An election candidate for Reading East has claimed the council’s decision to bid for Reading Prison breaks purdah laws.

Reading Borough Council (RBC) agreed to bid for the former prison, also known as Reading Gaol, on Monday, at Policy Committee.

Craig Morley, Conservative candidate for Reading East, has criticised the council for taking this decision during the pre-election purdah period.

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Mr Morley said: “The Labour-run council has clearly broken Purdah rules in making this decision during the middle of an election campaign.

“We will be raising a formal objection with the monitoring officer.”

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Did the council break purdah rules?

A spokesman for RBC said the council had to decide whether to bid at this week’s Policy committee meeting as the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has set a bidding deadline of Friday, December 6, which fails within the purdah period.

The pre-election period, known as ‘purdah’, describes the period immediately before elections when certain restrictions on communication activity is in place.

Section 2 of the Local Government Act states that councils should not publish any material which, in whole or in part, appears to be designed to affect public support for a political party.

The Local Government Association’s (LGA) Purdah guidance states that local authorities are “allowed to continue to discharge normal council business”

The LGA adds: “Ultimately, you must always be guided by the principle of fairness.

“It is crucial that any decision you take would be seen as fair and reasonable by the public and those standing for office”.

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Mr Morley continued: “If Labour seriously wants to increase the provision of arts and culture within Reading, they shouldn’t have shut down Central Pool and Arthur Hill without a replacement and they shouldn’t have closed libraries.

“They should instead be focusing on redeveloping the Hexagon Quarter into a modern arts and cultural quarter instead of wasting millions of pounds of residents’ money acquiring an ageing Victorian facility that will require millions of pounds to renovate and millions of pounds to maintain.”

“As with Labour’s policies at a national level – we will all end up having to pick up the tab for their profligacy.”

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"He is very confused about basic details around our town"

Councillor Jason Brock, leader of RBC, announced the council’s intention to bid at Monday’s Policy committee after the start of the meeting was held in private.

Cllr Brock revealed to the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that Conservative councillors on the committee supported bidding for the prison.

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He said: “RBC’s bid for the prison is contingent upon securing significant external funding and no council money has been put at risk by the decision.

“The council has a duty to preserve our heritage wherever possible and the prison site offers a potentially unparalleled opportunity to deliver clear public benefit in this regard.

“Indeed, the hundreds of residents who attended the ‘Gaol Hug’ is indicative of the support such a scheme has.

“It is concerning that Mr Morley appears to be ignorant of the fact that the Conservatives voted in support of making a bid for the prison site at Policy Committee.

“Mr Morley – a tenuously self-professed ‘local boy’ – is also very confused about basic details around our town.

“This council has not, for example, closed any libraries. Perhaps if he lived in Reading, he might actually use them.”

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"Enormous strength of support in the town"

Matt Rodda, who set up a petition to save the prison, said he is “pleased” that the council is making a bid for the prison.

He said: “The gaol is unique and is one of Reading’s most historic buildings as well as being a world heritage site, it should be preserved for local people and visitors as an arts and heritage hub.

“I am proud to have campaigned to save the gaol and I am pleased that the council has listened to the campaign I have run with local residents.

“The fact that 8,000 people signed the petition to save the gaol shows the enormous strength of support for saving this historic site.

“If re-elected I would step up my campaign to save the gaol and I would work with the government and the council to preserve this vital part of our heritage for our local community.”

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Other Reading East candidates have also responded to the bid.

David McElroy, the Green Party’s candidate, said: “Without knowing the what detailed plans the council has, it’s hard to know if they are laudable or not, but they’ll certainly be expensive.

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“It’s difficult to believe that the same council that couldn’t manage to keep open a much-loved local swimming pool could manage to develop a site as complicated as this, but it’s worth looking at all possibilities rather than take the council’s usual line of more and more luxury flats.”

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Imogen Shepherd-Dubey, Reading East Lib Dem candidate and a Wokingham councillor, said she is very keen to see that the prison stays in public ownership as a community asset.

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She said: “I understand the MoJ would want to maximise their financial return from selling the prison, but in this case this is a place of historical interest and it may require some compromise to ensure that we have an outcome that is in the best interest of the public.”