A row has blown up between Reading Borough Council and one of its key stakeholders over the proposal to create an arts centre at Reading Gaol.

A trust, formed by Theatre & Arts Reading (TAR), called Reading Gaol Arts Museum and Theatre Company (RGAMT), had commissioned Barton Willmore to carry out a study and come up with a vision for the site.

The document, called Reading Gaol An Invitation to Tender and dated November 2019, shows potential uses for the listed building, drawn up by Foster Wilson Architects.

But at an online summit organised by the council on Friday, February 12, involving RGAMT along with scores of people who have an interest, the document was not used, prompting a fierce response from Melvin Benn, chairman of TAR who was at the meeting.

Mr Benn, who is organiser of Reading Festival, sent Thames Tap and other media a copy of the report along with a statement.

He said: “Following the RBC discussion about a vision for the Gaol site this morning we thought, even though they didn’t, that it would be worth circulating what took us a number of years to develop.

“Ignore it as the council have or take inspiration or ideas from it and submit to the council as requested.”

The report suggests a number of potential uses for the prison (see image below) including:

  • A hotel in part of the building
  • A ‘Warehouse Foodhall’
  • Converting the gym into the ‘Gym Theatre’
  • An Oscar Wilde and Prison Museum
  • A contemporary art gallery
  • A ‘Gaol Workshop’ for artistic entrepreneurs
  • A digital hub for tech start ups

As a result of the summit the council is now considering submitting a second bid to buy the prison site in partnership with other private sector, voluntary or public organisations.

However, it has emerged that, in 2019, the council had urged TAR to also submit a bid to buy the site but TAR chose not to.

Reading Borough Council deputy leader Cllr Tony Page has now written to Mr Benn, thanking him for participating in Friday’s summit and sending him a copy of a letter from November 2019, in which council leader Cllr Jason Brock had asked TAR to reconsider its decision not to submit a bid.

Cllr Page’s letter went on:

“As I said to you during the meeting it would have been invidious and inappropriate to single out for comment any specific organisation or individual.

“Following the Summit you helpfully shared the TAR vision with some of those in attendance. I would reiterate that we are grateful for the work that TAR has done to date, as was set out in the attached letter of 25th November 2019 from the Leader of the Council.

“We felt at the time  that it was a shame that TAR chose not to submit a separate bid to the MOJ. We believed a bid from TAR would have provided an alternative for the MOJ  and strengthened the case for securing the Gaol for public access and a cultural offer for Reading.

“However, it will be helpful to put your ‘vision’ work in the mix along with many other good ideas that have already been shared with us or were forthcoming yesterday.

“I am sure you will understand that it is important we manage the aspirations in TARs document, and from other organisations, against the advice we are receiving from various cultural and historic organisations, including the Arts Council and Historic England, about what is viable and sustainable on the site in the long term.

“Ultimately we want to submit a successful bid to the MOJ to secure the gaol for the benefit of everyone in Reading – we cannot afford to do that on our own.

“The summit was a clear demonstration of our commitment to work collaboratively on this and I hope you can see your way to engaging positively with us as we move forward.”

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