The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has confirmed that it will seek to overturn the decision of Chorley Council’s planning committee, which last year rejected a proposal to build the new jail close to the existing Garth and Wymott lock-ups in Ulnes Walton.
Nearby residents are now demanding that the government names more than a dozen other locations which it says were assessed as potential alternative plots for a North West prison before it concluded that the Chorley village site was the only one suitable in the entire region.
South Ribble MP Katherine Fletcher – in whose constituency the new jail would sit – said she was “very disappointed” that the plan was being taken to appeal.
There was uproar amongst locals last year when the proposal first emerged for the 1,715-inmate category C resettlement facility, which was to house low-risk male offenders and prepare them for their eventual release.
If the jail now gets the go-ahead when the matter is considered by a planning inspector, it will nearly double the existing combined prisoner tally at Garth and Wymott – and leave the village population outnumbered by the incarcerated locked up on their doorstep.
More than 130 objections were raised to the original proposal – including concerns over its impact on traffic and the overshadowing of the nearest residential properties.
Chorley Council’s planning officers had recommended the jail for approval – concluding that the need for prison places in the North West significantly contributed to demonstrating the “very special circumstances” required to justify development of the greenbelt plot, which is currently split between agricultural use and an area reserved for the existing jails
However, planning committee members disagreed, throwing out the blueprint on the basis that it would cause “unacceptable” harm to highway safety and have a greater impact on the openness of the greenbelt than the existing use of the land.
Paul Parker, from the Action Against Wymott and Garth Third Prison group, told the Post that locals were well used to living in the shadow of prisons – but that the latest addition was simply “in the wrong place”.
“The prison will be located on a C-class country road [Moss Lane]. The only access to this site at the moment is along Ulnes Walton Lane and School Lane – and even though Lancashire County Council have said that the roads will accommodate the [additional] traffic, you’re looking at a 50 percent increase on over 4,000 vehicles a day [currently].
“It would be severely disruptive during construction because of all the HGVs – and the MoJ’s own assessment predicts that whatever they do with public transport [once the jail has opened], 90 percent of journeys will be by car.
“That is because you have got a 40-minute journey from Preston by bus and only a one-way bus [available] from Croston.
“In a survey in 2019, 68 percent of visitors to [Garth and Wymott] said that they are quite difficult or very difficult to find – so from a prisoner perspective, it is not a particularly good site either,” Paul added.
As part of its original application, the MoJ pledged to pay for a package of highway improvements along the A581 corridor. County Hall highways officials were said to be “satisfied” with the overall development from a transport perspective.
The department also said that it would fund an increase in the frequency of bus services to the site to the tune of £100,000 a year for the next five years. However, there was outrage last year when it emerged that the MoJ was also proposing to relocate a bus stop – used by schoolchildren – to within the prison grounds.
Campaigners are themselves currently appealing against the rejection of a freedom of information (FOI) request to the MOJ seeking details of all the plots identified across the region as possible locations for the new jail.
Planning committee members were told that an extensive site selection process had been carried out and that Ulnes Walton was the only one left standing after assessment against criteria including accessibility, environmental and operational suitability and the need for one of four proposed new facilities across the country to be located in the North West.
However, Paul Parker says that Ulnes Walton residents are unconvinced – and want to judge the other sites for themselves. The MoJ has so far declined to release details of the locations under FOI legislation.
The campaign group believes that the proposed Ulnes Walton site does not fulfil half of the MoJ’s own secondary-level criteria for selecting suitable spots for a prison.
They say that while it is flat, not significantly overlooked and is able to be connected to utilities networks, it should have been ruled out for not having good access to public transport and main road networks, not being accessible for construction traffic and being located on a floodplain.
“Wherever you live around here, you have lived with two prisons already for 30 years – so it’s not a case of ‘not in my backyard’,” Paul explains.
“But from the rear of the house of some of the nearest properties on Wray Crescent, it would only be about 50 metres to the curtain wall of the prison.
“Our objections centre around it being built on greenbelt in a location that doesn’t meet visitor requirements and doesn’t even meet some of the MoJ’s requirements – so why do they want to build it here?
“Our suspicion is that it’s because the land is freely available and there is likely to be less objection to it than if they built it in a place with good public transport and good accessibility for construction,” he adds
However, Paul says that the campaign group will “forensically” analyse the basis for the appeal and any changes that are brought forward to the original proposal.
Meanwhile, Katherine Fletcher told the Post that the initial vision for the site fell short.
“I’ve been speaking to the government for several months on the need to, considerably, improve the proposals – especially with regards to site access and the increased burden it will put on our already congested roads.
“I have asked for an urgent meeting with ministers to discuss this further, but the current plans need to be significantly adapted to address these issues,” Ms. Fletcher added.
The MoJ laid out in its original planning application a litany of claimed benefits arising from its proposal – including the creation of 643 full-time-equivalent jobs once the jail opens, £13m of locally-retained spending a result of the development and a 20 percent net gain in the biodiversity of the site.
However, these were only attributed limited or moderate weight by Chorley planning officers in their assessment of whether it justified development in the greenbelt on a partially previously- developed site.
It was the need for North West prison places that tipped the balance in the mind of planning officers, but not committee members – one of whom, Cllr Alan Whittaker, described the posited positives as an attempt to “justify the unjustifiable”.
The MoJ itself said that the Ulnes Walton site was “suitable” and “easy to reach for future staff, suppliers and visitors”.
Confirming its intention to lodge an appeal in an attempt to secure permission for the prison, a spokesperson for the department said: “Our proposals would benefit the area by creating hundreds of new jobs locally.
“We have carefully considered the council’s decision and have decided to appeal. We will continue to work closely with them and the community throughout this process.”
This was the Ministry of Justice’s specification for the new Ulnes Walton Prison, as set out in a public consultation undertaken last year:
***Seven separate house blocks, each with four floors, housing 240 prisoners across the entire block.
***Prisoners will live in smaller groups than they do in some older prisons, creating a sense of community that will lead to less violence, better relations with staff – and a safer, more secure prison.
“**Most cells will hold just one prisoner, but a few will accommodate two.
***All cells will have a shower and a toilet.
***Cells will be able to have a phone so prisoners can talk to family and legal representatives, but access to phone calls will be strictly supervised.
***Prisoners will not have access to the internet.
***Many cells will be set up for prisoners with a disability.
***Each floor will have room for group activities and men will be able to meet for training, prayer, fitness and to talk to each other.