The justice secretary has expressed “significant frustration” that the government’s plans to expand prison capacity have been “bogged down” by the planning system.
Alex Chalk, who is UK lord chancellor as well as justice secretary, said he was “fed up” with delays at three sites and admitted that the government had expected the proposed jails to be “more advanced” by this stage.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Financial Times, Chalk said the Ministry of Justice was looking to overcome hurdles by acquiring land for new sites well in advance of seeking planning permission in future.
The prison estate is beset by cramped conditions and a rising population. The latest annual report published by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons warned that many prisons were overcrowded and in poor repair, while Pia Sinha, chief executive of the Prison Reform Trust, has said the “dilapidated estate” is suffering from “decades of under-investment”.
Prison spending fell between 2010 and 2015, before increasing until the first year of the pandemic, according to the Institute for Government think-tank.
In 2021, ministers committed to spending £3.75bn to deliver 20,000 new prison places by the mid 2020s but a backlog in refurbishment costs has crept up to more than £1.4bn.
Construction of a new prison in Yorkshire is under way, however, alongside new housing blocks at existing prisons in Rutland and Warwickshire, plus the expansions of HMP Birmingham and HMP Liverpool.
The building plans come alongside a doubling of “rapid deployment cells”, prison cells that can accommodate low security “category D” prisoners, boosting capacity in traditional jails for more dangerous inmates, from 500 to 1,000.
Chalk said new prisons in Buckinghamshire, Leicestershire and Lancashire “have been bogged down in planning and that’s a source of a significant frustration for me”. He added: “I’ve been fed up by the delays that we’ve seen in the planning system, which is a pain.”
One of the sites, near HMP Grendon and HMP Springhill in Buckinghamshire, finally received planning permission on Tuesday.
Chalk’s intervention is the latest complaint by a prominent Conservative politician about the restrictive planning system in England and Wales, which critics argue has also suppressed the rate of new houses being built.
Sir Simon Clarke, former housing secretary, warned in autumn that the Tories were at risk of losing the next general election if they continued to pander to “Nimbys” — those who say “not in my back yard” in objection to planning proposals.
Construction delays have fed into concerns about capacity. Currently, there are about 89,000 places in the prison system, with fewer than 1,500 spare, according to the Ministry of Justice.
The prison population in England and Wales is projected to rise to 94,400 by March 2025 and reach upwards of 106,300 by March 2027, according to government data.
The estimates predate upcoming sentencing reforms, though Chalk said that the pressure stemmed principally from the large number of prisoners on remand and awaiting trial amid the courts backlog, rather than from sentenced inmates.
The government has put forward a sentencing bill that seeks to curb shorter custodial sentences for low level criminals in favour of suspended sentences and tough community orders.
The legislation, which is progressing through the House of Commons, also aims to ensure that the most serious offenders serve longer sentences.
Ahead of his trip to the US this week, Chalk warned that some British prisons had become a “college for criminals” where inmates learnt new tricks to commit further offences upon release.
Defending the move to reduce short custodial sentences, he said “we’ve got to punish robustly” but also “move away from old-fashioned approaches”. He argued that the shift towards more community sentences would save money, as the total cost of holding a prisoner is £48,000 a year, according to government figures.
In Washington on Wednesday, Chalk will make a speech warning of the “existential threat” to international law and the rules based order on account of the “threat from malign actors”, including Russia and Iran.
He told the FT he would “respectfully disagree” with critics questioning the UK’s commitment to international law, after the president of the European Court of Human Rights last week indicated that Britain would be in breach of its legal obligations if it did not comply with the court’s emergency orders to block attempts to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.
Looking to the future of the European Convention on Human Rights, amid calls from some right-wing Tory MPs for the UK to quit it, Chalk said the UK and its allies should examine whether it required “recalibration and modernisation”. He said he believed Britain’s “international counterparts would be amenable to these sorts of discussions” about the treaty.
“International agreements and the convention should evolve over time. These things are living instruments, and they shouldn’t be, as it were, just frozen in aspic,” he said.
Reflecting on the future of the civil justice system, Chalk said he will “keep an open mind” about AI playing a role in judgments, though stressed that judicial decision-making must continue to be led by human judges.