What next for Reading Gaol as new owners speak out

The site, affectionately known as Reading Gaol, has been vacant for more than a decade, with the last inmates being moved from the prison in November 2013.

After a sale process which saw the Ministry of Justice selling the Prison for £7 million, purchaser the Ziran Education Foundation has announced what it intends to do.

A spokesperson for the foundation said they were “thrilled” to share their “vision” for the site, which will be based on three priorities.

The spokesperson said: “First, in partnership with a distinguished design firm, we’re exploring innovative solutions, including the integration of AI technology.

“Our aspiration is to create robots tailored to our unique requirements, complementing human efforts in select areas of the premises. Furthermore, we’re envisioning the establishment of a distinctive art museum, museum, and an art-inspired hotel.

“Secondly, collaboration with the University of Reading holds immense significance for us.

“We’re eager to delve into detailed discussions and mutually beneficial initiatives in conjunction with the esteemed institution.

“Thirdly, we hold immense respect for Reading Borough Council and plan to engage them in dialogue, seeking their guidance as we progress with our plans. Our foremost aim is to contribute positively to Reading’s cultural landscape and bolster tourism efforts.”

The spokesperson added that they were ‘deeply grateful’ for the interest the project has received.

READ MORE: The new owners of Reading Prison: Everything you need to know about Ziran Foundation

The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) asked The Ziran Education Foundation for a statement explaining what it does and what its aims for the Prison were.

However, a response was only received a month following the news of the sale.

The Ziran Education Foundation has not approached the council’s planning department yet according to a council spokesperson.

The announcement that the prison had been sold to the foundation was made by the Ministry of Justice on January 11.

A ministry spokesperson said proceeds from the sale will be reinvested in the wider prison estate ‘to help reduce reoffending and protect the public’.

The cost of leaving the Prison closed for over a decade has cost the government an estimated £2.5 to 3 million according to an ITV report, but no exact figure has been given by the Ministry.

The Prison sale was even addressed by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in an interview with veteran BBC broadcaster Andrew Peach.

PM Sunak was unable to reveal the foundation as the buyer at the time of the interview last September but said that any plans would be subject to approval from Reading Borough Council.

It is understood that the foundation will now devise its masterplan for the site in consultation with the council’s planning department, and hold public consultations before and after an official planning application is submitted.

Reading Chronicle: A view of Reading Prison, affectionately known as 'Reading Gaol'. Credit: James Aldridge, LDRSA view of Reading Prison, affectionately known as ‘Reading Gaol’. Credit: James Aldridge, LDRS (Image: James Aldridge, Local Democracy Reporting Service)

Concerns about the foundation have been raised by members of the public as its activities in the UK appear to be limited.

Ziran’s address is located at Grange Way Business Park in Colchester, Essex.

The foundation was launched by Chinese businessman Channing Bi with the aim of ‘promoting a compassionate, peaceful, and sustainable world through education’.

The spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice assured security checks were made on the foundation by several government departments and organisations, as part of due diligence checks.

News about the sale was met with a mixed reaction from people in the town, who had hopes for the site to be turned into an arts and performance space, following an ArtAngel project in 2016 which opened the prison up for the first time.

The Save Reading Gaol campaign was set up in 2019 for this purpose, which held annual ‘Gaol hugs’ and marches.

Graffiti artist Banksy gave impetus for the campaign when he stencilled in an image of an inmate escaping using a typewriter to its boundary wall, reflecting poet Oscar Wilde’s incarceration in the prison from 1895 to 1897.

The Ziran Education Foundation was able to beat out a bid for the prison by the council.

Artisan Real Estate initially won the bidding process in 2020 but pulled out of the sale later that year.

Reading Chronicle | Town Centre