Objectors fighting a plan to move St Helena’s prison to Half Tree Hollow have been told the issue has already been decided.
The island’s planning board has knocked back designs to move the prison to the Sundale secure hospital, because of concerns about high outer walls. It would not support permanent exterior lighting.
But it cannot oppose consent altogether because executive councillors have already agreed it as part of the island’s development blueprint.
And it is not classed as a change of use, because a prison and a secure hospital are the same class of building in planning law. That means planning permission is not needed for the principle of turning the Sundale into a gaol.
David Taylor, St Helena’s head of planning, said: “You could have somebody more dangerous in a secure hospital than in a prison. That is why it’s in the same use class.”
Conditions at the cramped Victorian prison in Jamestown have been condemned by successive UK inspectors. It does not meet human rights standards, and chief of police Peter Coll has been frank about its failings.
Sundale House has also been declared unfit for its existing six residents, who need a new home – likely to be on the site of the old Half Tree Hollow School.
St Helena Government had set a target of moving prison inmates to the 16 new cells at Sundale by 2015, but it could be ready a year earlier.
A protest petition and several letters of objection were considered by the planning board. Members visited the site, then ordered a redesign.
The heads of the police and prison service were given just a week to come up with a new design that met the same security levels as UK prisons.
The public will have another week to view the plans before a third board meeting on 3 May 2013.
David Taylor told listeners to SAMS Radio 1: “Inevitably, most people are concerned about the principle, but the principle of doing it does not arise.
“When the Land Development Control Plan was debated and adopted by ExCo in April last year, it included a specific policy that the prison will be relocated from Jamestown to Half Tree Hollow.”
There had been 20 weeks on consultation on the land plan, he said.
“Making sure that the thing is secure, while reducing its visual impact, is what’s now going on.
“There are various measures on the table for achieving the same level of security, including by building walls internally, or doing it with various meshes and caging.”
The existing prison at the foot of Jacob’s Ladder was a “lovely little building” that could not be adapted to modern standards, said David.
“It doesn’t meet anything like 20th Century, let alone 21st Century requirements for prisons. It’s been examined to see what can be done to make it fit for purpose, and it can’t, frankly.
“A new challenging behaviour unit has to come first. There’s planning permission for one, granted last year, to go where Half Tree Hollow School was. That is being looked at and revised.
“I would expect the prison should be up and running at Sundale during next year. The intention is that building work will have commenced before the end of this year.
“It’s always difficult to site things like mental hospitals and prisons. No one wants them on their doorstep, but communities require facilities so you do it in the best way you can.”
Asked whether the prison’s move to Sundale was definitely going ahead, he said: “Yes it is.”
Legal, Lands and Planning Department, St Helena Government
(note: members of St Helena Planning Board are appointed by Governor Mark Capes but are otherwise independent of the government. The board is chaired by John Styles, the former Chief Secretary of St Helena Government. Its members include Vince Thompson, a St Helena Independent columnist and former UK councillor).