Prison chiefs have bowed to intense public pressure and agreed to look elsewhere for a site for a new £66million Highland jail.
Jubilant campaigners in an Inverness suburb were celebrating last night after the surprise decision to “pause” the controversial process.
The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) yesterday backed down and confirmed it would seek an alternative to its preferred option at Milton of Leys in the Highland capital.
A public consultation event planned for today (TUES) at nearby Inshes Church has been “postponed” as a result.
A campaign had been launched against the proposed prison location, with almost 900 residents signing a petition opposing the plans in recent weeks.
Prison bosses are now assessing a different site in the city – but refused to reveal the location last night.
In a statement, the SPS said: “We are pausing the planning consultation process on the proposed prison site at Milton of Leys to ascertain if a viable alternative option is available.
“We will progress an assessment of an alternative option which has been brought forward by the Milton of Leys site owner and which had not previously been available as a potential prison site.”
It added that a full assessment of the site would follow – but if the alternative site was not considered viable, it has “a commitment to progress the planning application on the Milton of Leys site”.
The SPS believes the assessment of an undisclosed site, which is owned by property developers Hazledene in the Inverness area, could take between four and six months.
Local MSP and Scottish minister Fergus Ewing last month urged the SPS to find an alternative site, outlining the extent of opposition to the preferred choice of Milton of Leys in talks at Holyrood with SPS chief executive Colin McConnell.
After searching for eight years for a location for a replacement for the overcrowded and dated Porterfield complex in the city centre, it emerged in May that Milton of Leys was not the SPS’s first choice.
It had previously considered 12 possibilities.
The Hazledene Group owns numerous sites in and around Inverness.
Its chief executive Mark Shaw last night confirmed the alternative site was not within the Stratton “new town” proposal for the east side of the city.
Speaking to The Press and Journal, he said: “Given the public feedback to date, we’re happy to help ensure that the best site for the prison is chosen and that the selection process is robust and comprehensive.
“As a result, we’ve offered an alternative site for evaluation and comparison, and will wait for the SPS to pause the current process and undertake its technical evaluation.
“While we’re making the alternative option available in good faith, it has not yet been subject to evaluation.”
Echoing the SPS, he added: “If it’s not suitable, we have mutual contractual commitments to proceed with a planning application on the Milton of Leys site and we would expect those to be honoured.”
Mr Ewing, who represents Inverness and Nairn, welcomed the decision.
“I argued that if other sites could be identified that would merit a pause of the application for the current proposal,” he said.
“I’m pleased, therefore, that the SPS have responded to my request in a very constructive fashion.”
Steve Gordon, of the campaign group Highlands Against the Proposed Prison Location, said: “We’re absolutely delighted. Obviously, the campaign continues.
“We want the SPS to find an appropriate site and not to revert to Milton of Leys if the alternative site falls through.”
Conservative Highlands and Islands MSP Edward Mountain, who has also pressed for a review of the process, said: “I’m delighted there is a pause.
“But I’m still of the opinion that if 12 sites are put forward and only one is considered suitable, that the site selection at the outset was wrong and, therefore, we should be going back to the drawing board.”
SNP councillor Ken Gowans, who represents Milton of Leys, said: “I’m really pleased to see they’ve taken the opportunity to take on board some of the comments I’ve made.
“This is the first indication we’ve had that the SPS feel this site is not particularly suitable.”
Time to look for somewhere different
Prison chiefs have agreed to “pause” the planning consultation process on their controversial preferred site option for a new jail at the Inverness suburb of Milton of Leys – in order to consider an alternative location.
In a statement, the Scottish Prison Service said it intended “to ascertain if a viable alternative option is available for the location of HMP Highland.”
A public consultation meeting planned for tomorrow (TUES) at Inshes Church has been postponed.
The SPS said it would “progress an assessment of an alternative option which has been brought forward by the Milton of Leys site owner and which had not previously been available as a potential prison site.”
It added: “However, the full assessment of this site is not yet commenced and should this option not subsequently prove viable, SPS have a commitment to progress the planning application on the Milton of Leys site.”
It expects the assessment of the potential alternative site to be concluded within six months.