Bid to turn former prison into arts centre rejected by Ministry of Justice

Video report by ITV News Meridian's Mel Bloor

A bid to turn an historic prison into an arts centre has been rejected by the Ministry of Justice.

Campaigners have been fighting for a long time for Reading Gaol, where famous writer Oscar Wilde was once incarcerated, to be transformed into a venue for culture and heritage.

However Reading Borough Council's bid of £2.6m to the MoJ to buy the gaol has been rejected.

The council has expressed its disappointment, but has vowed to 'keep its bid alive'.

Reading Borough Council understands the MoJ is likely to once again market the site for sale after it decided the council's bid, backed by the arts and cultural community in Reading and beyond, was not of a 'high enough monetary value'.

Councillor Jason Brock, Reading Borough Council Leader, said: “This bid may have had the Council’s name on it, but it was submitted for the Reading community who have demonstrated huge enthusiasm and passion to transform Reading Gaol into something truly special.

"Our job was to harness the strength of that local community support and create a unique beacon, not just for Reading, but as a site of national significance."

The MP for Reading East Matt Rodda says he's 'concerned' by the rejection, and is calling on the government to meet with him, Reading council, and the MP for Reading West, to have a 'serious discussion' and to try and 'thrash this out'.

He says: "The gaol is such a unique building. It really has to have an arts use because of the link to Oscar Wilde, and the history of Reading.

"It is one of the most famous buildings in the Thames Valley and I think it should be preserved for the community for that reason."

In a bid to show what could be achieved in the council's bid, it has released an artist's impression of what it could look like if it was turned into a heritage and arts hub.

Reading Council's vision of the gaol. Credit: Reading Council

The council believes that rival bids from the private sector have assumed 'wrongly' that permission would be given to build many more homes on the site, falsely inflating its value.

Cllr Tony Page says: "The guide price that the MoJ are working to, which is a few million higher than our bid, we believe, is also pre-pandemic and based on unrealistic assumptions."So we would like to talk through all this with ministers, because we believe our bid represents the best for the MoJ and for the general public."

Earlier this year, artwork depicting Oscar Wilde escaping the gaol using a typewriter appeared on the building's side.

Soon after, famous graffiti artist Banksy claimed responsibility for what he called the 'Create Escape'.

Credit: ITV News Meridian

Locals believe Banksy did it to help with the campaign.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Following discussions with the Council, the prison will be put back on the property market.

"Any sale will seek the best value for taxpayers and be reinvested into the justice system, while ensuring planning requirements for the historic site are met."