Reading clash over affordable homes at 618 flat project

A clash over the amount of affordable housing that could be delivered at a major 618-home development in Reading town centre is brewing among politicians.

Last week, Reading Borough Council’s policy committee approved key principles for its project to redevelop the Minster Quarter, the area of the town centre covering the former civic centre and the rear of Broad Street Mall.

The project involves building a total of 618 apartments, a 90-bed hotel and new public space.

But Green councillors voted against carrying the project forward.

READ MORE: Reading Minster Quarter project for 618 flats given go ahead – what happens now

Councillor Rob White (Green, Park) the leader of the opposition, expressed frustration that the council’s Labour administration has not pushed for a higher percentage of the 618 apartments to be affordable.

Cllr White suggested 50 per cent of the apartments (309) could be affordable, rather than the 30 per cent policy compliant amount (185) the administration is pushing for.

The suggestion was rebuffed by cllr Tony Page (Labour, Abbey): “We’ve never ever had a policy of 50 per cent affordable housing, I don’t know what planet cllr White is on.”

However, the council did have a policy of 50 per cent affordable housing adopted in its Core Strategy in 2008.

Cllr White said: “I look forward to an apology from councillor Page, I hope next time he will check his facts.”

In response, cllr Page said: “I apologise to Cllr White for a rare slip-up on my part, which happens to the best of us.”

READ MORE: Reading fears newcomers at exciting new area could have lungs destroyed by IDR

The council is now searching for a developer to make its vision for the Minster Quarter a reality.

The Labour administration has argued that the project needs to be economically viable in order to attract developers.

The council changed the affordable housing policy from 50 per cent to 30 per cent in 2015, following the introduction of community infrastructure levy (CIL), which allows local authorities to charge developers to pay for vital infrastructure and council services.

A council spokesperson explained that, in practice, it never achieved anywhere near that 50 per cent affordable housing target, as developers were able to argue that their schemes would not be economically viable. 

Reading Chronicle: An artists impression of a proposed new Hexagon Building at the Minster Quarter in Reading town centre. Credit: Reading Borough CouncilAn artists impression of a proposed new Hexagon Building at the Minster Quarter in Reading town centre. Credit: Reading Borough Council

The council spokesperson said: “Prior to putting CIL in place in Reading in 2015, the council had to go through a public examination that looked at the viability of the charges.  Had the affordable housing targets remained at 50 per cent, the council would almost certainly have ended with extremely low or even nil CIL charges due to the need to factor in these high affordable housing targets.

“This would have meant communities missing out on millions of pounds worth of community schemes which include things road safety measures, new playgrounds and new cycle paths, among many others.

“The Minster Quarter is a complex brownfield site and due to its design has high associated costs due to the concrete podium structure it sits on. Viability testing found a 30% affordable housing target, in line with our current local plan policies, an appropriate level.

“The council is confident at the levels proposed the development will be attractive to prospective developers, sitting as it does in the heart of our hugely attractive town centre – the region’s main shopping destination – a major transport hub in the south-east – and boasting our much-loved and popular Hexagon Theatre.”

Reading Chronicle | Town Centre