Prison chiefs are on the brink lodging plans for a new £66million jail next to the biggest retail park in Inverness.
Scottish Prison Service (SPS) bosses have confirmed that they have concluded a deal to build the facility behind Homebase at the south-west end of Inverness Shopping Park.
Last night, the announcement sparked victory celebrations among Milton of Leys residents, who joined forces to successfully fight off hugely controversial proposals to build the city’s new jail in their community.
The Press and Journal revealed in June last year that the alternative location being considered for the prison was a site to the rear of the retail park, bounded to the west by the rail track and to the north by Stoneyfield Business Park.
SPS confirmed yesterday that it had now reached an agreement for the 18-acre plot with Hazledene Inverness, which also owns the Milton of Leys site and had put the retail park land forward as an alternative option amid local uproar.
A planning application and community consultation are expected to follow in the next few weeks.
Steve Gordon, of the campaign group Highlands Against the Proposed Prison Location, last night welcomed the victory for the residents of Milton of Leys, by the southern entrance to the city.
He said: “We’re absolutely delighted and grateful. We did anticipate it coming but it’s good to have it confirmed.
“I’d just like to thank everyone who supported the campaign. From an Inverness point of view, it’s the right decision.
“I think sometimes you have just got to stand up and be counted. We’ve had huge levels of support. People need to push back sometimes.”
Local councillor Ken Gowans said: “I’m absolutely delighted that this decision has been made. It vindicates the position that myself and the community had about the Milton of Leys proposed site.
“This will be very welcome news and is a great result.”
The new proposed prison site is zoned for retail in the local development plan and was previously suggested for a £40million expansion of the shopping park.
Last year, Highlands and Islands Enterprise was granted permission to build a new bridge and a link road next to the plot, so that pedestrians, cyclists and buses can cross the Inverness to Perth rail track between the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) Campus and the retail park.
If the revised prison plans are approved, visitors and staff could access the site from a new rail station being considered for the Inverness to Aberdeen line to serve the shops, UHI campus and Stoneyfield Business Park.
The move by prison bosses emerged as the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service progresses with plans for a new £23million justice centre off Longman Road on the site of a former bus depot.
Confirming the deal yesterday, SPS chief executive Colin McConnell said: “An agreement has now been concluded with the site owners and SPS intend to pursue a planning application for the site in due course.
“The application for the site will of course include the normal community consultation processes. SPS do not intend to pursue any further interest in the site at Milton of Leys.”
The jail aims to replace the aging Porterfield Prison in the Crown area of the city, which was opened in 1902 and has an average of 117 prisoners in a facility designed for 103.
Justice Secretary Michael Matheson said: “I’m pleased that SPS have now reached this stage and look forward to the development of a new fit for purpose prison which can provide suitable accommodation for people in custody from the Highlands and Islands – keeping them closer to their families and their communities.
“Alongside our investment, through the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service, in a new Justice Centre for the city, this latest milestone underlines the Scottish Government’s commitment to improving the effectiveness and experience of the justice system for the people of the Highlands”.
Inverness and Nairn MSP Fergus Ewing had asked prison chiefs to rethink the proposals for Milton of Leys.
Last night, he said: “I have been campaigning for a new prison for some time and during the Scottish Parliament election campaign last year said that I thought the site proposed by the SPS at that time for Milton of Leys was not the right one.
“I am very pleased that these representations were heeded and then acted on. Now the proposed site is the subject of a new application and it is of course for the local authority to consider this, but it appears on the face of it that it is a much more suitable site.”