Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence

Memorandum by Reading Borough Council (RG 44)

  I am writing to submit the Borough Council's views to the Select Committee on the above enquiry, in particular on the issue of city regions and boundaries.

  The Council welcomes the enquiry as an opportunity to explore and review the anachronistic boundaries of many local authorities in urban areas, and would offer Reading as a specific example. The Council's boundaries south of the River Thames have not changed since the first decade of the C20th, and many years ago ceased to reflect the socio-economic geography of the Reading urban area. As a consequence the Borough Council is responsible for decisions affecting the 145,000 citizens living in the historic centre of an urban area with a population approaching 250,000, which is currently administered by five local authorities: three Unitary Authorities, one District Council and one County Council.

  Whilst we recognise that Reading is not unique in this regard, the Reading situation does have specific features which touch on wider agendas which we bring to the Select Committee's attention. Reading is the largest town, and the business capital, of the Thames Valley sub-region, one of the top 20 most prosperous regions in the European Union, and with the fastest growing economy in the UK since 1999, and home to 10 of the top 50 global organisations. Reading has the sixth highest Gross Added Value per head in the UK. It is the economic driver for growth in the South-East region, with an impact that is national and international. However, because of the current local government boundary arrangements it is unable to take the strategic infrastructure decisions which are necessary to underpin and support this key role.

  The attached plans help illustrate the position. The first shows the authority's current boundaries, and the significant areas of suburban development—all predominantly dependent on Reading—which are outside the Borough boundaries. The second map shows the boundaries—both north and south of the Thames—agreed by the authority's Cabinet as necessary to enable the Council to take control of its strategic infrastructure.

  There is a body of supporting evidence that the Council would welcome the opportunity of putting before the Select Committee, to illustrate the difficulties posed by the current anachronistic boundaries. I briefly give three below.

  Firstly, the Council is restricted in its ability to take strategic transport decisions. Traffic congestion is identified regularly by our business partners as a key local challenge, and Hewlett Packard have recently announced their decision to move their European HQ out of Reading, primarily due to traffic congestion. Key elements of the Council's successful transport strategy are dependent on partnerships with neighbouring authorities which have different political and local priorities, and which to date have struggled to rise to the challenge of tackling Reading's traffic problems in a way which meets Reading's traffic needs. Recently the fragility of such arrangements were demonstrated when Wokingham and West Berkshire withdrew from the Reading Urban Area Package partnership arrangements. Two examples clearly illustrate the impact neighbouring authorities have on the delivery of the transport strategy. These relate to the provision of additional park-and-ride schemes, and the development of a third Thames crossing to the east of the town. Sites for further park-and-ride schemes will have to be found outside the Borough boundary, and have not been forthcoming; the third Thames crossing will have to use land, both north and south of the river, which again is not in Reading, and to which there is strong opposition from north of the river Thames.

  Secondly, the Council is restricted in its ability to take strategic planning and housing decisions. A consortium of landowners, led by the Prudential, proposes the development of brownfield land south-west of Reading, and north of the M4, to provide around 7,000 new homes and associated employment and transport infrastructure: this area is shown as (1)[green] on the second of the enclosed plans (Reading in 2020). This could go a very significant way to meeting the housing needs of Reading and its neighbours. However, none of the land in question lies within the Borough boundary. The very nature and location of this site means that whilst the planning negotiations and decisions will be taken by a neighbouring authority, the development will look to Reading and will impact on and be dependent on the town. The Council recognises the Government's desire to promote growth points (as set out in its response to the Barker review of housing supply), but local boundaries pose a significant challenge to aspiring to achieve this.

  Thirdly, the Council is restricted in its ability to take strategic education decisions. Due to the history of school planning and building investment decisions by the former Berkshire County Council, half of the secondary schools serving the Reading urban area are located outside the Borough's boundaries, in three separate local authorities. Two of the secondary schools within Reading are selective grammar schools with a wide catchment area and with only a minority of their pupils living within the Borough boundary. In east Reading, there is no non-selective secondary school within the Borough boundary. The complexities this creates were acknowledged in 2005 by HM Inspectorate in a report on the Council's education provision. At a different level, the boundary runs through the middle of the university campus, which therefore finds itself the subject of two planning authorities.

  The current boundaries also restrict the Council in terms of emergency planning and business continuity, and in improving the local environment.

  The Council hopes that the Select Committee will wish to take evidence from Reading on how the current structure of local government and boundaries in central Berkshire impact adversely on the Council, and our vision for resolving this. The city regions issue has been raised through the Reading 2020 (Local Strategic) Partnership, and I also attach an excerpt from a recent report to that body which sets out the economic arguments in more detail. The LSP Board has, on various occasions, noted both the importance of leading the sub-regional agenda and addressing anachronistic boundary implications for transport, housing, employment and related environmental issues. These concerns have also arisen in LSP consultation events involving the broader community of the LSP forum.

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