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Not too late for the government to think again on Reading Gaol

Rachel writes:

Rachel, Matt Rodda and Alok Sharma join the "Reading Gaol hug"
Reading Gaol Hug – thi is about more than donning a T-shirt Sunday, October 13, 2019

“It is incrediably disappointing that despite pre-election promises that the Government has turned its back on a true community bid submitted on behalf of the community by our council.

As we look to build back better following the pandemic the obvious thing would be for the government to accept a mutli-million pound, serious and costed community and council bid. It has the potential will create a truely unique space in our town centre, rather than holding out to wring every last penny from a commercial bidder.

Alok Sharma, made pre-election promises and even wore a ‘Save Reading Gaol’ T-shirt for the press. It’s not too late for him to show what his support actually means and back the community bid. I therefore call on Alok Sharma to break his silence and put Reading before his party. This is a unique opportunity, and anyone who cares about our town ought to join Councillors, Matt Rodda MP, our heritage and arts groups and the people of Reading in saving the Gaol for our town.

I am proud of the work done by our council and town to create a bid that would have transformed the Reading Gaol site into a true beacon of arts, heritage and culture. The bid submitted by the council had the backing of national and even international arts and heritage groups as well as the local community.

I’m very pleased to say that as Labour councillors we have unanimoously agreed that the council should keep the bid open and also publish details of the bid so that people can see for themselves what is possible on the site. This is not about wearing a T-shirt for a photo opportunity – it’s about taking serious action to benefit Reading.

The council press release is below:

THE Council has expressed its extreme disappointment after the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) indicated that the town’s bid to transform Reading Gaol into a beacon of arts, heritage and culture has been rejected, but has vowed to keep its bid alive as a future option.

Reading Borough Council understands the MoJ is likely to once again market the site for sale after it decided the Council’s £2.6 million bid – backed by a passionate arts and cultural community in Reading and beyond – was not of a high enough monetary value.

Rather than withdrawing its bid at this time, the Council is instead making a public commitment to keep it on the table in the hope that MoJ Ministers will intervene and re-consider the advice of its marketing agents.

The Council remains fully committed to working with the MoJ but believes the huge historical and cultural value of Reading Gaol in any potential future development is still not fully recognised by the MoJ or its advisers.

To that end, Reading Borough Council is today (May 18th) publishing details of its bid to show what is possible to achieve with the site.

The Reading Goal Vision – drawn up following consultation with the arts and cultural community in Reading – shows the historic Reading Gaol as the centrepiece of an exciting and unique mixed use development incorporating: a new heritage centre celebrating its history and archaeology; space for theatre, dance, music, cinema and outdoor exhibitions; high quality and flexible public realm; a creative innovation hub hosting affordable workspaces, events, workshops and exhibitions led by resident cultural organisations; and a rooftop café. The proposed development would be underpinned by a new residential quarter offering high quality energy efficient homes, including new affordable homes. 

Councillor Jason Brock, Reading Borough Council Leader, said:

“The Council and the community are very clear that the sale of Reading Gaol is about so much more than monetary value, which is what makes this decision by the MoJ especially disappointing.

“This bid may have had the Council’s name on it, but it was submitted for the Reading community who have demonstrated huge enthusiasm and passion to transform Reading Gaol into something truly special. Our job was to harness the strength of that local community support and create a unique beacon, not just for Reading, but as a site of national significance.

“We are publishing the details of Reading’s bid today so that people can see for themselves what it is possible to achieve. We are not dismissive of the fact this is the MoJ’s asset and it will want to generate the highest possible receipt, but there is so much more at stake here. We are extremely disappointed the heritage and cultural value of the Council’s bid does not appear to have been given due consideration.

“This is now the second time the Council’s bid has been dismissed by the MoJ. It would be very easy at this point to walk away from the process, but we do not intend to do that. We understand the MoJ may be willing to keep the Council’s bid on the table while it pursues other options. We would welcome that and are happy for it to remain there for the time being. The Council also remains committed to working with the MoJ to ensure the significant historical and cultural value of Reading’s Gaol is given its rightful prominence.

“We are urging the Secretary of State to meet with us as soon as possible before any new decisions are taken by the MoJ to re-market the Gaol. Ministers have declined so far to meet with us this year, but I hope they will see the value of discussing options with us.”

Reading Gaol has been empty and unused since December 2013 when it was shut by the MoJ. Following the news last year that the MoJ’s sale of the Reading Prison site had fallen through after it went to the market, Reading Borough Council was granted a period of exclusivity by the MoJ to develop its own bid for the site. That bid was submitted on March 15th and followed a summit and workshops attended influential representatives from local arts, culture, heritage, business and LGBTQ+ communities, and key politicians

The Grade II Listed Prison sits in its entirety on the former footprint of the Reading Abbey complex, a Scheduled Ancient Monument. It means that any future proposals will need to pay very careful consideration to the local and national planning policies set out by the Council in its Prison Framework and in its recently adopted Local Plan.

That point has again been emphasised by Cllr Tony Page, Reading Borough Council’s Lead Councillor for Strategic Environment, Planning and Transport, who said:

“The unique and rich history of the Gaol means the site comes with obvious constraints. That is something Reading Borough Council emphasised back in 2013 when the Goal was abruptly shut by the MoJ with zero notice. It is the reason why the Council moved quickly at the time to develop a Prison Framework planning document to guide any future development and it is something we will continue to emphasise to the MoJ.

“This is now the second time the MoJ has rejected a community bid for the empty site. It would be a real setback if, for a second time, the MoJ were to place Reading Gaol on the open market. It is now nearly eight years since the MoJ’s process began, and all that time the Gaol has laid empty. While the pandemic has had an obvious impact on Council finances everywhere, the MoJ appears to remain steadfast in wanting to sell the site to achieve an unrealistic price based on pre-pandemic assumptions which give little credence to the cultural and historic value of our bid.

“We maintain that the Council’s bid – backed and shaped by the local community in Reading – is a powerful one which delivers heritage led regeneration of a site of local, regional and national significance sitting within the town’s historic Abbey Quarter. Our bid also contains generous ‘overage’ conditions which will protect MoJ and general public interests should there be a subsequent increase in property prices.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, a catalyst for further investment and a key driver for Reading’s recovery from the pandemic. The Council’s bid remains open, as do the lines of communication with the MoJ. I hope Ministers will now step forward and intervene.”

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