Super-jails are first to feel squeeze from Whitehall

Jack Straw abandons contentious proposal to fix overcrowding in prisons

Andrew Grice,Nigel Morris
Friday 24 April 2009 00:00 BST

Plans to build three giant "Titan" prisons are to be scrapped by the Government as it begins the squeeze on public spending which was announced in Wednesday's Budget.

The Independent has learnt that Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, has abandoned his flagship proposals for the 2,500-place jails after the Treasury objected to the cost of his £1.2bn prison building programme.

But government sources last night insisted that Mr Straw decided to retreat because of the strong objections raised by penal reform groups as well as local opposition in the areas where the super-jails were planned.

Although the total number of prison places will not be cut, he will announce on Monday that the Government intends to instead build five jails, each with 1,500 places. But only two of the new prisons will go ahead immediately.

A plan to buy a prison ship with 450 places has also been abandoned, after building a traditional jail was found to be 25 per cent cheaper. Proposals for a new generation of multi-storey "Titan jails" holding up to 2,500 inmates each were drawn up by Mr Straw in 2007 in response to prison overcrowding.

They were the key element of a building programme designed to bring prison capacity in England and Wales to 96,000 by 2014. Last week there were 82,757 offenders behind bars – an increase of more than 1,000 since the beginning of the year.

The first super-prison was planned to be built by 2012 near London, where pressure on space is the most acute. It would be followed by giant jails in the West Midlands and Lancashire.

They were planned to hold between 2,100 and 2,500 offenders, although the Ministry of Justice conceded they were likely to take the maximum number as soon as they opened. They would hold a mixture of medium-security offenders and remanded prisoners.

The Ministry of Justice believed sites of at least 50 acres – twice the size of Wembley Stadium – would be needed for the prisons. It was resigned to facing a series of bitter planning battles from residents horrified by the giant prisons being sited in their communities.

Ministers dismissed accusations they were penal "warehouses", arguing that they would comprise four or five smaller units behind a perimeter fence. But penal reformers insisted that building "super-jails" would backfire as it would be harder to rehabilitate offenders in such large institutions. The plan was also condemned by Anne Owers, the Chief Inspector of Prisons.

The Prison Reform Trust denounced the scheme as a "gigantic and costly mistake that others will live to regret".

The Howard League for Penal Reform, said the plan was aimed at "delivering justice on the cheap". Consultation on the proposals also revealed almost universal opposition to Titan jails.

The retreat is the first major casualty of the clampdown on state spending that was disclosed by the Chancellor Alistair Darling, who said the planned overall growth of 1.2 per cent in real terms from 2011-12 would be cut to just 0.7 per cent.

The squeeze on Whitehall departments will be even greater because rising bills for debt repayments and state benefits will be unavoidable.

Yesterday, the Tories claimed that Gordon Brown would no longer be able to fight the next general election on his favourite ground – contrasting "Labour investment" with "Tory cuts" – because "Labour cuts" are now in the pipeline.

But Labour insisted the "dividing line" would still work because the Tories were committed to an immediate and deeper spending squeeze. It will now challenge the Tories to spell out where their axe would fall.

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