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I have been a Councillor for Church Ward in which St.Patricks hall resides since 2014, so have had a lot of contact with residents, the Council, Matt Rodda MP, the University and UPP (the developers) for both the 2016 planning application and the 2018 application. This has taken the form of me being on the planning committee both times this went to committee, resident meetings as well as meetings with the University. This issue has also come up when speaking to residents on numerous occasions and is something many residents understandably feel very strongly about. I am also a former student and resident of the University, so understand its needs and want to see a strong, thriving University in Reading.
The original application gained a lot of publicity regarding the demolition of the historic Pearson’s Court site. This lead to lots of local (and some national) publicity, a petition that gained over 1000 signatures and eventually the local listing of the hall and the application being pulled by the University. This was the first time that it appeared the University (or more to the point UPP, whom they have commissioned out these services to) were in a rush to get the application through with little thought on the impact it would have on the local community.
I have had many discussions with local residents on the issue of the St.Pats hall expansion, not just the Northcourt Avenue residents association (NARA) but other residents of the street as well as other nearby streets such as Ennerdale Road, Stanhope Road and Weardale Close. Nearly every one of the residents I have spoken too are not against redeveloping this site. They realise the current facilities are tired and worn, and that students deserve better, more modern facilities. They also value the benefit of a thriving University, with many residents being ex or current employees of the University.
The main issues that have come up time and again are the lack of real engagement with the local public, that the current plans are an overdevelopment and that the planned building would be over bearing on the local streets. Resident meetings and exhibitions that the University have held, have taken the form of presenting a finished proposal. Any semblance of consultation has been lost on the residents. Changes that were made to the application were very minimal and never addressed residents overall concerns. This has always been the height and over bearing nature of the proposed site, and the large increase in the number of students in a predominantly residential area. The University and UPP would have gained public approval and support long ago, if only they had agreed that the height and storeys of these buildings were lower (4 storeys as on the other side of the University in Wokingham borough has been mentioned many times by residents) and that the number of students would be lower than the high figure sought. The residents have already been patient and supportive of the University in recent years, despite an increase in noise and sometimes anti-social behaviour, as well as huge strain being placed on local parking, to which the University have never attempted to come up with a credible plan to solve or even engage the issue. It has recently taken the University well over 6 months to respond calls from residents and Councillors for a public meeting regarding the behaviour of a minority of their students and the negative local impacts they are having. Sadly this is common in the Universities poor approach to engaging with the local community.
Lastly, whilst within the law, the application coming into the Council from the UPP rather than the University so as to swerve Community Infrastructure Levy payments was incredibly disappointing. This increase in student numbers will obviously put a great strain on local infrastructure and with Council budgets being so tight, this cannot be met by the Council. This may in some cases even lead to dangerous situations for students in terms of local road safety. Northcourt Avenue were the hall is located, runs parallel to Shinfield Road where the main Whiteknights entrance is. At the moment the nearest crossing is at a busy inter section of road and traffic lights near a parade of shops. This area is already a tricky intersection of road to navigate, and the huge increase in student numbers proposed will not help this. This will also cause pinch points at particular times of the day with schools and the hospital being close to this area. If the University wished to be a real contributing member of our community, it would be offering proposals to ensure the safety of its students and working with the local community and Council on this, not running away from their responsibilities. It sadly shows again that the University currently sees itself as separate to the local Council and community, rather than being an important partner alongside them.
The character and history of Northcourt Avenue is something the residents are rightly very proud of, and this includes the history and heritage of St.Patricks hall. The local listing of Pearson’s Court confirmed the special place it has in resident’s hearts. This planning application more than any other issue I have encountered since being on the Council, has fostered the most local concern. Not because the residents do not want development or a successful University but because they seek consideration from our University partners. The residents, Councillors and the Council would like to work with the University on an equal footing to come up with a suitable proposal that enables the University to grow and thrive, that protects the heritage of the local area, ensures safety and comfort for local infrastructure, and that is not over bearing for the rest of the local community. I do not believe the current proposals achieves these things but still believe if the University wanted too, that it could.