Council Sets Out Its Position on the Reading Prison Site

View of Reading Prison by Reading Abbey © Chris Forsey
View of Reading Prison next to Reading Abbey  Ruins © Chris Forsey

READING COUNCIL has set out its current position on the Reading Prison site – welcoming the ‘Vision’ of Theatre and Arts Reading (TAR) to utilise the site for the development of a new theatre and a range of exciting complementary uses.

A report going before the Council’s Policy Committee on Monday 16th July, sets out the Council’s position on the former Reading Prison site, specifically in relation to the much anticipated future disposal for development by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

In the light of the recent and ongoing regeneration of Reading’s Abbey Quarter, including the restoration and reopening of the Abbey Gateway and Abbey Ruins, attention is now focusing on the prison – famous for Oscar Wilde’s poem ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol,’ – which was shut down by the Government in December 2013, and remains empty with no clarity on progress.

The Grade II Listed Prison sits in its entirety on the former footprint of the Reading Abbey complex, a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Although the MoJ has previously indicated it intends to sell the site, there is, as yet, no confirmed timescale for the disposal of the site.

The report to Policy notes that the future of the Prison site is potentially key to the long-term success of the Abbey Quarter and to the town’s cultural offer and reputation.

The Council has in principle endorsed TAR’s ambition to deliver a new theatre for Reading and now welcomes the parallel ‘Vision’ to utilise the prison site for the development of a new theatre and a range of complementary uses to create a vibrant new cultural and heritage destination.

The report outlines a potential mechanism for taking forward TAR’s Vision and seeks approval to engage in this process as a key partner and stakeholder, as far as possible within the severe constraints of the Council’s current financial situation.

Tony Page, Reading Borough Council’s Lead Member for Strategic Environment, Planning and Transport, said: “Over four and a half years after the Reading Prison was abruptly shut down by Government, this historic building remains empty with nothing definitive from the MoJ on progress. The Council is nevertheless committed to protecting the history and heritage of what is a key site for Reading.

“If and when this site is eventually sold by the MoJ, it means any developer will need to pay close consideration to the local and national planning policies set out by the Council in the Prison Framework and in our Draft Local Plan. In ideal circumstances local stakeholders should have a far greater say in determining the future of this critical site and we would hope the MoJ supports this position.

“With the Abbey Quarter revitalisation and the reopening of the Abbey Ruins in June this year, now is the time to open up the prison site as part of the quarter offering and as an exemplar of heritage led regeneration. Reading Prison sits within a site of national historical significance and we want residents, visitors and future generations to appreciate and enjoy the complete area.”

Cllr Sarah Hacker, Reading’s Lead Member for Culture, Heritage and Recreation, said: “The Council is delighted that Reading has been recognised nationally as place of real cultural potential through the Great Place Scheme funding we have secured and in many ways the prison site is the missing piece of the jigsaw. 

“The prison site offers huge potential, including our long standing ambition to facilitate the build of a new theatre for Reading and cement the town’s reputation as an artistic and cultural centre in the region. Despite the severe budget constraints we face, TAR’s Vision offers an imaginative way of delivering and funding a new theatre and much more.

“The Vision being developed by TAR is a powerful one and if it came to fruition would be a model of heritage led regeneration and economic growth with a significant impact on the town for generations to come. 

 “In the meantime, we continue to urge the MoJ to break their silence on Reading Prison and tell Reading what progress – if any – has been made on a sale of the site. Reading Prison is far too important a building to the town to be left sitting empty and local people should have a say in its future.”

The full report can be viewed here:


Notes for Editors:

The final draft of Reading’s new Local Plan for the first time references the ‘Abbey Quarter’ and contains explicit policies in this regard covering all the area once occupied by the Abbey and including: Town Hall & Museum, St Lawrence Church and graveyard, Forbury Gardens, the Abbey Ruins and the Prison site.

The Draft Local Plan states that the (Listed) building could be used for ‘residential, commercial, offices or a hotel and should include some cultural or heritage element that draws on its significance’.

The Council previously also published a key planning document in 2015 which set out to protecting the heritage and history of the former Reading Prison. It adopted what is known as an Outline Development Framework.

The document outlines the history of the site and its importance in the context of the wider Abbey area. Whilst it does not indicate any preference for possible future uses of the site, it does highlight relevant national and local planning policies. These would need to be taken into consideration by any potential buyer who wanted to develop the site.

Significantly, the document also made clear the requirement for further detailed archaeological investigation and appraisal for the former prison site in advance of any planning application being lodged by any potential developer.

Ongoing archaeological investigations have been carried out by Museum of London Archaeology, on behalf of the MoJ, to inform this work, including significant trenching across the site, although the Council is not currently sighted on the outcome of these investigations.

The full Prison Framework document can be viewed here:

Reading Prison – a short history:

The Reading Prison site has considerable historic significance. It formed part of the walled precinct to Reading Abbey and falls within the Reading Abbey and Civil War Earthworks Scheduled Ancient Monument. The site contains a part of the Abbey Church itself and would have contained associated buildings. Part of the site may have been a cemetery associated with the Abbey. There is a high potential for archaeological remains from the Bronze Age through to the period of the Vikings in the 9th Century, as well as the medieval and later interest. The site was an important area in the defence of Reading during the Civil War in 1643.

The prison site also falls within Reading’s Abbey Quarter, which has been the traditional civic and ceremonial heart of the county town of Royal Berkshire since the 12th century. The Quarter is defined by the medieval streets and rivers that outline the precinct of Reading Abbey. This area contains the substantial standing remains and buried archaeology of Reading Abbey, telling its story from the foundation by Henry I in 1121 to its dissolution by Henry VIII in 1539.

The Quarter shows evidence of all periods since the Abbey’s dissolution: a royal residence, civil war defences, Jane Austen’s school, the impressive municipal buildings, Victorian public gardens and Oscar Wilde’s infamous Reading Gaol. There are buildings by famous architects including Sir John Soane, A.W.N. Pugin, Alfred Waterhouse and Sir George Gilbert Scott. Significant public sculpture within the Quarter includes Simond’s Maiwand Lion and statue of Queen Victoria, and contemporary artworks such as the Oscar Wilde Memorial Walk.

Reading Museum is also located within the Quarter and has important collections relating to the heritage of Reading and the Quarter, particularly Reading Abbey and later Victorian industrial heritage. The current Abbey precinct area has piecemeal protection under several local and national designations and policies. Key parts of the site are a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and as such are protected under the provisions of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979; the Abbey Ruins and the Abbey Gate are also Grade I listed.


Victoria Nickless

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