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Released for regeneration: what lies ahead for Reading Prison?
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  


Bracknell Forest Council Consultation on Draft Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area Supplementary Planning Document
With a Zone of Influence over 11 local authorities[1] within Hampshire, Surrey and Berkshire, the Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area (SPA) has had a considerable effect on planning decisions on relevant sites, ever since its designation in 2005. Balancing the need to protect this area of international importance for nature conservation and its inherent sensitivity to impact from human activity against the pressing need for new development and housing in the area has created challenges for developers and local authorities alike.  However, new draft guidance in Bracknell Forest, which is currently out for consultation until 19 February 2018, may provide some clarity for all parties moving forward.   The Thames Basin Heaths SPA forms part of Natura 2000, a pan-European network of sites of international importance for nature conservation, established under the European Community Wild Birds Directive 2009/147/EC and Habitats Directive 92/43/EEC. The SPA is one of the South East's most important natural assets for lowland heath, and supports important populations of Dartford Warbler, Nightjar and Woodlark – all are vulnerable ground-nesting birds.   Woodlark Source: RSPB An increase in human population and the numbers of visitors to a protected area can give rise to a number of different types of impact on sensitivities e.g. trampling, vandalism, and increased predation from domestic cats.   To prevent impacts, and under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010, no plan or project which may affect a European Site can be undertaken, unless it can be shown that there will be no adverse impact on the integrity of that site, either alone or in combination with other plans or projects. If an adverse impact is identified, then the project cannot go ahead unless there are no alternative solutions, or there are imperative reasons for overriding public interest (‘IROPI’).   In relation to the Thames Heath SPA, in 2005 Natural England (NE) conducted research which indicated that the then existing level of recreational pressure was having a detrimental effect on the three species of birds for which the SPA was designated. As a response to this and the level of housebuilding expected in the Thames Basin Heaths area, NE objected to all planning applications for a net increase in residential development within 5km of the SPA and imposed stringent requirements on all prospective developers.  This led to the SPA designation being seen by some as posing a significant constraint on development within the area. Source: Telegraph Bracknell Forest Council is one of the authorities affected by the tension between demand for new development in this rapidly growing area of the South East and the need to protect the highly sensitive habitats and species within its administrative boundary.  The authority includes the Broadmoor to Bagshot Heaths Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and the Sandhurst to Owlsmoor Bogs/Heaths SSSI; also a large proportion of Bracknell lies within 5km of one of the boundaries of the Thames Heath SPA and is therefore covered by some of the restrictions highlighted above.   Up until now, the authority has sought, via a number of different policy documents (e.g. the adopted Bracknell Forest Thames Basin Heath SPA SPD (2012)) to address the issue but these have failed to ensure a consistent approach.  This has led to a lack of certainty and an often slow site-by-site negotiation to identify appropriate mitigation for each proposal.   To address this uncertainty, the authority is currently consulting on the Draft Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area Avoidance and Mitigation Supplementary Planning Document (January 2018) (hereafter referred to as the ‘Draft SPA DPD’).[2] Once adopted, the Draft SPA DPD will replace the adopted Bracknell Forest Thames Basin Heath SPA SPD (2012) and it will be used to help to determine planning applications (as a material consideration), as part of the Council’s Local Development Framework.   The approaches outlined in the Draft SPA SPD are the result of a longstanding effort to streamline the assessment of development proposals in the SPA Zone of Influence. In addition, the new draft guidance aims to provide greater clarity to applicants on the types of suitable mitigation measures in the form of Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace (‘SANG’) and Strategic Access Management and Monitoring (‘SAMM’)  - required to remove the potential for adverse impacts on the SPA.  The draft sets out the following broad strategy:-     In addition, whilst the adopted Thames Basin Heaths SPA (March 2012) identified 7 sites suitable for strategic SANGS in Bracknell Forest, the suitability of 5 new strategic SANG sites (with an estimated area totaling 26 hectares) has been agreed with Natural England, as outlined within the Draft SPA SPD.   The draft guidance notes that the majority of new housing development in Bracknell Forest up to 2034 will be located within Zone B (between 400m and 5km of the SPA).  It also provides a record of current and emerging SANGs and SAMM strategies in the area that contributions will be put towards.   The Draft SPA SPD is considered to represent a step towards a more transparent and guidance-led process in which prospective applicants are aware of what will be required of their development proposals from the outset. Hopefully this should facilitate and speed up planning decisions in this area of significant housing demand, whilst also protecting the very sensitive environment and species that, to a great extent, attract people to live in the area. Lichfields has an extensive track record of providing planning; environmental impact assessment; and plan-led land promotion services for development within the Thames Valley and other environmentally sensitive locations. For more information on our experience or to discuss any potential development opportunities, please do not hesitate to contact us.   [1] Waverley BC, Guildford BC, Surrey Heath BC, Woking BC, Bracknell Forest BC, Hart DC, Wokingham   BC, Elmbridge BC, Runnymede BC, The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, Rushmoor BC. [2] Consultation on the Bracknell Forest Draft Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area Supplementary Planning Document (January 2018) is currently until 5.00 PM on Monday 19th February 2018. [3] The ‘Zone of Influence’ denotes the area from 400m from the perimeter of the SPA to 5km from the perimeter of the SPA (Bracknell Thames Basin Heaths SPA SPD, 2012).