Reading Gaol still empty after 10 years costing millions of pounds to maintain

  • ITV News Meridian's Mel Bloor reports

Reading Gaol shut its gates for the last time exactly 10 years ago today (Wednesday 22 November) - but it still stands empty and is costing millions of pounds to maintain.

The site has been in the centre of town for almost 180 years, housing thousands of prisoners, most famously, Oscar Wilde, who immortalised his imprisonment in the poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

It was closed by the government as part of its jail modernisation programme and put up for sale in 2019.

The government is seeking what it calls "best value for money" but there are concerns about how much the empty prison is costing to maintain after it was revealed the Ministry Of Justice (MoJ) is still paying for electricity, gas and security at the site.

According to figures obtained previously, it's believed the MoJ is spending £20,000-£25,000 a month on the prison's upkeep.

Over 10 years, it's cost taxpayers an estimated £2.5 million to £3 million.

The money - had it been spent elsewhere - could have paid for the annual salary of either 43 full time GPs, 90 nurses, or 100 teachers.

Since its closure, campaigners from the local Rabble Theatre group have worked tirelessly to make sure the prison is turned into a space that benefits the local community.

The drive to turn the prison into an arts hub has gained backing from a number of celebrities including Reading's own Kate Winslet and street artist Banksy has helped draw attention to the cause.

In recent years the former prison has hit the headlines. In March 2021, Banksy added a piece of artwork to the prison wall showing a prisoner escaping with a typewriter. It was widely thought to be a nod to Oscar Wilde who wrote "The Ballad of Reading Gaol."

Matt Rodda, Labour MP for Reading East, has been campaigning to turn the site into an arts and heritage hub.

He said: "My message to the government is really I just want them to rethink their approach and work with me, with Alok Sharma, with the council, with local arts and heritage and community groups and try and make something of this amazing site. There's such an opportunity here."

There are suggestions that a sale has been agreed by the MoJ however in a statement released, a prison service spokesperson said: "The sale of the former Reading Prison is progressing and all matters relating to it are commercially sensitive and confidential."

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