Turning the Reading Gaol into a cultural hub is vital for ‘turning around’ Reading’s tourism, according to the council’s new lead member for culture and heritage.

Councillor Karen Rowland, who took over Cllr Sarah Hacker’s role last month, said the old prison is a ‘mecca’ for the worldwide LGBT community and ‘essential’ to the town.

Efforts to preserve Reading Prison as an arts venue have been backed by a petition from Reading East MP Matt Rodda.

The jail, which once held Oscar Wilde, has been derelict since 2013 and it has cost the government more than £250,000 every year to maintain and protect the site.

Community groups have hit back at plans to sell the land, owned by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), to the highest bidder.

Cllr Rowland said: “It is something that is at the forefront of this council’s thought. I consider that it to be essential to turning tourism around in this town.

“It is an LGBT heritage site. There are not that many in the world or England that have the level of that site.

“It is a mecca. We had people coming from Japan and all over the world to see Oscar Wilde’s prison site.

“It is really lobbying and political manoeuvre that will be key in ensuring that it ultimately remains in use for Reading.”

Reading Gaol is said to be the burial place of Henry I and is where Oscar Wilde was incarcerated after being convicted of homosexual offences in 1895.

The Oscar Wilde Society has asked for the prison to be preserved to honour the poets imprisonment.

Theatre and Arts Reading (TAR) are seeking to turn the prison into a cultural hub including two theatres and an Oscar Wilde museum.

Melvin Benn, chairman of Theatre & Arts Reading, said: “We remain committed to plans for the Gaol site as an arts hub.

“We appreciate people would want to campaign that the Gaol be sold to a body that ensure the site can actively benefit Reading residents and beyond and TAR would do that.”

The MoJ permanently closed the site as part of the government’s desire to replace outdated prisons with more modern ones.

You can sign the petition here.