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Beam Park West Prison Site

Volume 506: debated on Wednesday 24 February 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mrs. Hodgson.)

I must admit that I find myself in a slightly strange position, in that the concerns that led me to seek this debate have actually been resolved. The case of the Beam Park West prison site demonstrates that sometimes in Parliament, one can be overtaken by fast-moving events.

I shall explain. I requested this Adjournment debate on 9 February and it was granted on 11 February. The idea was to present a reasoned, constructive contribution to the ongoing debate regarding the proposed Beam Park West prison, which was planned to be located in Dagenham, in my constituency. I also wanted, again in a rational way, to articulate some of the many concerns that had been raised with me locally and give a voice to local residents in a process that, like the siting of any proposed prison, has been difficult. I anticipated that the debate would give me a chance to lay out the responses that we had received to our local consultations on the plans, not least because the local authority consultation finished earlier this week.

However, on 12 February, the Ministry of Justice announced that it would not proceed with the proposed prison development, which accounts for the strange position that I find myself in this evening. I readily concede that the decision was not singularly driven by the agreement of the parliamentary authorities to this somewhat small, insignificant debate in the parliamentary calendar. However, as a politician I am quite prepared to take credit—even I realise that it is an unlikely turn of events, though. I doubt that my being awarded the debate was a determining factor in the process of public policy making in the MOJ.

Joking aside, the announcement on the 12th of this month somewhat alters the nature of my contribution. Instead, I now wish to take this opportunity to place on record, on behalf of many thousands of my constituents, my deep appreciation of and thanks to Ministers and officials for their open dialogue with us regarding the proposed project, over an arc of 10 months. I also wish to put on record my gratitude to local people for their thoughtful and constructive contributions throughout the discussion, despite blatant and cynical electioneering by another political party—not necessarily the Opposition. Finally, I shall raise a number of points on the process and the future of the Beam Park West site.

It would be useful at the beginning briefly to review the cycle of events regarding the proposed prison development. On 27 April 2009, the Ministry of Justice announced Beam Park West as the designated site for a 1,500-inmate, category B prison, the rationale being the projected prison expansion to 96,000 inmates by 2014 and the need for extra capacity. The Government announced the need for five new prisons, or 7,500 places, alongside the closure of 5,000 inefficient places. On Monday this week, the Justice Secretary returned to that subject when discussing prisoner early release schemes. The current prison population stands at some 83,800, which is up from 60,300 in 1997. We now have well over 86,000 places in terms of operational capacity. He reiterated this week that the plans for 2014 are on track given the capacity building programme.

Following the April announcement, we raised a series of technical issues regarding the proposed development, including the required transport infrastructure, not least because of earlier community fears that the new Mayor of London was not necessarily in favour of the extension of the docklands light railway to Dagenham and beyond. We were also concerned about the costings of the project; the implications of the time line of the development for the local community; the planning process, not least because of the existence of an urban development corporation in east London; and the land remediation and decontamination that would be required because the development would have been on the old Ford car plant site. Moreover, we raised questions on the consultation process that was envisaged and many other issues, including how to get local people genuinely involved and to feel that they had a stake in the process.

I met the appropriate officials a number of times, as well as the Secretary of State, the Minister and her predecessor. To his great credit, the Secretary of State visited the site in October 2009. He canvassed opinion and discussed the concerns of the local people by literally going door to door in the community opposite the proposed prison site. That was a most impressive and honest contribution to the debate, and it was very much appreciated in the locality.

At the same time, technical analysis of the site revealed the scale of possible flooding and the decontamination required. Dealing with those problems would have added to the cost of what was already a £1.2 billion project, excluding VAT and the cost of purchasing the site.

That led to the 12 February announcement, but a couple of earlier developments are worth noting. There was an earlier plan for an 800-inmate prison on the Beam Reach 5 site, which literally lies a few hundred yards from the site we are discussing tonight but which is in the neighbouring London borough of Havering. Following the publication in December 2002 of Lord Carter of Coles’s report, “Securing the future: Proposals for the efficient and sustainable use of custody in England and Wales”, a list of potential sites for 2,500-place Titan prisons was drawn up. It was subsequently revealed under a freedom of information request that that list included no fewer than 12 sites, but not the Beam Park West site. That was acknowledged in a written parliamentary answer on 1 June.

