Fears Reading Gaol will continue to lie empty were voiced when Thames Tap asked the thoughts of experts – but some see a way ahead.
Reading Borough Council (RBC) learned on Tuesday that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) had not accepted its bid for redeveloping the Grade ll-listed site which has been empty since it closed at the end of 2013
So we asked some of our sponsors, partners and contacts who have an interest in the town, to give us their views.
Nigel Horton-Baker, executive director for Reading UK, said: “The council put forward a vision for the site that was both ambitious and commercially realistic, designed to celebrate Reading’s unique culture and heritage as well as grow Reading’s economy through tech innovation and tourism – building on our strengths.
“The scheme would provide a great opportunity to create new training, employment and business opportunities in line with Reading’s 2050 Vision.
“It is vital that the prison does not now sit empty for years to come – a white elephant in the heart of Reading’s otherwise vibrant Abbey Quarter business and cultural district.
“If there is no serious alternative interest in developing the site in line with Reading’s cultural vision for the area, then the MoJ must revert to the council bid and allow Reading to take ownership of its own future.”
Mike Shearn, chief operating officer for Haslams Estate Agent, said: “Strategically, Reading, like all town centres, needs to keep changing with the times and reinventing its offering to residents, business, and tourists.
“The council’s proposal for the gaol reflected this need and so I’m really disappointed with the MoJ’s decision.
“We’ve looked at the gaol numerous times over the years for developers and asset managers and so I really appreciate the constraints and issues with the site.
“On paper it should be a highly valuable site but the issues and constraints suggest that any land value over £0 should be seriously considered and so I’m surprised that it’s been dismissed so quickly.”
Daniel Lampard, senior director and head of Thames Valley Office of Lichfields, said: “It’s nearly 125 years since Oscar Wilde wrote the Ballad of Reading Gaol. The Saga of Reading Gaol, now in its eighth year, is fast catching up.
“The stasis is driven by the MoJ’s mantra of ‘best value’, RBC responding to a groundswell of public opinion wishing to maximise the cultural and community opportunities and the planning constraints set out meticulously in RBC’s planning brief.
“These are combining to frustrate, rather than facilitate, the redevelopment of a decaying building which could form a focal point for the town.
“But two images in RBC’s bid document suggest a way forward. RBC themselves envisage fairly substantial ‘enabling development’ within their proposal – a commercial necessity.
“Meanwhile the beaming faces of the town’s MPs embracing during the ‘hug’ of Reading Gaol also hint at some much needed political pragmatism.
“These are vital pre-requisites for the successful redevelopment of the gaol – whether private or public sector led. Indeed, the outcome could look remarkably similar whether development proposals are led by RBC or a developer.”
Karen Jones, partner and head of planning & environmental law at Blandy & Blandy, said: “The council would appear to be powerless in the face of the MoJ’s decision to continue to seek the best return for Reading Gaol, as there are no powers of any compulsory nature available to them where ownership is vested in a ministerial department.
“And with no willing seller, they are in the position of being unable to agree the purchase, yet they have no power of leverage other than moral indignation of the unfairness for the people of Reading.
“It is an unfortunate situation that with luck the council’s tenacity in continuing to press for engagement will overcome.”
Laura Fitzgerald, director for mode Transport Planning, said: “The gaol is a site we would just like to see progress, given its position in the heart of Reading.
“The RBC proposals have a clear vision and embrace the gaol and its surroundings. This type of development would be a welcome part of the town, given its location and the fact that it is easily accessible for all.”
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