Prosperity and decline: two tales of a single town

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The Independent Online
READING - the typical 1980's boom town - represents the two sides of the economy at the end of the Nineties. One is a centre for thrusting high technology - the other a declining manufacturing base.

Over the last 15 years there has been a large influx of hi-tech companies re-locating to avoid astronomical London rents. Industrial estates now sprawl across the former grazing land between the town centre and the Thames. Computer firms such as Digital, NEC, Oracle and Microsoft have all moved here into Britain's own Silicon Valley.

Service industries, of which the computer, information technology and telecommunications companies are a part have grown to take in 74 per cent of the town's total workforce and are predicted to produce another 1.3 million jobs by 2000.

In the past three years, house prices have increased by 40 per cent. Tony Griffiths, director of the White Knights Estate Agency said that "property prices are considerably above the highest ever levels. It was an `early to fall, quick to rise' scenario."

Unemployment in the Reading travel-to-work area stands at just 1.8 per cent, and salaries for IT consultancy jobs have gone up, in some cases by pounds 10,000 in the past year.

The flipside to this success story has been a dramatic decline in manufacturing which employs just 13 per cent of the town's work force but the Borough Council's economists have predicted further job losses by 2000.

The decline is obvious throughout the town. Ask anyone in Reading, whether they be taxi drivers, office workers, or railway porters, and they will tell you the same story. "There is hardly any old traditional manufacturers left here - it's all glass and steel and blokes in posh suits."

One bastion of manufacturing sits on the Littlejohn's Lane industrial estate. John Crane UK Limited, which employs 77 people, has made mechanical seals for heavy industry on this site for 25 years and is still going strong but increasingly the company and its staff are aware of how the town's economy is changing.

"We are up on our output targets," said Matthew Crib, a production supervisor at the factory. "We never have difficulty keeping our engineers because this is such a good company for employees but it is increasingly difficult to find good engineers."

He and his colleague Simon Lewis both believe more and more people when leaving school or going to University are tempted by the high wages offered in computing and other high tech industries and away from engineering.

"I have seen this town change, not only in the last nine or 10 years, but again in the past few months, from a town with more engineers and skilled workers to one with fewer as more people join the computer companies who come here to settle," he said.

Intergralis Network Systems boasts one of the highest growth rates in the burgeoning IT sector. Based in Pheale, on the outskirts of Reading , it has grown by more than 50 per cent in the last five years.

Managing Director Dan Collins expects Integralis to continue to grow at its current rate. "The growth of the company is part of a general trend," he said.