'Where's the justice?' Anger as government moves closer to approving 'super prison' between Chorley and Leyland

Campaigners battling against plans to build a new prison on the border of Chorley and Leyland have blasted a government decision to seek further evidence about the controversial proposal – in spite of a planning inspector recommending that it should be refused outright.
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Ministers last year decreed that they would get the final say over whether the 1,715-inmate jail in Ulnes Walton – close to the existing Garth and Wymott lock-ups – ever gets off the drawing board.

The blueprint for the so-called “super prison” was thrown out by Chorley Council’s planning committee in December 2021, but the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) later launched an appeal against the local authority’s decision.

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That sparked a public inquiry, chaired by an independent inspector who would ordinarily have had the power either to uphold or overturn the council’s refusal of permission for a prison which, if built, would result in the tally of inmates across the three jails in the village outstripping the local population.

The new prison, if it goes ahead, would sit alongside the existing Garth and Wymott jails in the village of Ulnes WaltonThe new prison, if it goes ahead, would sit alongside the existing Garth and Wymott jails in the village of Ulnes Walton
The new prison, if it goes ahead, would sit alongside the existing Garth and Wymott jails in the village of Ulnes Walton

However, as the Lancashire Post revealed last summer, the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, stepped in to officially “recover” the appeal – meaning that he or one of his ministerial colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) would merely consider the planning inspector’s assessment of the evidence before reaching their own conclusion on the matter.

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It has now been revealed that Tom Gilbert-Wooldridge, the inspector who led the inquiry proceedings in July last year, recommended that the appeal should be dismissed and the prison plan rejected. He considered that the proposal would “harm the greenbelt and the character and appearance of the area”, as well as having a negative impact on highway safety – in spite of proposed upgrades to the local road network.

However, in a letter published by the DLUHC, Lee Rowley MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Local Government and Building Safety, has said that he “minded to” go against the inspector’s recommendation and instead allow the appeal.

Could a mini-roundabout at the junction of Southport Road and Ulnes Walton Lane cope with an increase in traffic from the proposed new prison? (image: Google)Could a mini-roundabout at the junction of Southport Road and Ulnes Walton Lane cope with an increase in traffic from the proposed new prison? (image: Google)
Could a mini-roundabout at the junction of Southport Road and Ulnes Walton Lane cope with an increase in traffic from the proposed new prison? (image: Google)
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Acting on behalf of Mr. Gove, the junior minister said that the MoJ and other interested parties would be given the opportunity to provide “further evidence on highways issues” before a final decision was reached. But he added that his intention was to grant permission “subject to being satisfied that these matters can be satisfactorily addressed”.

The announcement was met with disbelief from locals who have opposed the prison plans from the outset, with more than 130 objections being lodged in opposition to them. Emma Curtis, from the Ulnes Walton Action Group (UWAG), said that the inspector’s decision should have resulted in the idea of a third prison in the small village being locked out for good.

“It’s beyond unfair – had the decision gone in favour of the Ministry of Justice, we wouldn’t have been afforded the same [opportunity]. They wouldn’t have come back to us and said, ‘Is there anything else you’d like to add because it’s gone against you?’ It’s unjust.

“The MoJ, Chorley Council and UWAG were given a two-week window in July at the inquiry to present our cases. We all did it – and the MoJ case has failed.

The land where the proposed third prison on the Chorley/Leyland border could be builtThe land where the proposed third prison on the Chorley/Leyland border could be built
The land where the proposed third prison on the Chorley/Leyland border could be built
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“So why now are they getting [another] chance at providing additional evidence outside of that inquiry in an attempt to get the application allowed?

“It makes a mockery of the entire process,” Emma said. She added that it amounted to one government department giving another a “third crack of the whip” after the plans had been rejected by both the borough council and the inspector.

When councillors on Chorley’s planning committee refused the MoJ application just over a year ago, they did so for reasons including the greenbelt and highways concerns with which the inspector has subsequently agreed.

