On Friday I was asked for my views on how the Town Centre could be improved, as part of the regeneration project being run by the Borough Council. I made the following points during a wide ranging discussion over more than two hours.
1. Car parking. Wokingham as a centre for retail and lesiure activities depends crucially on people coming into the town by car, to add to the relatively few numbers of people who can easily walk to the attractions of the centre from their homes. To help retailers and others deal with the competition of larger centres nearby, and with the impact of the internet, there needs to be more parking and cheaper or free parking. In particular we need more free spaces for half an hour for the single stop visit, cheaper parking for two hours, and some parking for 3-4 hours near the centre to accommodate people wanting a leisurely lunch or dinner, or wanting to shop as well as eat.
2. The centre of Wokingham sees the junction of two important A roads – the A321 Henley to Blackwater Valley towns road, and the A 329 Bracknell to Reading road. A longer term solution to the problem of through traffic is to have an eastern by pass of the town centre with a new railway bridge, to take the A321 traffic out of the centre. Until this has been built it is important to allow free flow of through traffic. The current system is far from ideal. Putting a roundabout at the end of Broad Street for the junction with Rectory Road will help. The new Station link road from the Reading road will help, as long as existing capacity is still available for local use. The highway planners need to look at the pinch point on Wiltshire Road near and at the junction with London Road.
3. “The public realm” – I was asked for views on how the main streets of the centre should be paved, lit and furnished. I pointed out that Wokingham has a medieval street pattern, with many wonderful urban buildings of various vintages producing a great blend of Berkshire market town architecture. The architectural idiom is a mixture of oak frame with wattle and daub, with the more predominant and later brick and decorative tile facades and roofs. The decision to have orange red bricks for pavements was a good step in the right direction, though they have proved slippery and in some locations are not quite the right red for the adjacent brick. The “palette” as the consultants call it for a new look Wokingham should draw on brick reds, oranges and ochres. I am not in favour of bringing in different materials and colours. Lighting has to be sensitive to existing styles, and the light compatible with older buildings and conservation area beauty.
4. I was asked if I thought it a good idea to narrow roads and blur the disticntion between road and pavement. I think this needs to be approached with considerable care. In the case of Broad Street it might be possible to narrow the road carriageway and have more trees and wider pavements in some places. Elsewhere doing this, removing pedestrian crossings and encouraging more potential conflict between vehicles and pedestrians might be both hazardous and put pedestrians off. If you are shopping you want the certainty of the pavement and do not want to have to be constantly thinking about possible misunderstandings of your movements by motorists sharing the space.
5. I stressed the need for a more intelligent approach to utility provision. The centre of Wokingham has been badly affected by endless digging up of the streets for water, gas and electricity workings. Each time the cables or pipes have been put back down the centre of the road and incarcerated in tarmac, meaning future misery for all concerned when repairs and replacement are needed. The new Wokingham should place utility provision in accessible corridors so people can get access without digging up the roads. Traders have suffered considerable loss of business from utility works.
6. I also stressed the need for care in choice of any new materials for roads and pavements, to ensure the use of hard wearing materials with the minimum of expensive and disruptive maintenance. Use of stone blocks for road construction can lead to damage from heavy axle weights, produces an irregular surface which is difficult for the elderly and for women with high heels, and is expensive to repair.