The Ministry of Justice has been given the go-ahead to build a new 1,715-capacity prison in Leicestershire against the recommendations of a planning inspector.
Harborough District Council last year refused an outline application to build the facility on land next to existing prison HMP Gartree, which was built in the 1960s on part of the site of a former RAF base.
The Gartree plans are part of the government’s New Prisons Programme to deliver an additional 20,000 prison places over the coming years to deal with rising inmate numbers and replace out-of-date facilities.
Harborough’s rejection letter said the proposed category-B training prison was “unsuitable” for the location because its scale and design would have a “harmful impact on the character and appearance of the countryside” that the scheme’s benefits would not outweigh.
The MoJ appealed the decision and in September last year then-communities secretary Greg Clark exercised planning powers that allow ministers to determine the outcome of an appeal, based on the advice of a planning inspector.
A decision letter published on Wednesday reveals that planning inspector Hayley Butcher recommended that the MoJ’s appeal should be dismissed, but current communities secretary Michael Gove overruled the decision.
Butcher’s advice to government, which followed an eight-day public inquiry, said it was agreed between the main parties that the prison proposals were in conflict with local planning policies, meaning she “must find that the site is not a suitable location for the proposed development”.
The inspector added that the MoJ had not provided evidence that “robustly” supported its case that there were no suitable sites for a category-B training prison other than at Gartree. However, she acknowledged a national need for such facilities.
Butcher also said that the MoJ had not demonstrated that the site was suitable for a new prison from a sustainable-transport perspective.
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’ decision letter, issued on behalf of Gove, said “the material conditions” of the case indicated that permission should be granted despite the proposals' conflict with the local development plan.
“Weighing in favour of the proposal are the need for the prison which carries significant weight, the economic benefits which carry significant weight, [and] the qualitative benefits of the proposal which carry significant weight,” the letter said.
An MoJ spokesperson said Gartree was “critical to delivering the 20,000 extra places we need to keep dangerous offenders off the streets and will boost the local economy by creating hundreds of new jobs”.
They added that 5,600 of the additional places planned under the New Prisons Programme had so-far been built – at HMP Five Wells and HMP Fosse Way.
Harborough District Council leader Phil Knowles said Gove’s decision was “deeply disappointing news”.
“The planning committee refused this. The community have real and justified fears for the infrastructure's ability to cope,” he said.
“Those who have held the position of secretary of state throughout this consideration have declined my personal invitations to come here and see just how unsuitable this site is.”
Harborough District Council has a six-week window to challenge Gove’s decision at the High Court.