Their decision was at odds with the advice of the authority’s own planning officers who had concluded that the MoJ had demonstrated the “very special circumstances” generally required to permit building in the greenbelt.

Residents celebrated just before Christmas 2021 when plans for the locally unwanted third prison appeared to have been defeated - but now they are back in battle modeResidents celebrated just before Christmas 2021 when plans for the locally unwanted third prison appeared to have been defeated - but now they are back in battle mode
Residents celebrated just before Christmas 2021 when plans for the locally unwanted third prison appeared to have been defeated - but now they are back in battle mode
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The Whitehall department – which is aiming to deliver four new prisons across England by the mid-2020s. – had concluded that the Ulnes Walton site was the only one suitable for a new jail out of more than a dozen North West locations that it had assessed for the purpose. The facility would act as a resettlement unit for male offenders, preparing them for their eventual release.

In spite of his disappointment at the government’s indication that it may ultimately approve the prison, UWAG member Paul Parker says that he actually takes heart from the fact that councillors and the planning inspector have both agreed with the group’s own arguments against the proposal. That also gives him hope for how the final stages of the saga will play out.

“We’ve got mixed emotions – but we’re happy that the inspector [considered] our case to be very strong and found in our favour. It’s very pleasing to learn that the local community, local authority, local MP and ourselves are all [of] a like mind with the planning inspector.

“From starting off with just a community meeting, we’ve come through the hoops, got ourselves co-ordinated and presented our case at every step – and each of those steps has been successful.

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“We’re just humble people using our knowledge and understanding to try and actually present a cogent argument – and that seems to have stood us in good stead so far,” Paul said.

UWAG contended at the original town hall planning committee meeting that parts of Moss Lane – from which the new facility would be accessed – would see a ten-fold increase in daily vehicle movements as a result of the new jail.

South Ribble MP Katherine Fletcher :  "This should not happen"South Ribble MP Katherine Fletcher :  "This should not happen"
South Ribble MP Katherine Fletcher : "This should not happen"

South Ribble MP Katherine Fletcher – in whose constituency the facility would sit – has previously come out against the plans in their current form, citing concerns over the “poor local transport infrastructure and an inappropriate access point to the site”.

Commenting on the latest developments, she told the Post that she met with locals late last week “to discuss their immediate reaction to the decision”.

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“We agree [that] the roads and lack of public transport means this should not happen,” Ms. Fletcher added.

Responding to the issues raised by residents in this report, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice 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.

“We note that [the] DLUHC is minded to agree with our case and we will submit further evidence in the coming weeks.”

The Levelling Up department [DLUHC] was also approached for comment.

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The Post understands that the government will make a final decision by 19th April.

WHAT THE INSPECTOR SAID – AND WHAT THE GOVERNMENT THINKS ABOUT IT

Planning inspector Tom Gilbert-Wooldridge had to determine the extent to which various issues in connection with the prison proposal should be weighed in what is known as “the planning balance” before deciding whether or not to recommend giving the new facility the go-ahead.

Greenbelt

The proposed 43-hectare site for the new prison is a greenbelt plot – currently split between agricultural use and an area reserved for the existing prisons.

It is common ground between all sides that the scheme would represent “inappropriate development” in such a location, large parts of which are open land.

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The inspector concluded that despite the presence of some existing buildings on the site and the fact that the new jail would be screened to a degree by planting, several current views would be affected – including by a relocated bowling club – and that there would be “a significant harmful effect on the openness of the greenbelt” as a result.

Local government minister Lee Rowley MP, acting behalf of Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, agreed with that assessment and that it should attract “significant” weight in the final decision.

Character and appearance of the area

The northern and southern parts of the site are considered to have a “rural character”, according to the inspector, while the central section is more “institutional” as a result of large car parks and ancillary buildings for the existing prisons and a playing field for HMP Wymott.

