The Government is abandoning its plan to build three “titan” prisons, each of which would have housed 2,500 inmates.
The decision, announced by Justice Minister Jack Straw, is a blow to the construction industry as the prisons were expected to cost around £1.2 billion, much of which would have been spent on construction. Instead, the Government now plans to build five smaller prisons, each housing 1,500 inmates. Only two of these prisons will go ahead immediately.
Short term policy on prison building is unclear
The short term prospects for prison building in the UK remain uncertain and the construction industry will be concerned at the Government’s failure to produce a coherent plan for increasing prison accommodation. The decision to abandon titan prisons follows delays to other prison schemes, such as the £150 million Featherstone jail and PFI projects at Maghull and Belmarsh. It also comes at a time when the Ministry of Justice is trying to cut prison costs by 10 to 20%. Indeed, the Government’s plans for titan prisons were themselves always vague, despite being announced in 2007. For example, it was never even decided whether the prisons would be procured under a PFI scheme.
In addition, there is no guarantee that the construction of smaller prisons will proceed smoothly. Those projects may, once the detailed plans are finalised, encounter some of the problems that helped to derail the titan scheme, such as budget cuts in the public sector, opposition from penal reformers and difficulty in obtaining planning permission.
New prisons are inevitable in the medium to long term
Underlying the current uncertainty, there is some cause for medium and long term optimism, because the acute shortage of prison spaces in the UK means that building new prisons is a necessity. (According to the Ministry of Justice, 52,117 criminals in England and Wales have been released early since June 2007 under a scheme to reduce overcrowding.)
It now seems that the Government will turn to the private sector to solve the problem. The Government’s Public Value Programme, published on 22 April, says that ”all new-build prisons will be built and managed by the private sector”. Whether this leads to any of the five new prisons actually being built remains to be seen.