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What we might expect from HMP Coltishall

PUBLISHED: 07:35 22 May 2008 | UPDATED: 08:58 13 July 2010

GHOSTLY guffaws filled the air as I read Ed Foss's detailed report on the jail plans at former RAF Coltishall.

They were the echoes of national ridicule, drifting through time from reaction to past public works: the Millennium Dome white elephant, the delays and stratospheric costs of the new Wembley Stadium and Scottish Parliament building, and this year's Heathrow Terminal Five opening fiasco.

GHOSTLY guffaws filled the air as I read Ed Foss's detailed report on the jail plans at former RAF Coltishall.

They were the echoes of national ridicule, drifting through time from reaction to past public works: the Millennium Dome white elephant, the delays and stratospheric costs of the new Wembley Stadium and Scottish Parliament building, and this year's Heathrow Terminal Five opening fiasco.

Admittedly the jail scheme isn't on quite such an epic scale, but I still see potential for rip-roaring hilarity.

Why so cynical? Several reasons: the site straddles the old Mid-Norfolk/ new Broadland and North Norfolk parliamentary seats. I don't think a jail would be on the cards if either was a Labour marginal.

Then there's that great 21st century sweetener, the “green” promise. Shove up a wind turbine, slap on a couple of solar panels and we'll all stop moaning and go home happy.

Ministry of Justice planners want to improve the energy efficiency of existing buildings, use a rainwater recovery system and install “ground source heat pumps” (sound great - no idea what they are).

The good news is that these schemes are: “in a bid to hit national renewable energy targets…” the bad news: “… although the development will fall short of those targets.”

The other flaw in this “it's OK, it's green” pitch is that they also want to chop down 154 protected trees on the site. You might think that was not a very green thing to do - and I might agree with you.

Those jolly green ministry minions are also planning some energy-saving transport measures, including a car-sharing scheme and interest-free loans to buy bicycles.

I like to imagine half a dozen felons, with a social conscience, thoughtfully squeezing themselves into a modest family saloon to make their escape, chased by a couple of prison officers on a tandem.

But of course Coltishall won't be housing the sort of villains who want to break out.

The definition of the Category C jail planned there is: “one which is suitable for prisoners who cannot be trusted in open conditions but who do not have the resources and will to make a determined escape.”

What “resources” do they lack, I wonder? Does the ministry provide Category A and B prisoners with their cell keys embedded in a fruit cake?

Why I'm really sneering is because I think the scheme is crashingly unimaginative. As an idea for revitalising an historic, heroic site in the middle of north Norfolk it's about as uplifting as a Soviet five-year plan - or our DVD user manual come to that.

Glass half-full people will point out that at least something's going to happen there, unlike the inertia which blighted RAF West Raynham for so long. And yes, we need more jail places, it won't involve the whole site, it will create lots of jobs etc, etc - but what a leaden solution to a golden opportunity.

The prisoners, we are told, will be housed in six of the seven 'H' blocks on site, with the seventh converted into an “education and learning” building.

If anything noble can be salvaged from this uninspired plan, it could happen in that 'H' block Seven.

I'd like to see all the most passionate and inventive ideas pored into it, with the cash to back them up.

Let HMP Coltishall break the mould of British prisons and turn out men armed with self-esteem, skills to offer the world, free of their addictions and educated in how to care for their children.

That way we might just manage to honour the memory of RAF Coltishall's wartime men and women who fought to defend all that was best about our free world.

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