Reading’s worst kept secret finally reared its head last week when the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) confirmed the sale of Reading Prison to a private bidder.
The move had been ‘soft-launched’ over several months by Government in response to public questions in Parliament, nevertheless it was reassuring that the Minister of State for Justice felt so minded to give the Council prior notice of his decision, with a short note hurried out to us just seconds before a media statement was made announcing the sale.
I’ve subsequently been asked by a number of interested parties what the Council knows of the plans for the site by the Ziran Education Foundation, Reading’s Gaol’s new owners. The short answer is: very little.
The MoJ’s note to the Council talks of ‘best value for taxpayers’ money’, which I presume is code for the highest monetary value bid was successful.
It also talks of ‘an education centre providing some services to the local community, including a museum outlining the history of the prison and its link to Oscar Wilde, a community garden and exhibition space accessible to the public.’ On the face of it, some grounds for optimism there that the historical significance of Reading prison is at least acknowledged in the winning bid. Of course, the Council, along with Reading’s community, awaits the finer detail of this project and how the foundation intends to make its proposal commercially viable.
I say proposal, because while the sale of the prison has now been confirmed by the MoJ, there are still substantial planning hurdles to overcome for the winning bidder for any suggested scheme to come to fruition.
The Grade II Listed Prison sits in its entirety on the former footprint of the Reading Abbey complex, a Scheduled Ancient Monument. It was why when the MoJ, abruptly and without notice, shut Reading Prison just over 10 years ago, the Council moved quickly to adopt a planning document called the Prison Framework. It means there significant planning parameters which are fundamental to any future development on the site. These are designed to protect the prison’s historical, archaeological and cultural value, all of which are of national significance. Any proposals would also need to enhance the Abbey Quarter as a heritage and cultural destination, and it is also highly likely further archaeological assessments and investigations would be needed to inform any future development.
Throughout this process, and in developing its own bid, the Council always maintained Reading’s prison was a hugely significant site and the sale offered an opportunity to transform it into something truly unique to the town and the wider region. Whilst that bid will not be taken forward, we remain ambitious for the site and what community benefits it could bring to Reading.
We look forward to meeting with the new owners at the earliest opportunity to understand what that looks like. There will of course then follow the usual planning determination process, taking into account the planning parameters I mention.
It remains incredibly disappointing that more than a decade after Reading Goal was shut by this Government, we are still no further forward in understanding what will happen to the site. It has been an absurdly lengthy and unnecessarily chaotic process. You can’t help but wince at what it cost the taxpayer to mothball the site for more than 10 years.
We can only hope the end of what has been interminable process by the MoJ now marks the start of a new phase, where we can move forward in a constructive manner with the new owners.