The Beam Park West site was identified during an exercise to identify potential sites for a prison in London—a search that was undertaken jointly with the London Development Agency. Of interest here is the revelation in a written answer on 3 June that that joint search followed a meeting between MOJ officials and the Mayor of London in mid-2008. The suggestion that has been made to me is that the Beam Park West site was preferred by the Mayor of London to the earlier site, which was confusingly known as Beam Reach 5 because it was situated in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham rather than in Havering. I do not know whether that is true, not least because the Mayor did not respond to me regarding that and a number of other issues related to the proposed prison. However, it is curious that the Beam Park West site was identified even though it was not on the earlier extensive site list, and following a meeting with the new Mayor, who had in turn been heavily lobbied by the neighbouring borough prior to becoming Mayor. I simply suggest that the move was the result of a nudge across a borough border following a discussion with the new Mayor. That should not be the source of any local celebrations. Interestingly, the new location was much closer to many of the Havering residents in South Hornchurch and Elm Park than the earlier identified site location. Indeed, the proposed second prison would have been much bigger—not an insignificant factor for local residents. I raise this point not least because a letter to the Mayor containing a series of questions about his involvement in this process remains unanswered.

Given the announcement of the Beam Park West site on 29 April, the task at hand was to create opportunities to contribute and measure the community responses regarding the proposed new site—not in a melodramatic way, shouting and screaming, but to seek a thorough understanding of local feelings about the proposition. To that end, we decided to survey some 32,000 households in the local community, covering some 65,000 individual residents. The Barking and Dagenham council also decided to consult formally the residents in the two specific wards located next to the proposed site, Village ward and River ward.

The responses to the consultation were overwhelming. We received more than 17,000 responses to our surveys of local opinion. More than 90 per cent. of the responses were against the proposed development, mostly on the grounds of its residential setting, but also because the local council had earmarked the site for major sports facilities for local people. A Facebook group registering concerns regarding the proposed development managed to secure well over 14,100 participants. With the aid of an online survey, as well as petitions and responses to other leaflets, we offered various opportunities for local contributions to be made.

Moreover, more than 1,000 responses were made to the council survey in the two wards surveyed. In the latter survey, 8 per cent. of those responding backed plans for the use of the site for the proposed prison development. Some 76 per cent. of the Dagenham residents surveyed signalled support for the council’s plans to use the site for housing, small industrial units and community facilities. The council are now seeking a meeting with the Mayor of London and senior executives of the London Development Agency to fast forward the regeneration of this site to benefit the local community.

I very much welcome this decision. As the hon. Gentleman has said, the Beam Park West site lies on the border between our constituencies. He has rightly pointed out the opposition to the original plans for Beam Park West in his constituency. I presume that he is also aware of the opposition in places such as the Mardyke estate in South Hornchurch, which is also very proximate. Does he share my view that this decision puts the issue to rest and will hopefully allow the regeneration of this part of the Thames Gateway along the A1306, which is in need of investment, jobs and skills?

I agree, and while I have some concerns about the Mayor’s position, I do not seek to make any party political points across the Chamber tonight. The hon. Gentleman and I have a genuine shared interest, because local residents have felt dumped on during the prospective planning changes, and we need to offer some hope in terms of regeneration that can change the nature of the community more positively than people feared—as they made clear in various surveys of the proposals for the prison.

I have several conclusions from our experience since April last year. First—and this is not said often enough in this place—I wish to put on record my appreciation for the work of the Department, the Secretary of State, the Minister of State and their respective officials. At every turn, questions have been answered, views have been respected, meetings have been organised and contributions welcomed in the broader discussion.

I think that I can tentatively suggest that, in April, the process did not begin that well. The decision to build the prison on the site was announced at very short notice. Notwithstanding that, however, at every stage, the Department has respected the concerns of local people and listened courteously. That needs to be said. It was very much to the credit of the Secretary of State that he came down and walked the site, and most importantly listened to the concerns of local people. I would like to say thank you, on behalf of local people, for how the process has been handled, notwithstanding the slightly bumpy start. That is a great credit to the Department and the Government themselves. Early difficulties have been more than compensated for by the subsequent desire of the Department to involve and listen to local people.

