Councillors and campaigners have been left frustrated by the decision of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) not to sell Reading Gaol to the council.
The MoJ has told Reading Borough Council (RBC) it has failed in its bid to buy the site which RBC wants to see turned into an arts and cultural centre which recognises its Oscar Wilde significance.
Melvin Benn, chair of Theatre & Arts Reading, which has long campaigned to ensure the site is recognised as an arts, culture and heritage site, said: “It is staggeringly disappointing to us that RBC were not successful in their bid which we fully supported.
“We, therefore, hope we are able to work with the successful bidders in the future and like RBC, we strongly believe that any development should be heritage driven but also arts driven.”
Council leader, Cllr Jason Brock, has announced he wants to meet the winning bidder as soon as possible.
The council’s Local Plan, adopted last year, requires cultural and heritage aspects of the site to feature in any development.
Any proposals would also need to enhance the wider Abbey Quarter as a heritage and cultural destination.
Cllr Brock said: “The council’s bid rightly focused on the historical and cultural value of the Reading Prison site and it was dependent on securing significant external funds to manage the risk of taking ownership of this historic property.
“We are naturally disappointed that the MoJ have rejected the council’s bid.
“The purchase of Reading Prison comes with significant planning parameters which are fundamental to any development of the site and are designed to protect the prison’s historical, archaeological and cultural value, all of national significance.
“The developer will now need to pay very close consideration to the local and national and local planning policies set out by the council in the Prison Framework and in our new Local Plan.
“I intend to meet with the successful bidder at the earliest opportunity to impress this upon them and want to work closely with them to ensure the historical and cultural value of Reading Prison is given prominence as plans are developed.”
Reading UK executive director Nigel Horton-Baker said, although disappointed by the decision, once the successful bidder is announced, Reading UK will seek to work with them.
He added: “We will look to work with them to ensure the cultural integrity of the site is maintained and that the new development plays an integral part in Reading’s plans for a quick economic recovery post the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a premier heritage quarter inside a world-class business district in the Reading Abbey Quarter at the heart of Reading town centre.”
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