Mr. Gilbert-Wooldridge found that there would be a “considerable degree of urbanisation in landscape and visual character” noticed by people passing by to the south of the plot, along with a loss of fields either side of Pump House Lane to the north.

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He concluded that the proposal would “negatively affect views across open fields and countryside from public rights of way” and would have a “significant harmful effect on the character and appearance of the area” – a stance with which the minister agreed.

Highway safety

All sides agree that there would be about 1,330 extra vehicle trips a day generated by prison staff and visitors.

The facility would be accessed via Ulnes Walton Lane and Moss Lane, as is the case 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.

The inspector’s report notes that this section of Moss Lane would see a 322 percent increase in traffic, while there would be a 48 percent spike at the road’s junction with Ulnes Walton Lane. The number of personal injury accidents in the area stand at around half of the expected level and Mr. Gilbert-Wooldridge said that those statistics indicated that the proposal “would not exacerbate any safety issues” in that regard.

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However, he acknowledged that Ulnes Walton Lane is “a narrow 40mph country lane with several bends” – including one at its junction with Moss Lane, where motorists turning right from the former road have limited forward visibility.

As part of the plans, changes to the road layout have been proposed to address a predicted increase in delays at the another local junction – where Ulnes Walton Lane meets the A581 Southport Road – which are forecast to rocket from around 32 seconds currently to over 210 seconds if and when the prison is in operation.

The Ministry of Justice has offered to contribute £485,000 towards the cost of installing a mini-roundabout at the 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. He added that in the absence of any costings, he was also unable to conclude whether the suggested financial contribution was sufficient – and so had not taken it into account in his assessment.

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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, the local government minister agreed that the proposed road improvements were “lacking in detail” – and that the inspector could only reach the conclusion that he had on the basis of the evidence put before him.

Crucially, however, Lee Rowley added that the Secretary of State “considers that it is possible that the highway safety issues could be satisfactorily addressed such that he could be satisfied that the proposal would no longer have an unacceptable impact on highway safety”..

“He has therefore decided to give the appellant and other parties the opportunity to provide further evidence on highways issues…and allow parties to respond to any such evidence before reaching a final decision on this appeal. This should address the gaps in the evidence which are noted [by the inspector],” Mr. Rowley added.

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He also invited further submissions on whether any permission that it eventually granted should include a condition preventing building work from beginning under the highways changes had been implemented. That was the recommendation of the inspector, but the MoJ wants only to be bound by a requirement for the roads to be upgraded before the prison is in operation – not before a brick is even laid.

Mr. Gilbert-Wooldridge had expressed concern that the construction phase would see an estimated 146 HGVs per day – across a three-year period – using roads over which there are “safety and capacity” issues.

Availability of alternative sites

The MoJ says it carried out an extensive site selection process in its search for a suitable plot for a new prison in the North West – and that only Ulnes Walton was left standing after assessment against criteria including accessibility and environmental and operational suitability.

The inspector notes in his report that he was not presented with evidence of how all of the options stacked up against each other, but discussion at the inquiry hearing had focussed on a possible plot close to HMP Kirkham in Fylde and another on the Stakehill Industrial Estate, near the Oldham and Rochdale border.

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Like Ulnes Walton, both are greenbelt sites, but Mr. Gilbert-Wooldridge concluded that, from a “high-level analysis”, they each appear to be “as good as the appeal site in terms of all relevant planning issues” and even have “some advantages in terms of accessibility”.

“There is also a reasonable prospect that either or both sites are more appropriate than the appeal site,” he said.

He therefore gave “little weight” to the claim that there were no alternative locations that the MoJ could have pursued other than a Central Lancashire village which accommodates two prisons already – a conclusion with which the minister agreed.

IN NUMBERS

1,715 – capacity of proposed new Ulnes Walton prison

1,200 – number of inmates at Wymott Prison

850 – number of inmates at Wymott Prison

2,671 – residents of Ulnes Walton

Sources: Ministry of Justice, Chorley Council and 2011 census