The prospect of the town’s historic prison site in the town centre being turned over to housing has been ongoing since 2019, when the Ministry of Justice began a process to sell the building.
But the prospect of sale has been opposed from the outset by the ‘Save Reading Gaol campaign’, a plea that has had several high-profile backers including Stephen Fry, Dame Judi Dench, and illusive street artist Banksy who himself pledged £10m to the cause.
Campaigners are set to march to Reading Gaol to call for it to be turned into a theatre and arts hub on Saturday, March 25.
Ahead of the march, both of Reading’s MPs will be meeting with Damian Hinds, the new Prisons Minister to lobby for the building to be turned over to a community bidder.
Alok Sharma, the Conservative MP for Reading West, said: “Alongside other colleagues in Reading I have been calling for some time for a solution on Reading Gaol which also allows for the establishment of a culture hub.
“I have organised this latest meeting to get an update from the Justice Department on the long-running saga of the potential sale of the Reading Gaol site and to explore what scope there still is to deliver a local solution which captures the historic and cultural value of the site.”
Matt Rodda, the Labour MP for Reading East, said: “I am optimistic about the meeting and I hope it can be a turning point after 10 years of having the gaol mothballed by the Ministry of Justice.
“The Ministry has been trying to sell the gaol to their preferred bidder for some time without any success, I do think it is now time for them to think again and to work with Reading Borough Council, Banksy, local arts and heritage groups and with me.
“There is a real opportunity to deliver something amazing for our community and for the country as a whole, to find an exciting new use for this incredible historic building.”
The meeting with Mr Hinds, who is the Conservative MP for East Hampshire, will take place on Monday, February 27.
There were fears the campaign had failed in 2020, when a bidder was selected to buy the Prison. However, the bidder pulled out of the sale in November that year, reopening the possibility of a sale to a community or arts industry bidder.
Illusive street artist Bansky tagged the wall of the Prison on February 28, 2021, showing a convict escaping the gaol using a typewriter.
In December 2021, it was revealed that Banksy would invest £10 million into an arts or community bid.
Renowned poet Oscar Wilde was imprisoned there from 1895 to 1897.
The prospect of the prison becoming a theatre and arts hub has been part of the conversation since at least 2016, when it was used as a gallery as part of the Reading 2016 Year of Culture programme.