An insight into the future of Reading
Reading has continued to undergo significant transformation in recent years. The development around Reading’s station is particularly notable and is a major milestone in the town’s transformation. With the emergence of and growing interest in ‘second cities’, it has become imperative for businesses and wider communities, to monitor the market in which they operate.
For over 150 years, BDB Pitmans has helped businesses in Reading grow and continues to do so today. With Reading set to transform at an unprecedented rate, we invited a number of guest speakers to discuss how the local business community can prepare for future opportunities and challenges.
The discussions took the form of four roundtables focusing on the following key topics. Select each heading to view a summary:
1 Achieving Sustainable Growth
Chaired by John Hutchinson, partner in BDB Pitmans’ corporate team.
While Reading boasts a high concentration of fast growing firms, how can businesses maintain their competitive advantage and build upon the growing success of the town?
The main question is whether Reading businesses can ensure that there is a compelling proposition for continued investment and improved productivity. The CBI’s snapshot of productivity in the UK revealed that UK employees now produce 16% less than France and other European countries. However, in contrast to many parts of the UK, Reading is doing well as reflected in the CBI’s overall figures for West Berkshire – it is in the 96th percentile for productivity.
The CBI have identified broad factors they believe are affecting productivity across the regions – these include infrastructure, skills and management practices. The following sections focus on these themes in more detail.
Jane Mackay, head of tax at Crowe UK, also noted that Reading is now considered a digital hotspot in the UK. The Tech Nation survey last year revealed that Reading has seven times the concentration of digital businesses compared to London and other parts of the country. This digital connection has also had an impact on how Crowe does business with its clients that now need advice on more complex issues at every stage of their lifecycle. It also affects how the company recruits as clients are not only asking for knowledge but also insight and experience. The needs and ambitions of Crowe’s clients define the advice applied to help them make smart decisions today that create lasting value in the future.
2 Attracting and Retaining Talent
Chaired by Angela Shields, partner in BDB Pitmans’ employment team.
Reading is amongst the most productive cities in Europe, proving to be an ideal location for businesses wanting access to a highly skilled workforce. With wages currently at 18% above the national average, Reading is a highly attractive place to work.
A key question is: how can businesses keep up with the demands of the changing workforce?
Businesses have traditionally found it difficult to communicate with universities because of their size. However, in Reading it is hoped that the Thames Valley Science Park will help to make that interaction easier with a clear front door for businesses; there are approximately 80 businesses across Thames Valley Science Park and the University of Reading’s Whiteknights campus. Benefits for businesses include the ability to build relationships with academic departments when recruiting for internships and placing students and employing students, which then leads to employing graduates. One of the initiatives that the University looked at was around the concept of the University being a lifelong partner with businesses – an initiative adopted by some US universities.
Ethical Reading was established in 2018 and its focus is to encourage and embed ethics within organisations in Reading. According to Gurprit Singh from Ethical Reading, ‘the organisation wants Reading to be differentiated and for it to stand out from the other areas. A healthy and ethical working culture will help to retain talent in the Thames Valley’. Ethical Reading believes that if a company can create a vision that engages more people, it will have a positive effect on employee wellbeing.
3 Developing Infrastructure
Chaired by David Gwillim, partner in BDB Pitmans’ construction team.
There is a new major project underway at every turn, however how can Reading businesses make the most of these developments?
The key to unlocking Reading’s growth potential is the need to understand and learn about the economy and how to manage the growing pressures on transport systems.
Over the last 15-20 years, Reading has embraced the ICT economy, helped by the proximity to Heathrow which has made the town a key hub. However, transport has always been a pressure point. Infrastructure developments have included the upgrade of the M4 junction 11 in 2006 and Reading station. Crossrail’s decision to extend to Reading will create significant connectivity to London and, increased inward investment into the town, which will in turn engage the property market and reignite schemes that have been stalled.
However, with approximately 800,000 movements a day in the area (not just to Heathrow or London), there is a need to focus on more sustainable travel and lobby for investment in strategic infrastructure. This coupled with the pressure to meet the demands of more affordable housing (which can lead to further congestion) means that clean air will also need to become a priority to businesses.
