A row has erupted between the council and a local theatre and arts group over plans to bid for Reading Gaol.

Theatre & Arts Reading (TAR) has released a document showing the group’s blueprint for the former prison, following a summit on the future of the Ministry of Justice-owned site on Friday (February 12).

Melvin Benn, chairman of TAR, accused the council of "ignoring" the work done by the group.

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He said: “Following the Reading Borough Council (RBC) discussion about a vision for the Gaol site this morning [on Friday, February 12] we thought, even though they didn’t, that it would be worth circulating what took us a number of years to develop.

“Ignore it as the council have or take inspiration or ideas from it and submit to the council as requested’.

Councillor Tony Page, responding in a letter to Mr Benn, said it would have been “inappropriate” to single out for comment any specific organisation or individual but that he is grateful for the work TAR has done to date.

He continued: “We felt at the time that it was a shame that TAR chose not to submit a separate bid to the MOJ.

“We believed a bid from TAR would have provided an alternative for the MOJ and strengthened the case for securing the Gaol for public access and a cultural offer for Reading.

“However, it will be helpful to put your ‘vision’ work in the mix along with many other good ideas that have already been shared with us or were forthcoming yesterday.

“I am sure you will understand that it is important we manage the aspirations in TARs document, and from other organisations, against the advice we are receiving from various cultural and historic organisations, including the Arts Council and Historic England, about what is viable and sustainable on the site in the long term.

“Ultimately we want to submit a successful bid to the MOJ to secure the gaol for the benefit of everyone in Reading – we cannot afford to do that on our own.

The summit was a clear demonstration of our commitment to work collaboratively on this and I hope you can see your way to engaging positively with us as we move forward.”

Hotel, food hall, theatre and museum – the document

Titled ‘Reading Gaol – Invitation to tender, November 2019’, the document reveals the proposal developed by the Reading Gaol Arts Museum and Theatre Company (RGAMT) before they pulled out of the bidding race in December 2019 to support the council’s bid.

RGAMT, formed by Theatre & Arts Reading (TAR), developed a bid for the site with the help of Reading architects Barton Willmore.

The plans included a 400-seat theatre and two museums celebrating Oscar Wilde and the prison.

Theatre and Arts Readings proposal for the site

Theatre and Arts Reading's proposal for the site

The blueprint document shows their plan also included The Cruciform Hotel, a “unique and distinctive hotel embracing the Gaol’s heritage and incorporating ultra‑modern hospitality concepts”.

An artisanal warehouse food hall called Urban Eats was also part of the plan, with restaurants and bars and “based somewhat on the iconic Foodhallen in Amsterdam”.

Other plans include a contemporary art museum, a creativity workshop centre and an incubator hub for Reading’s tech businesses.

Finally, a sculpture trail or courtyard garden and a small memorial garden was planned for the prison grounds.

The summit

RBC hosted a Reading Gaol summit on Friday, attended by influential representatives from local arts, culture, heritage, business and LGBTQ+ communities, alongside key politicians.

The aim was to garner and harness the strength of local community support for the council’s plan to re-generate Reading into a a site of local, regional and national significance.

The council is exploring the possibility of submitting another bid for the prison site, in partnership with other private sector, voluntary or public organisations.

Reading Gaol has been empty and unused since December 2013, when it was shut by the MoJ.

Following the news last year that the MoJ’s sale of the Reading Prison site had fallen through, the council was granted a period of exclusivity by the MoJ to develop its own bid for the site.

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This period of exclusivity ends on March 15, but Reading East MP Matt Rodda has already written to Robert Buckland, the Secretary of State for Justice asking for more time.