I have formally written to the Prisons Minister calling for an official review of the decision to sell Reading Gaol. I urge the Minister to look again at the historical and cultural importance of this world heritage site, where Oscar Wilde was incarcerated, and which is believed to be the burial place of King Henry I, in part of Reading Abbey which lies under the gaol.
Recently, there have been significant changes in the business case for selling the site to a developer. Not only will luxury flats or a hotel be utterly out of keeping with the site, they may not be a viable development project due to the economic effect of the coronavirus, and the likely recession in hotels and hospitality. I urge the Government to allow Reading Gaol to be saved and used as an arts and heritage hub.
The full text of the letter follows:
I hope you are well, and I should add that I would like to wish the Prime Minister well as he returns to work this week.
I’m writing following the Department’s decision to select a commercial developer as the preferred bidder for Reading Gaol, as I want to ask you to reconsider this decision, given the importance of the gaol as a world heritage site and the current economic situation.
Protecting a world heritage site
Commercial development of the gaol site, turning it into a hotel or luxury flats would be a tragic waste of a unique piece of British and world heritage and would lead to the loss of a once in a generation opportunity to save this site for posterity.
I realise the financial pressures faced by the Department, however, Reading Gaol is a vital part of our national and indeed world heritage, and I would urge you to review the decision because of the unique historical and cultural nature of the site.
The gaol is a grade II listed building and is well known in UK and internationally as the prison where Oscar Wilde was incarcerated. It is also the only prison to sit on a scheduled ancient monument, as it was built on the site of Reading Abbey, the burial place of King Henry I, whose tomb is believed to be buried under the prison wall or car park.
The campaign to save the gaol has attracted significant support, in Reading and the surrounding area, across the UK and internationally, with more than 8,000 people having signed a petition to save the gaol.
In addition, around 1,000 people attended an event where campaigners joined hands around the prison walls, this included both Reading MPs, our Mayor and Deputy Mayor the leader of the borough council and a cross party group of councillors.
The campaign has also been supported by the Oscar Wilde Society, the actor Stephen Fry and a wide range of arts, heritage and community groups, including a number of LGBT community organisations.
The Irish Government has also expressed an interest in preserving the gaol, as an important cultural and literary site because of Oscar Wilde and the links to Ireland.
The economic situation
It is now clear that the country, and the world as a whole, faces a challenging economic situation, with most economists predicting that the corona virus pandemic will cause a recession, with some going further and suggesting that this could be deeper and more damaging than other recent economic problems.
A recession would have a damaging impact across most sectors of the British economy, although it is expected to hit the hospitality sector particularly hard, making development projects which are based on hotel building or luxury accommodation particularly vulnerable.
The current preferred bidder could face significant difficulties paying for the site and financing the proposed development, which could leave the Department unable to sell the site, or struggling to complete the sale. Even if a bidder bought the site, any development could be difficult to finance and build.
In these new and financially challenging circumstances I would hope that your officials will want to reconsider their advice about the feasibility of the current project and that they may recommend considering an alternative approach.
I would be happy to work with you and your Department, Alok Sharma and Reading Borough Council, together with the arts and heritage community, to explore alternative arts and heritage uses for the gaol site which secure its future and help the Department fulfil its aim of selling the site.
Given the unique nature of the site and the significant level of support together with the unprecedented economic situation caused by the pandemic, I hope you will agree that there is a strong case for a review of the Department’s earlier decision. In addition, I would ask you to reconsider the alternative approach of turning the gaol into an arts and heritage hub and for the historic building and the site as a whole to be preserved for the community.
I appreciate your offer of a meeting and I would like to discuss this important issue with you, although this may need to take place virtually. I hope we could meet with Alok Sharma MP, Reading Borough Council and other relevant partners.
MP for Reading East’