Prison chiefs have privately admitted there is currently “no money” available to progress plans for a new £80 million jail for the Highlands and islands.
Memos obtained by The Press and Journal show that the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) was told in December there would not be any cash for the new Inverness facility for at least two years.
The e-mails reveal how frustrated SPS officials were left “deflated” by the news, and wanted the Scottish Government to help them find a way to “keep the door open” for the scheme.
And they confirm that the cash shortfall for the proposed HMP Highland is a result of a decision to switch “priorities” to a replacement for HMP Barlinnie in Glasgow.
Last night, the behind-the-scenes exchanges sparked fresh concerns that the project has been “shelved”, amid claims the government was showing “utter disregard” for the Highlands.
A new jail has long been required to replace the ageing Porterfield prison in the Crown area of Inverness, which in January had 111 prisoners in facilities designed for 93.
Outline planning permission was granted in 2017 to build a new HMP Highland next to the city’s largest retail park, with work initially due to begin in 2018 and finished by 2020.
Since then, the estimated completion date has been pushed back twice to 2023, and the SPS faces the prospect of having to reapply for planning permission, because the existing consent expires next year.
Communications released to the P&J under freedom of information laws have now revealed the frustration expressed by senior SPS officials, whose names have been removed from the documents, when they were told in December that there was no cash.
“We did discuss how to keep Highland going but he said there was no money,” said one official in the memos.
“I’d really like to have had a direct face-to-face with SG (Scottish Government) about funding. I’m left at the moment a bit deflated about Highland.”
The official added: “I said in my e-mail that this was the ‘minimum’ we needed so as to try to keep the door open for Highland and Greenock because SG clearly recognise that these projects exist.
“We just need to know what they want us to do now with them.”
The lack of cash for Inverness is linked to a decision by the SPS to switch its priorities so that a £250m replacement for Barlinnie is completed before the new HMP Highland, which was previously ahead of the Glasgow facility in the pecking order.
The e-mails also show that Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf queried the timescales in February.
At the time, SPS chief executive Colin McConnell told his officials: “In our response can we be clear and ask that the Cab Sec is reminded that the IIP (infrastructure investment plan) is not in the gift of the SPS but is an SG programme that then informs what SPS gets in terms of resources and over what timescale.”
The SPS insisted last night that the Scottish Government has been “very generous with us over the piece” in terms of capital funding.
Last night, Scottish Conservative MSP Edward Mountain said: “The complete and utter disregard this SNP government has for the Highlands is on full show in these exchanges and it is no wonder that SPS officials have been left feeling deflated at the decision to not fund the new prison.
“It is now clear for all to see that investing in essential infrastructure in the Highlands is not a top priority for this SNP government.”
The Highlands and Islands MSP added that there was a “real risk the new prison could be shelved” and that “cannot happen”.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Scottish Government and Scottish Prison Service are committed to modernising and improving our prison estate.
“As previously indicated by the justice secretary, the current priorities are development of the new female estate, a replacement for HMP Barlinnie and then HMP Highland.
“We greatly value the dedication, commitment and professionalism of SPS staff and never take for granted the good order that is maintained in Scotland’s prisons.”