This page was first complied in 2002 and updated in 2005
Reading sits at the confluence of the Rivers Kennet and Thames. Reading West covers the part of the town mainly to the west of the Kennet and the town centre plus the working class ward of Whitley. This contrasts sharply with the eastern portion of West Berkshire District (formerly Newbury), which makes up the western third of the seat, with its more affluent residential areas in a rural setting alongside the Thames.
Reading West was first formed at the boundary review implemented in 1983 that revised the previous Reading North and Reading South into East and West constituencies. In 1997 Reading West underwent minor boundary changes that swapped the Reading Borough Katesgrove Ward for Whitley. In 2005 further minor boundary changes took place that brought the constituency boundaries in line with the new Reading Borough ward boundaries.
Before 1997, Sir Anthony Durant had represented Reading West since the creation of the seat, having been elected for Reading North at its creation in February 1974.
In the three general elections between 1983 and 1992, Durant had polled over 50 per cent of the vote. The highest his rivals could manage was 28.3 per cent. The opposition vote was split, ensuring that Durant had no real clear challenger.
Labour’s local vote had fallen sharply in 1983 and it took the next two general elections before they recovered and reclaimed second place from the Liberals. The Liberal vote by contrast has consistently fallen since 1983, in 1992 to 18.1 per cent.
The result in 1997 was still a surprise. It was assumed by most national commentators that his replacement as Conservative candidate, Nicholas Bennett, would win the seat. Mr Bennett, who had previously represented a Welsh constituency proved to be a catastrophic choice for the Conservatives, proving vulnerable to Labour charges of carpet bagging set against the strong local record of Martin Salter, the high profile Deputy Leader of the popular and successful local Council.
Mr Bennett’s inherited share of the vote plummeted to 38.9 per cent, while Labour’s zoomed to 45.1 per cent. The Liberal Democrats fell to yet another low of 12.7 per cent. The 15 per cent swing to Labour was one of the larger swings of the night, seeing Martin Salter was elected with a 2,997 majority.
The 1997 election result transformed the politics of Reading West. Any hopes the Conservatives may have had about retaking the seat were dashed in 2001, as Martin Salter proved himself to be an excellent MP, and nearly tripled his majority to 8,894 votes with a further 7.4 per cent swing from the Conservatives. Worryingly for the Conservatives, their share of the vote fell further to just 32 per cent.
In 2005 Labour held on to the seat, still with a safe majority, despite a 5 per cent swing away from them to the Conservatives, larger than the national swing. The swing to the Tories was less from the increase in support for them (which was less than the national average) but from a combination of large increases in support for the Liberal Democrats (who increased their share of the vote by 3 per cent) and the Greens (increasing their share by 2.2 per cent).
The contrasts within the seat are highlighted by local election results. While Labour dominated Reading Council for many years, they do not have a single seat on West Berkshire, which the Liberals controlled from 1991 till 2003 when Tories and Liberal Democrats were neck and neck on 26 seats each. The Conservatives took overall control in 2005.
Economic and Social Profile
The M4 passes to the south of Reading 20 minutes drive from London Heathrow airport. The Great Western mainline puts Reading 25 minutes out of Paddington. These communications links have attracted multi-national companies to set up headquarters and produce hi-tech products and service, particularly computers, software, and financial services.
Unemployment is low, sitting at 2.2 per cent in April 2005, and owner-occupation comparatively high at 73.1 per cent. House prices are lower in this constituency than their eastern counterpart where the presence of the towns Universities distorts the market, but they are still above the national average and the rate of increase during the past 15 years was faster than the national average.
The 25,000-seater Madejski Stadium, home to Reading Football Club, was completed in September 1998 and is situated on a 66-acre site in south Reading, relocated from the cramped surroundings of Elm Park. The site also includes the Royal Berkshire Conference Centre, which can cater for up to 750 at seminars and 500 at banquets and the Madejski Millennium Hotel.
The water meadows in south west Reading are an important and relatively unspoilt area of countryside close to the town centre. Coley, Kennet and Southcote Meadows are Reading’s natural flood defences. However the meadows have been under threat for many years through a series of planning enquiries that have examined proposals to extract gravel or plans to build houses. Each proposal has been fought off with the meadows finally achieving a level of protection with the publication of PPG25.
Plans for mobile phone masts at several locations drew opposition and local petitions. In each case active local campaigns helped stop their installation.
Crime continues to be a major local issue. There were shootings in 2002, connected to rivalries between gangs dealing drugs in the area. In 2003 there was another shooting in Elm Park Road, round the corner from the MP’s constituency office in Oxford Road. This part of West Reading is not without its problems, but the MP states that it is nowhere near as bad as the area around the railway bridge and along to the town centre where there are serious issues with drugs and prostitution.
The level and funding of policing has been a problem. Police officers in Reading received an extra £1,000 regional pay supplement in 2003 on top of the £2,000 that was secured a couple of years previously. It is hoped that this will help with the growing problem of retaining experienced officers who have been tempted to transfer to either the Metropolitan Police for more money, or to other parts of the country where housing costs are much lower. Reading also received an additional 45 police officers in recognition of the pressures of policing a busy regional centre.
As one of the measures introduced to help the fight against crime and boost police support, street crime wardens were introduced by Reading Borough Council in 2002. Having pursued a successful campaign, it was announced early in 2005 that the wardens would be able to pound the streets for another year after receiving £235,000 in government cash. They were supposed to act as peacekeepers, forming part of Reading’s war on crime. But since they first started to patrol the streets, donned in their distinctive red and black uniforms, they have also been instrumental in helping police deal with prostitutes and beggars. The Street Wardens now co-operate closely with the police and the principles behind the service were incorporated into the creation of Police Community Support Officers.
There have been disagreements between Reading and neighbouring Wokingham councils over the former’s attempts to extend its sphere of control in support of the drive to achieve city status, and the latter’s proposals to ban Reading children from Ryeish Green School, which is just outside Reading’s boundary in Spencers Wood. Wokingham District Council has denied that any decision has been made and said it was looking at a variety of different proposals. It also appears that the residents of Theale are against a proposed boundary change to move them into the Wokingham constituency. The boundaries commission revised its proposals and Theale remains in Reading West.
The completion of a new hospital in the area has been of primary concern to constituents. The new hospital involves the partial redevelopment and consolidation of Royal Berkshire and Battle Hospital services on the Royal Berkshire Hospital site. The final phase of the redevelopment, ‘contract three’ involved a new medical block and therapies department on the north end of the site. By autumn 2005, all Reading’s acute hospital services were consolidated on the Royal Berkshire Hospital site effectively as a new hospital. A further new hospital involving community services was constructed at Prospect Park. The former Battle Hospital site has now been developed for housing.