Exploiting the potential of existing businesses and reusing existing structures has boosted the local economy and generated income for the council.
- Project: Oakham Enterprise Park
- Objectives: To transform a disused prison into a hub for local businesses, supporting the local economy and Rutland’s economic growth
- Timescale: Two years
- Cost to authority: £3.5m, including £1.4m to buy the site
- Number of staff working on project: Six
- Outcomes: Rutland CC transformed the former 25-acre prison site into a thriving hub for new and growing businesses
HM Prison Ashwell, on the outskirts of the picturesque market town of Oakham, closed in 2011. Originally a barracks and parachute training centre for the US Army during the Second World War, the site become an open Category D prison in 1955 and was later changed to closed Category C status in 1987.
Several buildings were badly damaged by fire during rioting in 2009, leading to the decision by the Ministry of Justice to close it. There was widespread uncertainty around the future of the site, with one possible option being to reopen it as a secure immigration centre.
The mothballing of the prison created an eyesore on Rutland’s rural landscape and had a signifi cant impact on the local economy – eliminating jobs, shrinking revenue to local businesses and reducing business rates income for the council.
This was at a time when Rutland CC, like many councils, was facing signifi cant reductions in government grant and growing pressures in key areas, including adult social care. As well as setting savings targets, the council was looking at innovative ways to generate income, while supporting the county’s economic growth. Buying HM Prison Ashwell and developing it into a business park was the perfect solution.
In 2013, Rutland CC successfully negotiated the purchase of the prison site for £1.4m from the Ministry of Justice. The vision was to transform the 25 acre site into a ordable office, industrial and leisure premises for local start-ups and growing businesses – something in short supply locally.
The council was fully aware of the financial risks it could face in buying the site. After assessing the situation it was satisfied the opportunity was excellent value for money, exposing the council to minimal risk and allowing it to address economic priorities.
Having bought the site, the council took the perhaps unusual step of not flattening everything and starting afresh. The mission was to exploit the potential of existing businesses and where possible reuse existing structures.
The biggest challenge was to repurpose the facilities as attractive office accommodation. Perimeter security fencing covered in razor wire was removed, three threestorey cell blocks were demolished, and redundant boiler systems were removed.
Significant remediation works had to be undertaken on buildings, which had been affected by fire damage and leaks. Bars were removed from windows.
The former prison administration and workshop buildings were refurbished to comply with building regulations – the site having previously benefitted from crown exemption – creating 70 office and Elsewhere onsite, other buildings have been leased to tenants in the leisure industry to provide additional but more specialised fitness centres, including a gym and bodybuilding centre.
Some modern cell blocks to the rear of the site that were undamaged were retained. These form the Events Zone,which is leased to an events company. With its unique architecture and atmosphere, it is frequently used for filming by TV and film companies, and for photoshoots.
The BBC comedy drama Crims was filmed at Oakham Enterprise Park, and the site has also provided the backdrop to productions such as This is England ’90 and the BBC’s Happy Valley. The visitor attraction and film location aspect has provided an unintended revenue stream, greatly benefitting the local economy and tourism industry.
Working in partnership with Peterborough Regional College, the council has also created an adult learning and skills centre, using the 16,000 square foot former administration building which also provides private lease office accommodation.
Having previously supplied around 4,000 meals a day to inmates at Ashwell and another local prison, the former kitchen building is a state-of-the-art facility believed to have cost over £6m to commission. This has now been let as a food production facility, creating new local jobs.
In addition to supporting the local economy, Oakham Enterprise Park has provided a significant return on investment for the council. The site’s value has increased significantly, while the council benefits from increased business rates and a significant income.
There is still the potential to develop the central area of the site previously occupied by the former cell blocks, which were demolished in 2014 to create a new access road and two new 10,000 square foot warehouse buildings, the viability of which is now being explored.
The site has more than delivered against council and business expectations, creating jobs while supporting start-up and business growth.
Helen Briggs, chief executive, Rutland CC