READING Borough Council (RBC) last night gave its official seal of approval for a new bid to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) for the Reading Gaol site.

The preliminary terms of a conditional bid by the council to transform the empty prison into a beacon of arts, heritage and culture for Reading, were agreed by councillors in the closed session of last night’s Policy Committee meeting (March 8).

The bid will now be submitted by March 15, in accordance with the period of exclusivity afforded to the council by the MoJ.

The MoJ’s process for the sale of the historic gaol remains a competitive process. That means the value of the council’s bid and the conditions of the bid remain commercially confidential at this time.

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Last night’s Policy Committee report highlighted both the unique opportunity afforded to the council to secure the site for the Reading community, in terms of cultural offer and the local economy, and the risks and uncertainties associated with a formal council bid.

After consideration, councillors agreed to submit a formal conditional bid to the MoJ to purchase the prison site. If successful in its bid, the council would seek a private sector partner to undertake the comprehensive regeneration.

The final value of the council’s bid - which will be funded through capacity available in its capital programme - will be informed by the completion of a detailed development appraisal.

Councillors agreed that should the conditional bid be accepted by the MoJ, the final terms and financial implications would be presented to a future meeting of Policy Committee, once all due diligence processes had been completed.

They also agreed that should the bid be successful, a cross party Reading Goal board would be set up to make recommendations on any decisions required.

RBC Leader Jason Brock said: “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to deliver a unique culture and heritage hub for Reading. We firmly believe a successful bid by the Council would be a game changer.

"A catalyst for further investment in Reading, a key driver in our recovery from Covid and the creation of a site of local, regional and national significance in the heart of our town and in our historic Abbey Quarter.

“It is important to note this remains a conditional bid at this time and that this is just the start of a negotiation with the MoJ.

"The decision to press ahead with a formal bid is nevertheless a major milestone. We will submit the community’s bid to the MoJ on March 15th, whilst again thanking the MoJ for the period of exclusivity granted to the Council.”

Cllr Jeanette Skeats, on behalf of the Conservative Group on RBC, added: "We welcome and fully support the renewed bid by RBC to acquire Reading Gaol.

"We particularly appreciate the intention to create a cross party Task & Finish Group to steer the project if the bid is successful.

"We recognise that the council's leadership is having to balance the resources needed for the bid against other spending priorities. However, we believe that it is a vital function of the council to provide civic leadership for a project such as this and the site when completed will be a marvellous legacy for future generations in the town centre."

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

Graffiti work, which Banksy confirmed to be his on March 4, sprung up on the side wall of Reading Gaol earlier this month.

The artwork, with a depiction of a man escaping (widely interpreted as Oscar Wilde) the prison using his typewriter paper as rope, has been interpreted as a sign of support for the ongoing campaign to turn the former prison into an arts, heritage and culture hub.

Reading East MP Matt Rodda has been a key campaigner in the bid to save Reading Gaol. 

He said: "I am delighted that Reading Borough Council is going to submit a bid for the gaol.

"I believe this is a crucial step, which could help save Reading Gaol and turn it into an arts and heritage hub.

"I want to thank the council for its work and also to thank the council's policy committee for agreeing to bid for this unique historic building."