Banksy’s offer to raise money to help buy historic Reading Gaol may just have moved the goalposts, but the ball remains firmly in the MoJ’s court, explains Reading Borough council leader Jason Brock. He writes;

The strength of feeling behind the Council’s bid to transform the vacant Reading Prison into something truly special has stepped up a gear again.

It was 1st March this year when Reading woke up to Banksy’s artwork on the prison wall. The excitement was immediate and palpable. The title of his piece – Create Escape – seemed to be a not-so-subtle nudge in the direction of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). His support for the Council’s bid was confirmed last week when the street artist made public his intention to raise millions of pounds towards buying the prison by selling the original stencil to a private buyer.

The Council’s vision for Reading Gaol is to transform it into a beacon of arts, heritage and culture of local, regional, national and international significance. The historic Gaol itself would form the centrepiece of an exciting and truly unique development with a mix of uses.

These would include a new heritage centre celebrating its rich history and archaeology; space for theatre, dance, music, cinema and outdoor exhibitions; high quality and flexible public realm; a creative innovation hub hosting affordable workspaces, events, workshops and exhibitions led by resident cultural organisations; and a rooftop café. The offer would be made viable though a new residential quarter offering high-quality energy efficient homes and, importantly, include new affordable homes.

The Council’s bid – worth £2.6 million and backed and shaped by Reading’s passionate arts and cultural community – was not accepted by the MoJ in May. Instead, it chose to go back out to the open market, having already had one buyer previously pull out. We made clear at the time our bid would stay on the table and that remains the case today.

The sale of the former prison site is a far from straightforward one. The Reading Gaol comes with obvious constraints, sitting as it does next to Reading’s historic Abbey. It was December 2013 when the MoJ abruptly shut Reading Prison with zero notice. The Council moved quickly at the time to develop a planning framework document to guide any potential future development and protect the prison’s heritage and history. That was almost exactly 8 years ago to the day. All that time the prison building has laid empty and unused as the MoJ continue to try and find a buyer.

Our position throughout has been to work with the MoJ to ensure the historical and cultural value is given rightful prominence in any future development. We would additionally welcome and encourage any alternative bids to the MoJ which seek to achieve that, whether from community organisations or from members of the wider arts and cultural community.

In very simple terms, it comes down to this: How much value do you place on heritage and cultural value of Reading Gaol, and does that valuation outweigh the almost certainly higher financial receipt likely to be forthcoming from private developers who will probably want to turn the prison into luxury flats?

Much remains unknown in terms of the details behind Banksy’s generous offer and how it would work in practical terms for the future sale of the site. It’s possible, however, that he may yet have moved the goalposts by allowing the MoJ to attract a substantial fee for the prison, whilst at the same time progressing with the Council’s and the community’s bid.

The ball - as ever - remains firmly in the MoJ’s court.