The future of Reading Gaol has been much disputed since the Ministry of Justice announced its closure in November 2013. As a Grade II listed building, there are limited opportunities for the historic Reading landmark, however there is a huge amount of interest, both locally and further afield, in ensuring the building and this crucial central Reading site is put to good use.
At the end of June, I was part of a workshop hosted in our offices alongside participants from the University of Reading, Reading Museum, Reading Borough Council and the Ministry of Justice, to investigate what opportunities could be open to the prison.
An interesting and thought-provoking tour of Reading Prison by the caretaker who had worked there for 30 years and knew the building inside out offered us all a fantastic introduction to the opportunities. Built in 1844 the building and wider site is steeped in history. Designed by George Gilbert Scott and based on the Pentonville Prison design, Reading Gaol is built on one of the largest monasteries in modern Europe and has housed some famous figures including Oscar Wilde in cell C33. Designated as a local prison in 1973 it latterly became a Remand Centre and Young Offenders Institution in 1992, finally closing in 2013.
The Ministry of Justice’s presence was particularly useful as they highlighted the pressure they are under to deliver good financial returns on site disposals and in particular enabling these sites to support the Government’s wider response to the housing crisis. However, it is important for us to balance this against the sites wider contribution to Reading. Archaeological investigations, due to commence imminently, are fundamental to understanding the sites potential and future, not least due to the prospect of King Henry I being buried there! The site is pivotal to the proposed ‘Abbey Quarter’, with the potential to become a major cultural draw for visitors and residents, reconnecting the town with the River Kennet, its heritage and extending the town centre’s boundaries.
One of the strongest themes and suggestions for future use in the workshop and many previous discussions had, is the opportunity to develop this as a real hub for arts and culture. Studios or small start-up work spaces on the lower levels of the prison might help to encourage and retain young creative professionals, while also recognising Reading’s position as a creative and SME hub. Reading needs to become more of a destination in terms of location, accessibility and employment, as opposed to the transient town it is in danger of morphing into, as yet more access to central London’s job market arrives in 2018 (Crossrail).
The future of the prison and the Abbey Quarter could therefore really become a core element of Reading’s future economy and growth.
So my thoughts post discussion? Yes, the site has obvious inherent challenges but it also offers an incredible opportunity, a sustainable, exciting location, with water and green space, heritage and connectivity. Through collective visioning and a willingness on the part of all the key stakeholders I do really believe we can build a cohesive and realistic development brief. We can offer developers and investors a unique opportunity to be part of Reading’s future. We can drive their ambition and excitement while offering a great, viable investment opportunity, that in turn will act as a critical catalyst for Reading’s next economic phase…and onwards to 2050!
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