Briefly, I would like to put on the record my appreciation of the approach adopted by the London borough of Barking and Dagenham. At every turn, it has sought to listen to local concerns and to articulate them to the Government in an informed and measured way. It refused to assume that the decision was a given, and sought to raise technical issues regarding, for example, planning, flooding, proximity to residents and how it related to future housing and infrastructural developments in south Dagenham and across the Thames Gateway, as the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) mentioned.

The announcement of the site location, on 27 April, occurred on the day that a new council leader was appointed in the borough of Barking and Dagenham. Liam Smith, the council leader, was actually the councillor in the River ward in Dagenham, and became the leader a few hours after the announcement—actually without any knowledge of the decision in his own ward. It was a major test for the new leader, and I suggest that he has done a great job in providing a balanced, measured response and articulating the concerns of his ward residents and the wider community.

The calm reporting of the local papers—the Barking and Dagenham Post, the Barking and Dagenham Recorder and the East London Advertiser—also deserve to be acknowledged, as we reach the end of this process. Again, I want to record my thanks to them throughout these difficult months. Most importantly, however, I would like to thank all the local people who made a contribution to this debate. Thousands and thousands of local people have taken the trouble to contribute, to e-mail, to respond to surveys, to phone and to sign petitions. The tenor of the contributions throughout has been mature and thoughtful. It is a credit to the people of Barking and Dagenham and the southern part of Havering that they have made their contributions in such a constructive form. These contributions have been a credit to the community, and I salute the people for the way they have come together to form a voice.

Finally, however, I would like to register a note of concern that is very much alive in the community. On 10 June, the London Assembly called on the Mayor to oppose the plans for the prison. This was proposed unanimously. Yet we heard nothing from the Mayor. Indeed, I find it curious that the Secretary of State was prepared to meet local residents and discuss the issues and that the Major never entered into such discussions in my constituency. Moreover, following the Mayor’s announcement we have heard nothing from him apart from grumbling about prison capacity—in effect, opposing the 12 February announcement. Indeed, the Mayor was in the borough last week and said nothing on the prison decision.

The Beam Park West site is London Development Agency land controlled by the Mayor. We know that he met Ministry of Justice officials prior to this site being designated and that other parties saw the relocation of the prison to the Beam Park West location as a local victory. Many people locally can only conclude that the Mayor actually wants to locate the prison on this site in Barking and Dagenham. Indeed, the shadow Justice Secretary said this week, in the Chamber, that the decision

“leaves a gaping hole in the Government’s plans.”—[Official Report, 22 February 2010; Vol. 506, c. 29.]

The implication of that viewpoint, alongside the muteness of the Mayor since 12 February, is that this prison plan could be dusted down and re-presented depending on the election results in a few weeks’ time. That is a real concern locally, and the next stage of our campaign is to develop alternative uses for the land for the benefit of the local community.

Overall, I do not want that last point to detract from the real appreciation in the community for the recent Government decision. I personally respect the way the Department has handled this issue. Most importantly, I want to pay credit to my constituents for how they have engaged with this issue, the outcome of which is a tribute to local democracy and, more generally, public policy making in this country. Thank you very much.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas), who spoke in a typically modest way about his own contribution to this story. It can be characterised as a success on his part in representing the views of his constituents well. He set out the extent to which he consulted them, and the extent to which they responded to that consultation. So I would like to begin by congratulating him on securing the debate, and thanking him for his remarks.

In particular, I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks about my officials in the Department, who do a tough job, and do it well. They have to face such matters day in, day out, in different parts of the nation, while seeking suitable sites for our prison developments. It is not always an easy job to have to face various opinions expressed by people who might or might not want a prison located somewhere near them, but it is a job that my officials do very well, and with great professionalism. I therefore add my thanks to those that my hon. Friend has put on the record for the professional job that my officials do.

It is certainly correct to say that Adjournment debates rarely, if ever, lead to enormous shifts in policy, and it must be said that my hon. Friend’s suspicion that this debate might not lead to the change in policy is probably correct. However, it is certainly the case that an Adjournment debate can be the final straw in getting points across—in this case that has happened as part of a campaign during which he has sought to represent the views of his constituents—and getting them across in such a way that the Department can hear them, as he has acknowledged has happened.

