south (3-5 storeys) containing 6500sqm residential and 3367sqm commercial (restaurants and bars) opening out onto the banks of the river.
We calculate that this option, on occupation, could generate £3.6m of resident expenditure per annum, 578 FTE jobs, and £45.7m direct GVA per annum.
See larger version
Scenario 1: masterplan layout and associated economic impact [N.B. all figures are indicative, based on an illustrative scheme mix]
Scenario 2. Scaled-back office/hotel
This scheme proposes 4,800sqm of commercial floorspace alongside the 38 bedroom hotel, with development located in the eastern part of the site, allowing generous public space to be provided across the western part of the site where it engages with the abbey ruins. A three-storey northern block would comprise 2100sqm office space, with office and commercial uses accommodated at the south-eastern part of the site, supporting vibrancy along the river and events within the public space adjacent.
Our economic analysis indicates that, on occupation, this could deliver 414 direct FTE jobs during operation, and £36.3m direct GVA per annum.
See larger version
Scenario 2: scaled back office space, hotel and more generous public space, together with economic impact [N.B. all figures are indicative, based on an illustrative scheme mix]
Scenario 3. Arts/commercial
The third scenario envisages the prison in use as a c1,800sqm gallery or arts venue, supported commercially by a 2,400sqm 50 bedroom hotel in the south-eastern corner of the site, with a ground floor bar/restaurant space. The northern part of the site would provide a large green space associated with the gallery.
This scenario could generate 80 direct FTE jobs during operation and £2.8m direct GVA per annum.
See larger version
Scenario 3: Arts and commercial scheme, together with estimate economic impact [N.B. all figures are indicative, based on an illustrative scheme mix]
These three options show how much the site has to offer – both as a potential cultural anchor to the Abbey Quarter, but also as a vibrant commercial and mixed use hub. The site and its heritage present a huge opportunity to create a unique destination in the heart of Reading, with new uses having the potential to provide a striking new life and setting for an iconic, if infamous Victorian prison.
Get in touch with the authors
Daniel Lampard, Senior Director and Head of Thames Valley office
Ciaran Gunne-Jones, Senior Director and Head of Economics
Nick Bishop, Senior Heritage Consultant
Colin Pullan, Urban Design Director
Layla Vidal-Martin, Planner