What's Next For Reading Prison?

| by Tom S-R, Ben S-R

A view of one of the prison buildings | © BBC

After being shut 63 months ago, Reading Gaol has remained unused. Reading East MP Matt Rodda says, during this time, “The government has spent over one million pounds on just maintaining the site … whilst homelessness has increased in our borough [Reading East] by 700%.” Currently a feasibility study is being undertaken by Theatre and Arts Reading (TAR) and is nearing completion. Mrs Scott, the TAR Executive Secretary said TAR hopes “to have some sort of public announcement in March which will update everyone on what is happening.”

In June 2014, it was proposed locally that Reading Gaol should be turned into a theatre and arts centre. However, 17 months later, the then Chancellor George Osborne and the then Justice Secretary Michael Gove announced that the site might be sold to housing developers.

So what is happening now?

Various options have been considered; flats, low-rise housing and a new school among them. The most popular plan locally, however, is transforming the site into a theatre and arts venue.

In 2013, a group of people from Reading’s business and art communities formed Theatre and Arts Reading (TAR) with the aim of finding a new theatre and arts venue for Reading. Following the closure of the prison, TAR announced its interest in the site of Reading Gaol for this venture.

The highlights of TAR’s theatre and arts vision for the prison site are:

  • 2 theatres
  • Performance/rehearsal space
  • Cell space for creative start-ups
  • Oscar Wilde multi-media experience
  • Oscar Wilde museum
  • Café/restaurant/bar
  • Contemporary art gallery
  • Arts film theatre
  • Gift shop
  • Display of archaeological finds from Reading Abbey
  • Educational & cultural partnerships
  • Integration with Reading Abbey Heritage Quarter and Kennet & Avon Canal   Under the plan, the main theatre would operate on a commercial basis with the rest of the site focused on the local community, particularly the education and cultural sectors. Community, student and educational productions would all be supported. 

Reading East MP, Matt Rodda, has been active on the proposed idea in Westminster. He has spoken in support of the project in Parliament and he has been having “on-going” conversations with the Prisons Minister, Rory Stewart MP. Mr Rodda said that Mr Stewart was very open to the possibility of the prison being developed as an arts hub.

More recently, Mr Rodda has received a letter from the Ministry of Justice saying that “they were now in a position to commence talks with Reading Borough Council over the sale of these buildings.” Mr Rodda also said that he would be “working with Reading Borough Council officials to help them during these talks.”

It is widely believed that this project would be extremely beneficial for schools in Reading and the surrounding area.

The Head of Drama at Reading School, Mrs Fooks, said that, “There is definitely a need for another theatre in Reading and I am 100% in favour of the proposed plan.”

When asked how the plan may improve the quality of learning, Mrs Fooks said that “a new theatre would enrich learning of not only Drama but of English as well and workshops could also be run to help the GCSE and the A-level boys.”

Matt Rodda MP suggests that members of the public who want to support the project can write to the Ministry of Justice, the Minister for Prisons Rory Stewart MP, and the Secretary of State David Gauke MP outlining their feelings and views on the theatre and arts project.

In addition to the many educational and cultural benefits of this theatre and arts venue vision, many in the local community and beyond feel that it would be a fitting conclusion to the story of Oscar Wilde and Reading Gaol.

An inside view of the prison | © BBC

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