Ministry of Justice sells Reading Prison

Former prison site has lay empty for 10 years
Reading Prison. Photo: Harry Harrison/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

12 Jan 2024

The Ministry of Justice has sold the former Reading prison after a decade of the prison lying empty.

The department confirmed the sale of Reading Gaol on Thursday to a non-profit organisation, the Ziran Education Foundation.

The MoJ said the sale, for a reported £7m, "follows an extensive bidding and vetting process to guarantee best value for taxpayers’ money while ensuring future planning applications acknowledge the historic nature of the site".

The Ziran Education Foundation is a charitable non-profit organisation that collaborates with colleges to develop primary and secondary-school curriculums and educational services.

Its initial proposals for the former prison, where celebrated writer Oscar Wilde was once jailed, include plans for an educational centre providing services to the local community, including a museum outlining the history of the prison and an exhibition space accessible to the public, the MoJ said.

Matt Rodda, MP for Reading East, told CSW he is "cautiously optimistic" about the future of the site and said he hopes to meet the foundation to discuss its plans in more detail. 

The MoJ said the foundation "will now engage with Reading Borough Council on the use of the site as it will need to approve any development plans". The local authority's own community-backed bid to buy the site in 2021, for £2.6m, was rejected by the department.

RBC leader Jason Brock said the council is "disappointed" that its bid – which it kept on the table – "will not come to fruition". He also questioned the "absurdly lengthy process" to reach this point of selling the prison.

However, he said the initial plans from the successful bidder sound "encouraging".

“We maintain this is a hugely significant site, and there exists an opportunity to transform it into something truly unique," Brock said. "While the confirmation of sale from the MoJ to the council only contains scant detail at this stage, we welcome that the successful bid recognises the historical significance of this site to Reading, the wider region and nationally. The fact an education centre, providing community benefit, is planned alongside a museum outlining the site’s history, a community garden, and public exhibition space sounds encouraging, on the face of it.

“We have always maintained the Reading Gaol site should be about so much more than monetary value and we will look to work alongside the new owners to understand what they intend to achieve with the site."

Proceeds from the sale will be reinvested in the wider prison estate to help reduce reoffending and protect the public, the MoJ said.

The department said it has raised more than £105m through the sale of former prison sites in the last decade. 

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