4 Investing in Commercial Property
Chaired by Sarah Potter, partner in BDB Pitmans’ real estate team.
Reading has gone through a huge period of transformation in terms of office space; co-working spaces are on the rise and trends have seen town centre offices and business parks filling up.
Sarah Potter, partner in BDB Pitmans’ real estate team, notes that the challenge now is: how to maximise the value of commercial space in the ever-changing market?
In the last few years, agility has become the byword for businesses that deliver flexible working space. The market has also seen a major shift as flex space is now not just for SMEs, but also for corporates. Guest speaker Edward Harbison, corporate marketing manager at The Instant Group, noted that there are a number of reasons behind this seismic shift: ‘The average lease lengths are reducing. As of 1990, the average lease was 15 years, today it is 7.1 years’. Statistics have also shown that approximately 75% of FTSE 100 businesses have flex space in their portfolio and other companies taking this space are incubators and accelerators, as well as businesses that want continuity space.
However, despite the perception that Reading has plenty of office space, The Instant Group believes that there is not enough to cope with current demand. Increased demand for flex space is also coming from the tech, pharmaceutical and infrastructure sectors.
Rory Carson, vice president at Mapletree, commented on Green Park as a business community: ‘businesses are looking for a location that will make it easy for them to retain their staff and to attract new staff’. The question is therefore now about having locations that are well connected and amenity rich.
Tom Fletcher, head of Lambert Smith Hampton’s Reading office, added that Reading needs to think about developing a stronger ‘personality’. Whilst Reading’s qualities are unquestioned, it would be helpful if the perception was less ‘corporate and functional’ and more ‘diverse urban tech hub with a strong cultural vibe’.
In contrast to many parts of the UK, Reading is doing well as reflected in the CBI’s overall figures for West Berkshire – it is in the 96th percentile for productivity.
With wages currently at 18% above the national average, Reading is a highly attractive place to work.
With approximately 800,000 movements a day in the area (not just to Heathrow or London), there is a need to focus on more sustainable travel and lobby for investment in strategic infrastructure.
Approximately 75% of FTSE 100 businesses have flex space in their portfolio and other companies taking this space are incubators and accelerators.
The objective of the roundtables was to discuss how we, as a business community, can protect and enhance Reading and the Thames Valley region, which has gone through tremendous change over the last decade and has more change to come.
John Hutchinson, partner
- Rob Irvine, senior associate director, and Tom Barlow, senior policy adviser (infrastructure), the CBI – speaks on behalf of 190,000 businesses. Together they employ nearly 7 million people, about one-third of the private sector-employed workforce.
- Jane Mackay, head of tax, Crowe UK – a leading national audit, tax, advisory and risk firm with global reach and local expertise. An independent member of Crowe Global, the eighth largest accounting network in the world.
- David Gilham, Thames Valley Science Park – provides cutting-edge laboratories, flexible office space and both the expertise and opportunity for larger companies to develop bespoke office or R&D facilities.
- Gurprit Singh, Director, Ethical Reading – a not-for-profit social enterprise dedicated to making Reading a better place to live and work through helping organisations become more ethical.
- Scott Witchalls, director of transport and infrastructure, Peter Brett Associates – a leading consultancy of engineers, planners, environmental consultants, and economists working on major development and infrastructure projects.
- Graham Cross, CEO, Heathrow Southern Railway Ltd – a privately financed proposal for a Southern Rail Link to Heathrow Airport (SRLtH).
- Edward Harbison, corporate marketing manager, The Instant Group – a workspace innovation company that rethinks workspace on behalf of its clients injecting flexibility, reducing cost and driving enterprise performance.
- Rory Carson, vice president, Mapletree UK Management – a leading real estate development, investment, capital and property management company headquartered in Singapore.
- Tom Fletcher, head of office, Lambert Smith Hampton – a leading UK commercial and residential real estate consultancy.
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