Special report: Why close Blundeston Prison when even the official reports say it is ‘good’?

PUBLISHED: 09:50 11 April 2014 | UPDATED: 09:50 11 April 2014

HMP Blundeston which is now closed.

Picture: James Bass

HMP Blundeston which is now closed. Picture: James Bass

Archant Norfolk © 2014

Shock, sadness and an appalling waste of money... these are just some of the damning views expressed over the government’s decision to close a “good performing prison”.

Public meeting

Future uses for the vacant Blundeston prison site will be highlighted tomorrow at a public meeting.

The meeting to discuss the site’s future has been organised by Blundeston and Flixton Parish Council – and a rallying call to all has been made ahead of tomorrow’s debate.

Villagers and people in the surrounding area of Blundeston are being urged to turn out to discuss the future disposal and development of the site, and hear about the possible options that have been mooted.

These include retaining the existing all-weather pitch for village use, moving Blundeston Primary School onto the site, creating a mixed use site that includes a care or residential home, use the existing farm site to provide allotments for villagers, utilise the prison workshops to provide small industrial workshop units and redevelop the land for housing.

With Waveney MP Peter Aldous attending the meeting, parish council chairman Graham Wade said: “We just need people to attend to have their say over the future of the site, and put their options across. We don’t want over-development. We have not got the infrastructure and the facilities within the village to sustain a lot of houses.”

Mr Wade said that there had been “a lot of sadness” within the area at the closure of the prison, but added: “We have to accept change.”

Now, with all gates locked and security monitoring the site, attention has turned to what happens next – and the parish council has been working with Waveney District Council recently.

A Waveney spokesman said: “Waveney planning officers are supporting agents working for the Ministry of Justice who are looking to market the site, by providing a ‘planning information statement’. This statement will explain and suggest the type, nature and scale of development that is likely to be acceptable on the site.

“Ahead of completing the statement, we are enjoying very constructive discussions with the parish council and ward member, Paul Ashdown, to get the opinions of the local community on future uses.”

As well as this, views from tomorrow’s meeting will also feed back into the statement. The Waveney spokesman added: “Although the site is in open countryside, it is a large “brownfield” (previously developed) site and there is recognition that the site is suitable for some development – the issue to be determined is of what type and how much.”

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Today, the signs showcasing HMP Blundeston Prison are still up around the village – more than seven months on from the announcement that it would have to slam its doors shut for good.

But while the high fences which stopped prisoners getting out of the site near Lowestoft for more than 50 years still remain, gates have now been installed to prevent people getting in – as a security company maintains surveillance of the site.

For almost two months the increased security measures have been in force after the end of an era was marked at the category C prison last December, when it closed as part of Ministry of Justice money-saving measures.

The cost of the whole closure process has been described by an Independent Monitoring Board report as “extremely complicated” and “very expensive” – with the final bill unknown.

Blundeston Prison September 2013. Photo: MIKE PAGE Blundeston Prison September 2013. Photo: MIKE PAGE

However, its report last month said that more than £10m had been spent improving the site in the three years leading up to its closure.

But while all the prisoners have moved and the majority of the prison’s 100 officers and 130 staff have relocated to Norwich prison and HMP Bure at Coltishall, it is understood that some contract work is still continuing – even though the facility has closed and the property was handed back to the Ministry of Justice in February.

Last September it was announced Blundeston Prison was to be one of four prisons to close as the government said they were too costly to run or needed substantial capital investment.

By closing the prisons at Blundeston, Dorchester, Northallerton and Reading, the government said it would save the prison’s budget £30m a year.

Campaigns to try to halt the closure of Blundeston prison ultimately failed, and this week Bob Blizzard, Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Waveney, said: “The closure of Blundeston Prison was a shock that came out of the blue.”

As reported last month, Blundeston’s Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) hit out at plans to close it. For the past 19 years Michael Cadman served on the board, which publishes annual reports on the Lowestoft jail.

Mr Cadman, a former chairman of the IMB, said: “Blundeston was a good performing prison with an excellent staff/prisoner relationship – the backbone of all rehabilitation work within prisons. This relationship had been built up over many years. The announcement it was to close did come completely out of the blue,” he admitted.

“In fact the previous governor had left about four weeks before, and in his going away speech he said the future of Blundeston had been secured. All the hard work had secured the future – so when the new governor arrived, he knew nothing about the closure until the morning of the announcement. It is all very sad.”

Mr Cadman added: “There were such good staff there, a real camaraderie among the officers, and now most of them have had an extra hour added to their day travelling to and from Norwich.”

With new floors laid – and some still in the process of being laid under a long-standing contract – millions of pounds have also been spent on new roofs for the workshops and central prisoner area, new heating, installing a new electronic key issuing system and a new laundry. And all this has been done within recent years, according to Mr Cadman.

So why would the government close a “good performing prison?”

Mr Cadman said: “The reason for closure is presumably the long-term maintenance costs. That is hard to believe given all the work done recently.”

And now, as thoughts turn to the future, Mr Cadman believed it would be a “long-term process” to redevelop the site, given the huge amount of work that would be required.

“There is still a real sadness with the closure, but we have to move on,” he admitted. “It was a weird feeling when I walked down the corridors in the segregation unit in December – and there was no-one there. I had to think how many times I had walked down those corridors over the years but this time it was completely empty – that was a very strange, sad feeling.”

Yesterday, a Prison Service spokesman said: “Our modernisation programme will create a fit-for-purpose prison estate and reduce prison costs by £500m by 2015.

“We are currently considering options for the future use of the HMP Blundeston site. We are working with a number of organisations, including the local authority, and always seek the best value for taxpayers.”

The spokesman also confirmed that property consultants Jones Lang LaSalle “will be acting as agents” on the MoJ’s behalf for the marketing of the site. The spokesman added that the IMB report was still being considered fully by ministers.

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