Striking the balance: housing and history at Reading prison

by Marco Cillario Fri 13 January 2017, 3:05 pm

Reading prison could be marketed for housing at the end of 2017 – but the “historic integrity” of the site will be preserved, the Ministry of Justice has said.

The prison, where iconic writer Oscar Wilde was incarcerated at the end of the 19th century, was the subject of a question asked by Lord Stoddart of Swindon, a Reading-based independent Labour peer, and answered by Lord Keen of Elie, Lords spokesman for the Ministry of Justice, on 14 December 2016.

“We will prepare a planning brief for approval by Reading Borough Council during the latter half of 2017. Following this, we anticipate that the site will be marketed for sale for residential development,” Keen said. 

An estimated 300 homes could be built on site.

“The Ministry of Justice and its external planning and development advisers are currently working in close collaboration with Historic England, Reading Borough Council and others to ensure that the historic integrity of the site is documented and preserved after disposal,” added Keen.

The building was a working prison until 2013 and was then left empty with what critics claim was a lack of a plan from the government, until the announcement, in November 2015, that the site would be sold for housing development.

At the end of 2016, it was brought into temporary use as the venue for an exhibition on Wilde and his experience in jail between 1895 and 1897. De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Wilde’s last two works, were based on his experience in the prison.

Called Inside – Artists and Writers in Reading Prison, the exhibition saw the participation of world-famous artists including singer-songwriter Patti Smith, actor Ralph Fiennes, filmmaker Steve McQueen and Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei. 

Taking place between 4 September and 4 December, it attracted around 50,000 visitors and raised £260,000 through ticket sale. 

Following Lord Keen’s announcement, a petition was launched to keep the prison open as a community centre for culture and the arts. It has been signed by more than 500 people so far.

Rob Wilson, MP for Reading East, said that selling the site for housing or using the prison as a full-time arts venue should not be considered an “either/or decision”.

“There is clearly a need for affordable housing in Reading,” he said. “However, I believe that the development will need to be sympathetic both to the prison’s cultural and historical significance, as well as the nearby abbey. 

“Many developments of this size will have an 'anchor' to serve the community and I don't see why this would be different.”

Councillor Tony Page, deputy leader of Reading Council and lead member for strategic environment, planning and transport, said during the summer that the council was “fully committed” to securing “the very best future for this internationally important historic and culturally valuable site” and it will work with the Ministry of Justice to find “a development partner who can truly make our shared vision a reality”.

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