On 27 April 2009 my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor announced plans to build five 1,500-place prisons, as part of a programme to increase prison capacity to 96,000 places by 2014. Those prisons will be safe, secure and effective places—the prison that we were considering at Beam Park West would have been category B—that can help prisoners to deal with their offending and develop the work, education and life skills, which they may have been missing, that they need to turn their lives around. My right hon. Friend also announced that our Department was working to secure sites for the first two of those prisons—one at Runwell, in the borough of Chelmsford in Essex, and one at Beam Park West, in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham.

Those sites were chosen not out of convenience, or in an attempt to cause trouble for the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) or my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham. We try to build prisons so that prisoners can serve their sentences closer to their home areas. There is no doubt that there is a dearth of prison places in and around London, so we need sites in the area—suitable sites, of course—on which to build more places and ensure that offenders from in or around London have a chance to serve their sentence in a prison closer to home. We know that ensuring that capacity increases the chances that those serving sentences of imprisonment will be more able and more likely to reintegrate successfully into society, put their offending behind, and learn to live law-abiding and useful lives when they come out. That is why we are searching in and around London for sites for prisons.

However, as the announcement of 12 February 2010 has shown, there is nothing to say that we have fixed views about the particular sites that we investigate. It is perfectly normal for us to investigate a site, declare an intention to build on it and then find that it is not suitable for various reasons, or that other issues have led us to re-evaluate our initial interest.

The Beam Park West site was originally identified following a site search exercise in the London area, which initially found it to be an appropriate location for the development of one of our 1,500-place prisons. We subsequently undertook some due diligence work on the site, including environmental investigation work. That work demonstrated that the flood risk on the site was higher than had previously been thought, and indicated that the required mitigation was likely to be more extensive and costly than was originally envisaged. That also presented a planning risk for the site, along with other factors, such as the allocation of the site for housing in the emerging local development plan.

We have also listened to the views expressed by local residents since our interest in the site was announced, although we were yet to conduct a full public consultation into the proposals. I might add that it is a bit difficult to see how we could have conducted a more comprehensive consultation on the proposals than my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham instigated himself. We should thank him for his efforts in that regard, because he has enabled us fully to understand the local concerns without having to conduct our own consultations.

In the light of all these considerations, the decision was taken not to proceed with the site at Beam Park West. In October last year we announced that we would begin a new site search exercise for further sites in the priority areas of London, north Wales, the north-west and west Yorkshire, with the purpose of identifying sites on which to build new prisons closer to the homes of the offenders we expect to serve their sentences in them.

As I said, there is a significant shortfall of prison places in London, and it therefore remains very much a priority area for new prison places. There are currently around 11,400 more prisoners from London than places available in the capital, and the most recent population projections show that the numbers of prisoners from London could increase further by mid-2015. In the light of that, we are still looking for good suitable sites in and around London. Locating new prisons in the greatest areas of need will allow us to keep prisoners closer to their home areas. This will help to ensure that important family ties and other links with local communities can be maintained, which will assist with prisoner rehabilitation.

Work on identifying sites in or near the key search areas is under way, and I expect to be able to announce a shortlist of suitable sites in the summer. I want to make it clear to all hon. Members that we are committed to being as open and transparent as possible about these sites. I hope it will be possible for any other hon. Member, at the relevant time, if they have reason to discuss these matters with us when we identify further sites, to report the same experience as my hon. Friend has conveyed to the House today, of our openness and transparency.

Once a site has been identified, consultation with local MPs, local authorities and residents will be undertaken in order to achieve the most open and transparent process possible. I know that an announcement that we are seeking to build a prison in a particular place is not always popular, although it can be more popular in some places than in others. There is variation in the response that we receive. Once consultation has been concluded, and all the views have been taken into account and the due diligence has been done, if development is considered to be appropriate, we will seek to acquire that site with an appropriate planning consent, and to build the prison. The Government remain committed to providing more prison places to ensure that the most dangerous, serious and persistent offenders are locked up, and we are still on track to provide 96,000 places by 2014.

I am happy to be able to respond to my hon. Friend’s debate this evening by saying that in my experience as Minister for prisons, rarely has a campaign been so effective and totally successful in what appears to me to have been quite a short time—although it must have appeared to him to be an age. I shall finish by congratulating him on that effort, and by saying that his input has been valuable in conveying to us the views of his constituents and the local stakeholders in the area. We thank him for that, and we will continue to be open and transparent about our intentions in respect of particular sites, which we are still seeking.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.