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An open letter to City & Country following the rejection of their plans for Shepton Mallet Prison – “please live up to the high standards and integrity you set yourself”

  • 24 July 2016, 11:31 am
  • By Claire
  • in Shepton Mallet Prison

[For background information and a timeline of the prison sale, click here]

Dear Tim and Helen,

[Tim Sargeant, Owner of City & Country Group, Helen Moore, City & Country MD]

Your plans for Shepton Mallet prison (146 homes and only 150 parking spaces) were rejected in part this week in an extraordinary planning board decision that didn’t align with the Council’s own planning officer’s recommendations.  The main sticking point was the parking provision and you have put on public record that you may have a plan b already in consideration.

I hope that this short pause in the proceedings will allow you to re-think your ideas and I hope above all that your mission to “Cherish Heritage and Creating The Future” can be realised in Shepton Mallet.

Your representatives told me that your prison conversion plans have NEVER BEEN attempted in Europe.  Helen said publicly (BBC interview) that the heritage conservation will be limited and selective.

By all accounts after the residential development Shepton Mallet Prison will no longer look or feel like a prison that (in the words of a respected Professor of Archaeology) is described as a “monument” and one of the most important ancient prisons in the country that “needs its heritage respected”.

Prison historian Francis Disney said in 1985:

“Heritage of a prison may seem, at first sight, to be inappropriate, but on closer examination the word heritage means handing down a portion of something, usually of value.  A prison is not normally considered a valuable. I do question this!  Shepton Mallet Prison is of value; it was the oldest working prison and on its original site; it is of architectural value; it has been of value to society in many areas and continued to be of value to the prosperity of Shepton Mallet town.  Also, the ‘heritage’ will be of value when passed into future generations.”

Mendip District Council’s vision for Shepton Mallet in their local plan includes:

“By 2029 Shepton Mallet is a revitalised market town with a vibrant shopping area focused on meeting local needs. The northern end of the town centre is regenerated, lively and attractive, and redevelopment opportunities at Little Ostry, Commercial Road and at the Anglo Building have delivered space for business and services. Tourism activity has grown and has exploited the town’s heritage and cultural draw, encouraging demand for visitor accommodation.”

Will your vision for the prison help Mendip District Council achieve its aim of the town being a heritage and cultural draw?  The prison is one of Shepton Mallet’s most valued heritage assets; one of only a few Grade II* Listed Buildings within the town. It is imperative that this heritage asset is safeguarded and that any plans for its redevelopment help realise the vision for the town in terms of its overall revitalisation and growth of heritage related tourism.

A common theme of the objections earlier this year to your planning proposals was the provision of parking spaces – one space for each of the one, two and three bedroom homes, with four spare for visitors, including the Heritage Centre.

Shepton Mallet is an historic market town with no mainline train station and limited public transport. Many people have to commute many miles to their places of employment. Many people have no choice but to use a car.  City & Country underpin their ideas for the prison with a sustainable transport plan, meaning simply people who buy the flats will accept that there are limits on their use of cars.

Your parking plan was dismissed by councillors, who said it was flawed and unenforceable.  If you had understood the town, the area, following your research and engagement with stakeholders, surely you would have understood the reality of your parking  plans?

Local residents and councillors were strong in their condemnation around safety resulting from your parking provision, especially with schools being close by on the narrow lanes that surround the prison.

You have said very little about the graves of known prisoners, executed as recently as the 1920s,   They will need to be exhumed to make way for the new mews buildings. Little is known about your approach to this sensitive procedure.

The bullet holes in the prison walls from firing squads are also to be covered up by the mews new buildings despite concerns from Consultees and local people.   The red brick building constructed by the US Armed Forces to carry out executions in World War 2 is to be demolished. The bullet holes and execution chamber are amongst only a few, if not the only, features remaining from this important period of the site’s history.  You are simply wiping out this history because you believe it is not important.

The Heritage Assessment would appear to consider the execution chamber to be of ‘Little Significance’, despite acknowledging the following:

“The prison has an interesting association with the events of World War II. The site was used both by British and US troops. There is a particularly strong physical reminder of the US use of the site in the brick execution chamber, which is evidence of a particular period in the building’s history.  These war time uses of the prison add interest to its rich history.”

The development proposals require the demolition of bat roosts, with little thought given to how to accommodate them in the future site proposals. It requires the site to be lit internally and externally – again with little thought to the bat population or surrounding neighbours.

The flats need to be built to cover the costs of the redevelopment. There is no room for ‘affordable housing’. Perhaps the development is so costly because there are so many costly interventions built into the plans?

It cannot be cheap to relocate the bodies of executed prisoners, demolish so many buildings and internal features and build so many new elements.  Is housing the correct future use for this building?

Please read the timeline relating to the prison sale and where we are now.  Please ask yourself:

- How has the prison’s  heritage been valued and communicated to stakeholders?  Did  City & Country fulfil their promise to engage with stakeholders effectively?

- Did City & Country inform stakeholders of any significant heritage or historic value during their consultation allowing for a more informed response back to you?

- Were any alternative proposals given a chance once the MoJ decided on their timeline of sale and to sell 4 prisons as a job lot? Was this a done deal as soon as the sale was agreed with you – a property developer –  who only builds residential units?  If so, why did you ask local residents what they wanted the future of the building to be, when you had a residential model in mind from the start?

- Is this all that Shepton Mallet can expect for what is an important heritage asset?

This is a once in a lifetime decision for the town and surrounding villages and the final decision will affect generations to come.  Can you not take a more heritage-led approach to your plans now you have the opportunity to re-think, instead of purely residential-led model which at its heart has your own commercial viability and requires a quick fix to your parking ideas?

The prison belonged to the tax-payer and was sold off on our behalf to an award-winning heritage developer with a reputation to upheld and who the MoJ trusted.  Unless you  re-think and offer up more of the space for community and heritage use, you are not living up to the high standards and integrity that you set yourselves and as such a legacy will be left for future generations of the town to bare witness.

Claire Sully
Creating a Vision and Future for Shepton Mallet Prison Campaign Group