Councillors in Reading have made a public commitment to continue to try to ensure Reading Gaol becomes an arts centre after its bid to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) was rejected.

The MoJ has told Reading Borough Council its £2.6 million bid for the site has been rejected as too low.

Now the council wants ministers to intervene and is seeking advice from agents. The council has also published its plans.

The Reading Goal Vision – drawn up following consultation with the arts and cultural community in Reading – shows the historic building as the centrepiece of a mixed use development incorporating:

  • A heritage centre, celebrating its history and archaeology
  • Space for theatre, dance, music, cinema and outdoor exhibitions
  • New flexible public realm
  • A creative innovation hub, hosting affordable workspaces, events, workshops and exhibitions led by resident cultural organisations
  • A rooftop café
  • A new residential quarter of energy efficient homes, including affordable homes

Council leader Cllr Jason Brock 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.”

The gaol has been empty since it closed in December 2013 and a previous attempt to sell fell through last year.

The Grade Il-listed prison is on the former footprint of Reading Abbey, a Scheduled Monument, so development is complicated.

Cllr Tony Page, lead member for strategic environment, planning and transport, 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 gaol 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.”

The council’s plans can be seen here.

Experts respond to MoJ decision

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