Work on a long-awaited new jail for the north could finally get under way next year – but the cost of the project has soared to £92 million.
Bosses at the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) have been given the go-ahead to seek tenders for the delay-hit scheme, and they hope construction can start on the Inverness facility next summer.
Preparatory work at the site, next to the city’s largest retail park, could begin earlier.
It has emerged that Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing privately raised concerns with a Cabinet colleague, Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf, about the lack of progress.
The 200-inmate complex would be the main jail for the Highlands and Islands, and Moray.
It would replace the 1902-built Porterfield prison in Inverness, which has a capacity of 103 prisoners but houses an average of 117.
Fresh concerns have been raised about the cost of the scheme, which has soared by 40% from the £66m bill proposed four years ago to a new estimate of £92m.
The timetable has also been pushed back several times, with completion now earmarked for the summer of 2024, if the funding is approved next year.
Edward Mountain, Conservative MSP for the Highlands and Islands, said: “Right now the only thing going up at the new prison is the price.
“Last year a new prison would have cost £80.5m, but now this has risen to £92m. This is the huge cost of the SNP government’s delays.”
He added: “This is a shovel-ready project and will create jobs in the Highlands.
“All it needs is funding and it’s now time, after much dithering from the cabinet secretary for justice, to make that commitment.
“The current prison is not fit for purpose and it needs to be replaced sooner rather than later.”
The SPS started looking for a site for a new HMP Highland in 2008, but was forced to abandon a proposal for the Milton of Leys area in 2016 after a backlash from residents.
In 2017 outline planning permission was granted to build the 130,000sq ft prison at an 18-acre plot behind the south-western end of the Inverness Shopping Park.
Work was due to begin in 2018 and be finished by 2020 but the target date has since been pushed back several times, and the SPS faced the prospect of having to reapply for planning permission, with the existing consent due to expire at the end of this year.
The delays were linked to a decision to “pause” the project due to funding pressures and a switch in “priorities” to a replacement for HMP Barlinnie in Glasgow.
Memos seen by us show that Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing, who is the MSP for Inverness and Nairn, wrote to Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf to raise his concerns about the slow progress in November last year.
Mr Ewing said he was “concerned that whilst the land itself has been purchased, which is a major step forward, the sanctioning of the capital budget for the new prison itself has not”.
He added: “This is of some concern locally, and has been the subject of party political commentary already. I expect that to continue and possibly escalate.
“However, the primary concern I have is that the existing building is no longer fit for purpose, which everyone involves admits.”
Mr Ewing and Mr Yousaf met in January to discuss the progress with the scheme.
In June SPS chief executive Teresa Medhurst wrote to Mr Yousaf to update him on the project, including the revised target dates.
She said: “SPS has taken the proposals to an advanced stage of design and the technical documents needed for the invitation to tender for the prison have been prepared.
“This means that this project could proceed in a relatively short timescale to invite tenders, with the award of a construction contract anticipated as being possible by summer 2021, should funding be made available.”
Last week Mr Yousaf confirmed to MSPs he had approved a move to the invitation-to-tender phase of the scheme.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We are committed to modernisation of the prison estate.
“A total of £68m capital funding has been provided in this year’s budget for improving infrastructure across the prison estate, which represents a £20m increase on last year’s capital budget for prisons.
“As the justice secretary outlined to parliament last week, in addition to the ongoing development of a new female custodial estate, approval has also been given to progress with HMP Highland and HMP Glasgow towards the invitation-to-tender stage.”