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Shepton Mallet prison to close with the loss of 18 jobs

SHEPTON Mallet Prison is to close in January, with the loss of 18 jobs, it has been announced.

The attraction, believed to be the world’s oldest purpose-built jail, dates back more than 400 years.

However, it will close its doors to visitors on January 2, 2024, operator Cove Group said, amid a row with owner of the site, City & Country.

Cove Group said “unreasonable financial demands” by the owners had left them no choice but to take the “heart-rending decision” to close.

City & Country, however, says Cove Group has not fulfilled certain conditions required for insurance purposes or a potential sale, and that it is now considering options for the future of the site.

In 2016, City & Country was granted planning permission to develop the prison site for residential use.

Announcing the closure Joel Campbell, CEO of Cover Group, said: “Over the past seven years we have invested more than £1 million into Shepton Mallet Prison, and despite a relentless campaign of perseverance, our endeavours to safeguard and enhance this historical site have been met with a disheartening lack of support from City & Country.

“Our efforts to secure a future for the prison through direct purchase were not just undervalued but met with resistance and unreasonable financial demands, especially concerning property insurance costs that far exceed the market rate.

“Despite our continued efforts to negotiate and find alternative insurance arrangements, City & Country have informed us that if we do not meet their demands then notice will be served imminently.

“This impasse has forced us to make the heart-rending decision to cease operating Shepton Mallet Prison from January 2, 2024.

The prison has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors in recent years, Cove Group said. Picture: Cove Group

The prison has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors in recent years, Cove Group said. Picture: Cove Group

“The closure is a stark reflection of the disregard shown by City & Country towards a business that has not only celebrated but vitalised the history and economy of Shepton Mallet.”

The prison has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors since it was opened for public events in 2017, the firm said.

But now, people have just a matter of weeks to visit before the cell doors close for the final time.

Site manager, Charlie Lawson, said: “Our success has been a testament to the resilience, creativity, and unwavering spirit of our brilliant team.

“It has been a privilege to protect and enhance such an important part of the region’s heritage. The closure is a blow not just to us, but to the entire community that embraced us.”

And Mr Campbell added: “As a team we are proud of the indelible mark we’ve left on Shepton Mallet, Somerset, and the UK’s heritage tourism.

“We hope our story will inspire future generations to cherish and protect our rich, collective history.”

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However, a spokesperson for City & Country, which bought the Shepton Mallet Prison site from the Ministry of Justice in 2015, said: “The former prison was first let to SG Prisons Limited, understood to be part of the Cove Group, in April 2017 on a short-term basis due to City & Country’s intention to eventually develop the site.

“The arrangement with SG Prisons was an arrangement of mutual convenience whereby SG Prisons provided a presence and a level of security at the site, and they were able to operate their business from the building at a subsidised cost.

“The lease with SG Prisons is one where they pay no rent but cover the insurance costs whilst ensuring that the buildings do not deteriorate.”

They said as part of that agreement, the tenants have an obligation to comply with the insurer’s reasonable requirements.

“In May 2023, the insurers surveyor requested that electrical testing needed to be carried out and to date, this request has not been complied with putting not only the buildings and users of those buildings at risk, but also resulting in a risk that the insurers would not pay out in the event of a claim,” the spokesperson went on.

They said recognised brokers were used to place insurance, provided “with no mark-up for administering the placement of the insurance or profit”.

Plans to develop the site for residential use were approved in 2016. Picture: Purcell/Somerset Council

Plans to develop the site for residential use were approved in 2016. Picture: Purcell/Somerset Council

“Discussions have taken place with the Cove Group regarding a possibility of agreeing terms for a sale however we were unaware that these discussions had come to an end as we were expecting a proposal from them,” they added.

“However, these are two separate issues and whilst we are happy to listen to proposals they wish to make we cannot allow the listed buildings to be put in jeopardy.

“City & Country has not taken action to terminate the lease for failing to implement the insurers requirements however we have made it known that this is a course we may be forced to take due to their failure to comply with their lease obligations.

“Being custodians of such important and historic buildings comes with a vast responsibility as well as with considerable costs.

“We need to make sure that we take our responsibility seriously to ensure the future of this building remains a priority and as such, we will now be considering options for its continued use.”

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