A blunder by Keith Brown led to the justice secretary incorrectly signalling that a new £110 million jail for the Highlands had been hit by fresh delays.
We can reveal that the SNP minister got it wrong when he said earlier this month that the new HMP Highland would not be open until 2026 – two years later than expected.
The comment appeared to represent yet another major set-back for the delay-hit project, which aims to finally replace the 1902-built Porterfield prison in Inverness.
But the Scottish Government has now confirmed that the work actually remains on track for completion in 2024, with a contract due to be awarded within weeks.
Mr Brown is believed to have made an error when questioned about the jail timetable during media interviews, including with The P&J, while on a recent visit to the Highland capital.
Edward Mountain, Scottish Conservative MSP for the Highlands and Islands, said: “Sometimes people’s incompetence hides good news.
“Keith Brown appears to have a lack a grip on his brief and his suggestion that HMP Highland wouldn’t be completed by 2026 was obviously a mistake.
Keith Brown appears to have a lack a grip on his brief and his suggestion that HMP Highland wouldn’t be completed by 2026 was obviously a mistake.”
“The fact it will be completed in 2024 is, I believe, a vindication of my campaign to have the new prison fast-tracked.
“I now look forward to the cabinet secretary announcing the contractor for the design and construction of HMP Highland imminently.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We are committed to the modernisation of the prison estate which includes progressing a replacement for HMP Inverness as a priority.
“The anticipated operational date for the new HMP Highland is 2024.”
The anticipated operational date for the new HMP Highland is 2024.”
In The P&J interview earlier this month, Mr Brown said: “Brexit is completely unhelpful.
“It is also now having an impact on labour shortages and on materials as well, but none of that we expect will impact on our 2026 completion date for the new prison in Inverness.”
Meanwhile, in an interview with MFR while on the same visit north, Mr Brown said: “We are investing in both Inverness and the Highlands, but in terms of the prison we realise that has to be replaced and we commit to doing that. We hope to do that by 2026.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon brought Mr Brown back into her Cabinet after the Holyrood election in May.
He is the SNP’s depute leader and previously served as economy secretary in the Scottish Government between 2016 and 2018.
Construction News reported on Tuesday that four major building firms are on the shortlist for the prison contract – Balfour Beatty, Kier, Robertson and Morrison.
It is understood that an award could be made within the next few weeks.
The 200-inmate complex would be the main jail for the Highlands and islands, and Moray.
It would be built next to the city’s largest retail park, and replace Porterfield prison, which has a capacity of 103 prisoners but houses an average closer to 117.
The cost of the scheme has soared from the £66m bill proposed five years ago to a current estimate of between £98m and £110m.
The Scottish Prison Service 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 of Inverness 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, with the latest being 2024.
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.