A cautious response has greeted the sale of Reading Prison to educational non-profit organisation, the Ziran Education Foundation.
The charity collaborates with colleges to develop primary and secondary school curriculums and educational services.
A statement from the Ministry of Justice, published on January 11, said: “The sale follows an extensive bidding and vetting process to guarantee best value for taxpayers’ money while ensuring future planning applications acknowledge the historic nature of the site.
“The Ziran Education Foundation will now engage with Reading Borough Council on the use of the site as it will need to approve any development plans.
“Initial proposals included plans for an educational centre providing services to the local community, including a museum outlining the history of the prison and an exhibition space accessible to the public.
“Proceeds from the sale will now be reinvested in the wider prison estate to help reduce reoffending and protect the public. In the last decade we have raised over £105m through the sale of former prison sites.”
But local responses have been sceptical after more than 10 years of the prison lying empty.
Mike Shearn, group investment and development director for Haslams Estate Agents, said: “This sale has taken longer than most of the inmates of Reading Goal were incarcerated for!
“After 10 years the MoJ will no doubt be delighted about the news. With estimated costs to the taxpayer of more than £2.5m to mothball the site, they finally have some money back.
“They can now sail off into the sunset and I doubt they will look back at the legacy they leave behind. For locals, it’s impossible to know if this is good news given that little is known about the purchaser, other than it apparently has no historical links to Reading.
“My fear is that the site will continue to languish for years and even decades. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of examples of this. Look no further than Station Hill that changed hands numerous times over the years. Developers and fund managers came and went whilst it became an increasingly worse eyesore and a blot on the landscape for locals.
“I hope that an opportunity has not been lost and that history doesn’t repeat itself.”
Reading Borough Council leader Cllr Jason Brock said: “The announcement comes as no surprise given the fact the sale to a private bidder has been mooted by Government for months now, but we are nevertheless disappointed that our long-standing bid – which was wholeheartedly backed by Reading’s arts and cultural community – will not come to fruition.
“We maintain this is a hugely significant site, and there exists an opportunity to transform it into something truly unique. While the confirmation of sale from the MoJ to the council only contains scant detail at this stage, we welcome that the successful bid recognises the historical significance of this site to Reading, the wider region and nationally.
“The fact an education centre, providing community benefit, is planned alongside a museum outlining the site’s history, a community garden, and public exhibition space sounds encouraging, on the face of it.
“We have always maintained the Reading Gaol site should be about so much more than monetary value and we will look to work alongside the new owners to understand what they intend to achieve with the site.
“It is, of course, important to note the significant planning parameters which are fundamental to any future development. 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.
“We also remain hugely disappointed that it has taken a decade after the prison’s closure by the MoJ to reach this position, in what has been an absurdly lengthy process.”
Brian Dowling, partner at Boyes Turner, said: “Reading Prison is so important to the town, and the Abbey District in particular. It is a challenging site because it has such strong historic and cultural associations (due to Oscar Wilde, Banksy, and now maybe even Henry I) but is understandably a very forbidding but plain building to have in such a central location.
“We have always supported it being brought into community and cultural use and wish the parties involved every success. It is great to see the site being sold for what we are sure are very worthy purposes that will benefit the community.”
Blandy & Blandy partner and head of planning Karen Jones, said: “It will be interesting to see what proposals come forward by way of planning application for the prison building and how quickly these materialise.
“As the building is a listed structure any application will need to properly address heritage issues and satisfy the requirement to conserve and if possible, enhance historic significance.
“The planners will be looking at proposals through the lens of enhancements to the Abbey Quarter, seeking to implement the objectives of the Prison Outline Development Framework adopted in March 2015. The Ziran Education Foundation will presumably seek a use aligned to its organisation, and chiefly utilise the site for those purposes.”
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