Senior officials at Reading Borough Council have provisionally backed plans to transform the site of the town’s former working prison.
A report details the local authority’s support for a bid to turn the building into a theatre and arts venue - but the details still need to be presented to the CPolicy Committee later this month.
In the light of the recent and ongoing regeneration of Reading’s Abbey Quarter, including the restoration and reopening of the Abbey Gateway and Abbey Ruins, attention is now focusing on the prison – famous for Oscar Wilde’s poem ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol,’ – which was shut down by the Government in December 2013, and remains empty with no clarity on progress.
The Grade II Listed Prison sits in its entirety on the former footprint of the Reading Abbey complex, a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Although the MoJ has previously indicated it intends to sell the site, there is, as yet, no confirmed timescale for the disposal of the site.
The report to Policy notes that the future of the Prison site is potentially key to the long-term success of the Abbey Quarter and to the town’s cultural offer and reputation.
The Council has in principle endorsed TAR’s ambition to deliver a new theatre for Reading and now welcomes the parallel ‘Vision’ to utilise the prison site for the development of a new theatre and a range of complementary uses to create a vibrant new cultural and heritage destination.
(Above: Reading Borough Council's Civic Offices - picture taken by Jonny Freeman)
Tony Page, Reading Borough Council’s Lead Member for Strategic Environment, Planning and Transport, said:
“Over four and a half years after the Reading Prison was abruptly shut down by Government, this historic building remains empty with nothing definitive from the MoJ on progress. The Council is nevertheless committed to protecting the history and heritage of what is a key site for Reading.
“If and when this site is eventually sold by the MoJ, it means any developer will need to pay close consideration to the local and national planning policies set out by the Council in the Prison Framework and in our Draft Local Plan. In ideal circumstances local stakeholders should have a far greater say in determining the future of this critical site and we would hope the MoJ supports this position.
“With the Abbey Quarter revitalisation and the reopening of the Abbey Ruins in June this year, now is the time to open up the prison site as part of the quarter offering and as an exemplar of heritage led regeneration. Reading Prison sits within a site of national historical significance and we want residents, visitors and future generations to appreciate and enjoy the complete area.”
Cllr Sarah Hacker, Reading’s Lead Member for Culture, Heritage and Recreation, said:
“The Council is delighted that Reading has been recognised nationally as place of real cultural potential through the Great Place Scheme funding we have secured and in many ways the prison site is the missing piece of the jigsaw.
“The prison site offers huge potential, including our long standing ambition to facilitate the build of a new theatre for Reading and cement the town’s reputation as an artistic and cultural centre in the region. Despite the severe budget constraints we face, TAR’s Vision offers an imaginative way of delivering and funding a new theatre and much more.
“The Vision being developed by TAR is a powerful one and if it came to fruition would be a model of heritage led regeneration and economic growth with a significant impact on the town for generations to come.
“In the meantime, we continue to urge the MoJ to break their silence on Reading Prison and tell Reading what progress – if any – has been made on a sale of the site. Reading Prison is far too important a building to the town to be left sitting empty and local people should have a say in its future.”
REACTION FROM THEATRE AND ARTS READING
TAR chairman Melvin Benn has hailed Reading Borough Council (RBC) officers’ report to the policy committee endorsing TAR’s ‘Vision of Opportunities’ for the Reading Gaol site.
He has also praised that it will be put to the committee to approve RBC entering into plans to set up a charitable company with several partners to run the prison site:
"We are delighted officers are recommending TAR’s Vision of Opportunities is welcomed and that we enter into developing the proposals for a charitable company to run the site in partnership.
"The backing of Reading Borough Council for our plan to turn the Gaol site into a creative hub with two theatres is all-important for the town and we look forward to a positive collaboration.”