Communities in deindustrialised areas deserve better than prisons

Matt Ford
Thursday, 29 April 2021

Earlier this year the Centre published a paper, Coal today, gone tomorrow, by colleagues from the Universities of Sheffield and Derby.

The paper explores the geography of prison building throughout the twentieth century. It identified three distinct trends linked to wider societal developments that led to changes in specific types of land use. 

In the post-war period to the end of the 1970s, there were two main tendencies in the location of new prisons. They were converted from, or built on the grounds of, country houses, which for various reasons had become unaffordable to their previous owners. Or, they were built on the site of former military bases as the country demilitarised following the end of the second world war. From the 1960s, it became increasingly common for new prisons to be built on land that had been occupied by industry, particularly during and after the Thatcherite economic reforms of the 1980s.   

As the authors note, decisions about where new prisons should be built were often made under pressure as the prison population rose and sites which had recently become available were seen as attractive. 

The most rapid expansion in the prison population since 1901 at least occurred from 1993 to 2012, after the transition to a neoliberal political economy in the UK in the 1980s. Prisons and punishment became a more widely used response to social problems as the material conditions of the working class were degraded. It’s likely that some of the people whose livelihoods had previously been provided by the industries which once occupied these sites ended up in the prisons. The new principles underpinning the economy and how public services were run meant a move to the private operation of some of these prisons. People were made vulnerable, then their vulnerability was monetised.  

Whether or not local people had any sort of choice about whether a prison should be built in their area is unclear, although we know from sites recently earmarked for new prisons or prison extensions, such as Port Talbot and Full Sutton, prospective prisons are often very unpopular with local people, for a variety of reasons.  

The injustice of people’s jobs and communities being destroyed only for some of the same people to become fodder for the prison system and private interests, as well as their lack of say in this fate, needs to be reversed. Prisons that were built on former industrial sites need to be closed and the land redeveloped in the interests of local communities, many of which are still to recover from the economic restructuring of the 1980s. 

Selected social needs in deindustrialised areas where prisons were built
Prison Local authority No of households on housing lists Unemployment rate Child poverty rate
New Hall Wakefield 23,791 4.4% 21%
Hindley Wigan 7,337 3.5% 20%
Low Newton Durham County 9,932 5.2% 26%
Glenochil Clackmannanshire 1,195 4.7% 22%
Wymott Chorley 850 2.9% 14%
Garth Chorley 850 2.9% 14%
Whitemoor Fenland 1,088 3.3% 21%
Doncaster Doncaster 7,232 5.5% 26%
Forest Bank Salford 5,857 5.6% 23%
Peterborough Peterborough 3,646 4.9% 27%
Addiewell West Lothian 8,203 4.0% 18%
Grampian Aberdeenshire 6,241 2.8% 11%
Frankland Durham County 9.932 5.2% 26%

The starting point for any redevelopment should be what local people would like to see built on the sites. Initiatives should be fully and sincerely community-led. In keeping with the legacy of the sites, this could involve green energy jobs. Or the sites could be used to address another era-defining crisis: suitable and affordable housing.

There is always a better use for a piece of land than as a place for a prison.