Shepton Mallet prison in Somerset – officially known as HMP Cornhill – has been home to thousands of convicts since opening its doors in 1610. On Wednesday, the current owners – heritage property developers City and Country – opened the prison gates to the public for an entirely different reason.
City and Country, along with their partners PPS Group, rolled into the town to consult with local people about the prison. PPS Group describe themselves as “property PR specialists who can develop campaigns [that] secure planning permissions and strategic land allocations”.
There were two sessions organised by City and Country and PPS Group, the first was private for “important local representatives”, followed by a public exhibition for everyone else.
In their own words, City and Country are looking to “understand local aspirations before they bring forward local development plans”.
This is the first of four public consultation sessions City and Country are holding. Other public consultation meetings should happen in late July and September.
City and Country anticipate that in January 2016 a planning application will be submitted (at which time there will be another public public consultation), then around May or June 2016 consent will be given and then the builders move in.
We are clearly dealing with a well-oiled machine, from public consultation to planning application to building work in less than a year.
City and Country say they are at “the understanding stage” and currently “making a heritage assessment” before plans are firmed up. An important part of this assessment is to gauge how important the prison is to local people – the strength of feeling in other words.
Local people are asked to feedback through a questionnaire. Question such as: “How important is it to provide long-term and viable use for the historic building to ensure they are preserved for future generations?” Perhaps a leading question considering City and Country are a heritage developer who say their mission is the preservation of the heritage of buildings for future generations. They say this ethos creates a premium value for future purchasers of high-end residential properties.
MD of City and Country Helen Moore told the closed session: “if it [the prison] was 100% residential” there could still be more access to the prison. This was implying that there could be public walkways and people would have better access to the site than when it was a prison.
What’s at stake? We have lost a working prison (with the loss of local jobs). It is Grade II-listed and has incredible historic significance that interests people. The unspoken question on local people’s lips is if City and Country are going to turn the buildings into high-end premium flats/apartments what does the town gain? Local people have already said via an online petition and subsequent meetings what they want to see at the prison site:
A heritage attraction / museum
Space for community to use and hire
Sustainable business model – which could include housing or commercial use
If the town doesn’t come together with a strong voice then we may just miss an opportunity to turn the prison development into a meaningful benefit for the town – losing a heritage and community asset that could bring people to the town, improving perceptions and helping to create an identity for the town.
There will be copies of the questionnaire in the Tourist Information and library for those who didn’t attend the prison open day. Download available here.