Tonight in one of the shortest Council meetings I have ever attended, the full Council approved a new way forward for the re-provisioning of the Civic Offices, theatre and (possibly) central library. This is a remarkable turnaround from the position last year, when the Conservatives pulled out of the plan to replace the existing Civic Offices with a state of the art building at a total cost of £120m (when all ancillary costs were included).
We argued that the plan was unaffordable and unjustifiable at a time when the country was entering recession and would be a mill-stone around the necks of future generations of local Council Tax-payers. We called for a complete reappraisal of the options, with our preferred option being better use of the old Town Hall and the bulk of the back-office function being moved into an existing office block elsewhere in the town. This, we argued, would be much more cost effective and returning the Council’s meetings to the old Town Hall would make better use of that building.
We were roundly condemned by Labour at the time and also by the Lib Dems who then shifted their position to support refurbishing the existing building. It has taken a year to turn the Council’s position around but tonight there was unanimous support for the Conservative position. Even the Lib Dems have shifted their position yet again and now seem to support the Conservative stance.
It is the Conservative that have taken the courageous political stance to pull out of what was previously an all-party process when the scale of the cost involved became clear. By so doing, we believe that we have saved the Reading Council Tax-payer many millions of pounds and a huge debt burden that would have lasted for decades. Almost as important was our belief that a new theatre and library would never have been built, as the Council would have run out of money.
Now that the new approach has been approved, I believe that a deal with a developer could see the whole area around the existing Civic Offices redeveloped with a new state of the art theatre and central library being delivered as part of the package. We could end up with a cultural area of town that attracts top shows into an attractive facility we can be proud of, rather than the run down and tatty area that we have now.
Tonight’s Council meeting may have been short but it should prove to be of great importance for the future of Reading town centre and culture lovers across the greater Reading area.