Comment

Prison closures: Can the community benefit?

by Sarah Uncles.

In 2015, the government unveiled a ‘prison building revolution‘ setting out plans to sell-off old prisons and use the receipts to cover the construction of nine new facilities.

This was presented as a significant or ‘radical’ new policy. In reality, it is a continuation of an underlying trend. According to our calculations, 19 prisons have been closed since 2011.

Closing Holloway

The most recent prison to close is Holloway, which shut in July 2016. Community groups and local residents have sinced joined together to press for the site to be used to benefit the local community.

Our project – Justice Matters: A Community Plan for Holloway – is helping to support these efforts.

What has happened to the other 18 former prison sites?

You can download a table with full details here.

At a glance:

  • Eight have been purchased by private companies with a primary focus on residential development.
  • Three have had planning permission granted for mixed used facilities.
  • Two have been re-roled as immigration removal centres and there are plans to reopen Wellingborough prison.
  • Lancaster Castle prison has been handed back to the Duchy of Lancaster and Brookhill prison is being used as a Crane Storage Yard.
  • The future of a further four sites remains unknown.

Affordable housing?

The property group City and County bought four prisons – Gloucester, Dorchester, Kingston and Shepton Mallet – in a £5m deal in December 2014. The latter three have had planning permission granted for a combined total of 551 properties. Not one property qualifies as affordable.

These developments have dodged quotas for affordable housing by claiming that the economics of conserving such heritage sites makes lower cost housing ‘unviable’.

Blundeston prison and Bullwood Hall prison are both subject to 35 per cent affordable housing quotas. But even here, affordability is not guaranteed to be the reality. These conditions only involve ensuring that the housing units are 20 per cent under the local market rate.

Community-centred approaches?

Consultation processes over the future of closed prison sites tend to be more of a tick-box exercise than open public discussion.

During the consultation over the future of Dorchester prison, respondents were required to choose between protecting the historic asset OR providing affordable housing. The framing of this question presents the options as mutually exclusive.

The nearly 30 per cent of residents who voted for affordable homes as the priority were not taken into consideration, since zero affordable homes were included in the plans. The document expressed the desire of striking a ‘balance’. How this balance was achieved remains unclear.

There is the potential to think more broadly and creatively about the possibilities of former prison sites.

Ashwell prison was bought by Rutland County Council for £1.3m. The Council subsequently supported its development as a mixed-use facility: providing space for businesses, transforming the former prison visitor centre into an adult learning centre and children’s day nursery, and creating an ‘Active Hub’ which hosts activities such as judo and trampolining.

Establishing a true community vision requires an open public consultation that reaches out to the whole of the community and listens to their views on how best to improve the well-being of their area.

Timescale

The sale, planning and development of these sites is a lengthy process. Shepton Mallet and Dorchester prisons only had planning approved this February, having both closed around four years ago.

In the interim period between closure and the beginning of development, a handful of prisons have been used on a temporary basis. For example, Blundeston prison was provisionally used for police training in fire-arms and dog-handling. Reading prison re-opened its doors to host an arts exhibition, and multiple prisons including Latchmere House and Northallerton have held public tours.

Paying to keep them empty

Unoccupied sites require maintenance and generate running costs. In a 22 month period from March 2013, £338,000 was spent keeping vacant Gloucester prison secure. Reading prison incurred a bill of £20,000 a month.

These costs come out of the public purse whilst the prison sites remain in the hands of the Ministry of Justice. Communities therefore have a direct claim to access and benefit from these otherwise empty sites.

This is why the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, along with residents of Islington and other partners, are calling for Holloway’s empty visitors’ centre to be opened immediately for community benefit.

It is also why we are currently working with the local community in the Holloway area to develop a community plan for the long-term use of the prison site. These are public buildings on public land. They should be redeveloped in the public interest.