'Super prison' planned between Chorley and Leyland to go back under the microscope over road safety fears
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A hearing into the proposed 1,700-inmate jail - on land next to the existing Wymott and Garth lock-ups - was first held last summer after the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) appealed against Chorley Council’s refusal of planning permission for the facility.
As the Lancashire Post revealed shortly after the proceedings closed, the government decided to take the unusual step of ’recovering’ the appeal - meaning that the Levelling Up Secretary, Michael Gove, would get the final say over the proposal and not the planning inspector who chaired the inquiry.
It was announced in January that Mr. Gove was “minded” to approve the prison plan - in spite of inspector Tom Gilbert-Wooldridge having recommended that it be rejected over road safety concerns and its “harmful” impact on the character and appearance of the area. However, the Secretary of State said that he wanted to hear “further evidence on highways issues” before coming to a final conclusion.
The move infuriated locals opposed to the development of a third prison in their midst, with the Ulnes Walton Action Group (UWAG) blasting the request for additional information as “beyond unfair” and amounting to a further “crack of the whip” for the MoJ which, its members claimed, would not have been afforded to residents if the inspector's recommendation had gone in the government’s favour.
Following representations both by UWAG and Chorley Council, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) has now revealed that the inquiry will be reconvened so that the new highways evidence submitted by the MoJ can be “properly tested”. The decision will also give campaigners the opportunity to present their own fresh material on the subject.
UWAG’s Emma Curtis said that while the group would have preferred Michael Gove simply to accept the inspector’s recommendation to refuse the appeal, reopening the inquiry was “the only fair way” forward.
“Highway safety issues are a major concern for the local community and formed a major part of UWAG’s objection to the proposed development - particularly as it was able to demonstrate [that] there are two alternative sites available in the North West which are as good as, if not better than, Ulnes Walton in terms of accessibility and highway safety.
“The highway safety concern was shared by the independent planning inspector, who cited it as one of the reasons for recommending to the Secretary of State that the appeal be dismissed. The reopening of the inquiry will also provide the opportunity for a thorough examination and testing of the mitigation measures now being put forward by the Ministry of Justice.
“UWAG also expressed concern - again shared by the planning inspector - that the urgent need for these additional prison places had not been adequately demonstrated by the MoJ,” Emma added.
A message on the group’s Facebook page confidently declares: “We can win this.”
The proposed prison would be accessed via Ulnes Walton Lane and Moss Lane, the same route as for the Wymott and Garth jails – although a separate entry point would be created off Moss Lane further north than the existing access, with traffic-calming measures introduced in the vicinity.
Mr. Gilbert-Wooldridge’s report noted that this section of Moss Lane would see a 322 percent leap in traffic as a result of the new jail, while there would be a 48 percent increase at the road’s junction with Ulnes Walton Lane.
As part of the plans, changes to the road layout were proposed to address a predicted spike in delays at the another local junction – where Ulnes Walton Lane meets the A581, Southport Road – which are forecast to jump from around 32 seconds currently to over 210 seconds if and when the prison is in operation.
The MoJ has offered to contribute £485,000 towards the cost of installing a mini-roundabout at that junction, as requested by highways officials at Lancashire County Council.
However, the inspector highlighted that no design had been provided, nor any modelling undertaken, to determine the effects that it might have on traffic flow along the various approaches.
Mr. Gilbert-Wooldridge found that it had “not been demonstrated that the works would resolve capacity issues” – and, if the new junction proved unable to do so, he concluded that the proposal would have “an unacceptable impact on highway safety”.
In his response, local government minister Lee Rowley - acting on behalf of Michael Gove - agreed that the proposed road improvements were “lacking in detail” – hence the request for additional evidence.
The DLUHC letter announcing the reopening of the inquiry - on a date yet to be decided - states that highway safety and capacity are “inherently…technical and specialist areas” that would be able to be properly assessed at a new hearing. However, it also stresses that the reconvened inquiry will not consider new evidence on any other matters that were discussed during the initial session.
South Ribble MP Katherine Fletcher, in whose constituency the new prison would sit, said that she had met with MoJ ministers to make them aware of residents’ concerns about the application and emphasise “the problems with the poor road infrastructure and lack of public transport”.
“I would like to thank everyone who has worked hard to highlight these issues [and] I’m delighted the Secretary of State has listened and look forward to contributing to the inquiry on behalf of my constituents,” added Ms Fletcher, who has also raised the matter in the Commons.
In response to the inquiry being reopened, a spokesperson for the MoJ said: “The new prison in Chorley is critical to delivering the 20,000 extra places we need to protect the public by keeping offenders off the streets and turning them away from crime.”