The government recently announced that nine new prisons will be opened in England and Wales, including five by 2020, as part of plans to save money by closing “Victorian” jails and moving around 10,000 inmates to prisons “better suited to rehabilitation”.
Whilst the primary motive may be the wellbeing of Britain’s incarcerated, Chancellor George Osborne has also announced himself as a budding real estate tycoon. Osborne has outlined that in conjunction with the £1 billion building programme, old jails or “relics from Victorian times” that stand on “prime real estate”, will be sold for housing.
Speculation is rife that Pentonville in north London might be closed, whilst Reading prison, which closed in 2013, is already on the market, as are Blundeston Prison in Suffolk and Bulwood Hall, in Essex. Other prisons which could also be put up for sale include Wandsworth, Wormwood Scrubs and Brixton, whilst Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool may also follow suit.
But, excluding Derek Acorah and the ‘Most Haunted’ TV crew, just how popular will the sale of residential units at former Victorian prisons be? And can the popularity of office to residential conversions be trumped by prison to residential?!
Interestingly, the trend of converting prisons to alternate uses is not a new one at all.
Oxford prison, which dates back to 1785 and closed in 1996, became a hotel in 2005, run by the Malmaison chain. Occupying a large part of the former prison blocks, with cells converted as guest rooms, the mixed-use heritage project won the RICS Project of the Year Award 2007. The hotel is one of Oxford’s most popular city centre destinations, and doesn’t seem to have suffered from the fact that it forms the climax of the Oxford city ghost tour – something not advertised on the hotel website…
Historic grade II listed Bridewell jail in Liverpool, which was mooted for both student housing and residential accommodation, also recently opened as an upmarket hotel, again providing guests with the opportunity to stay in former cells for the right reasons. Further afield, in Germany, where inmate numbers have been steadily declining, a number of unneeded correctional facilities have been sold off to private investors over the last three years, resulting in new high-end apartments, hotels and even music and sports arenas.
So it seems the Chancellor may be onto something…but what is it that makes prison to residential or prison to leisure so appealing? The answer is found in the principles of good Victorian jail design. Prisons in that period occupied prominent town centre locations, acting as a visual deterrent to all would be criminals, whilst solid, imposing architecture was designed to create a clear sense of place, reminding those interned that they were there for a reason.
Fast forward 150 years and ‘sense of place’, ‘town centre location’ and ‘imposing architecture’ are words more likely to be used by a seasoned estate agent than a Victorian jailor. The simple reality is that the spaces occupied by Victorian prisons are very often prime pieces of real estate, located in hugely desirable locations. With a real shortage of stock, the residential market craves large, town centre locations such as these. Add to the mix that the sites boast unique architectural features and historical ‘character’ – albeit an eerie one – and you begin to understand why prison to residential conversions make complete business sense.
Mr Osborne will be hoping that the sites generate significant returns for the government at sale and validate his decision. Certainly, our own expectation is that unique sites such as these will prove a huge hit with the residential market, as they have proved to be elsewhere.
The only advice to would-be buyers? Probably best to buy CHAIN free.