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Since 1887, the borough of Reading has included the former villages of Southcote and Whitley and small parts of Earley and Tilehurst. By 1911, it also encompassed the Oxfordshire village of Caversham and still more of Tilehurst. A small area of Mapledurham parish was added in 1977. An attempt to take over a small area of Eye & Dunsden parish in Oxfordshire was rejected because of strong local opposition in 1997.

Reading's municipal boundaries are particularly old and constrained; and proposals occasionally surface to expand the borough to include them. It is believed that Reading's chances of receiving City Status would be substantially boosted if these suburbs were to be included within the borough.

However, the constricted nature of the borough also creates more serious difficulties for the town, as it attempts to develop and grow. The diminishing amount of suitable land within the borough's boundary can bring the council in to conflict with those neighbouring it, who in turn have their own priorities and requirements. The longest running example of this is the planned third crossing of the Thames. So far, South Oxfordshire's politicians and residents, whose primary concern is maintaining the non-urbanisation of their region, have successfully opposed this. As a consequence, the debate has at times become somewhat acrimonious between the opposing sides, and little progress has been made.

Reading has elected at least one Member of Parliament to every Parliament since 1295. Historically Reading was represented by the members for the former Parliamentary Borough of Reading, and the members for the former parliamentary constituencies of Reading, Reading North, and Reading South. Today Reading and the surrounding area is divided between the parliamentary constituencies of Reading East, represented by Rob Wilson, and Reading West, represented by Martin Salter. The whole of the town is within the multi-member South East England european constituency.

The principal National Health Service (NHS) hospital in Reading is the Royal Berkshire Hospital, originally founded in 1839 but much enlarged and rebuilt since. Until recently there was a second major NHS general hospital, the Battle Hospital, but this closed in 2005 with the patients and most staff moved to the Royal Berkshire Hospital. Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust runs a NHS hospital, Prospect Park Hospital, that specialises in the provision of care for people with mental health and learning disabilities.

The town is also served by two private hospitals, the Capio Reading Hospital in Coley Park and the Dunedin Hospital situated on the main A4 Bath Road.

Reading is an important commercial centre in Southern England and is often referred to as the capital of the Thames Valley, with the headquarters of major British companies and the UK offices of major foreign multinationals, especially in the IT industry, including ING Direct, Microsoft, Oracle, Sage, Xansa, Cisco, Symbol Technologies, Websense and Yell.com. Several of these are at the Thames Valley Business Park. The head office of the natural gas major BG Group is also at the Thames Valley Business Park.

Reading is a major shopping centre. The principal shopping area is around Broad Street, which was pedestrianised in 1995. Broad Street is anchored at its east and west ends respectively by The Oracle and Broad Street Mall enclosed shopping centres. The opening of The Oracle shopping centre has put Reading on the national map as one of the top ten retail destinations in the UK since it regularly attracts over 250,000 people passing through on a Saturday alone.It plays host to a number of major retailers which had previously not been present in the town.

There are three major department stores in Reading: John Lewis Reading (formerly known as Heelas), Debenhams and House of Fraser. There are also branches of the chains Marks and Spencers, Bhs, H&M, Primark and UNIQLO.

The booksellers Waterstone's have two branches in Reading. Their Broad Street branch is of particular interest, as it is a remarkable conversion of a nonconformist chapel dating from 1707.

Besides the two major shopping malls, Reading has three smaller shopping arcades, the Bristol & West Arcade, Harris Arcade and The Walk, which contain smaller specialist stores. An older form of retail facility is represented by Union Street, popularly known as Smelly Alley, a narrow pedestrianised alley lined on both sides by small independent stores, including open fronted fishmongers and greengrocers.

 

 
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