Female prisoners have to go to England – but plan to house some in Bridgend faces MPs opposition
Hannah Neary, local democracy reporter
Nearby residents have spoken out against plans to house Welsh female offenders at a former office block in Bridgend.
The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) wants to open a residential shelter in Wales to reform women convicted of low-level crime – five locations have been shortlisted, including Porthcawl, Newport and Bridgend.
There are currently no female prisons in Wales and so Welsh prisoners are moved to England.
But Conservative MP for Bridgend Jamie Wallis said he has met with Prisons and Probations Minister Alex Chalk to tell him Bridgend and Porthcawl are “not appropriate” sites for the centre and inform him about local residents’ opposition to the plans.
Mr Wallis said the borough already has “quite a lot” of facilities for vulnerable people, such as Parc Prison and there was “a lot of anger” felt by people living near the proposed sites concerning a lack of communication from the MOJ.
He also said it is unclear whether the residential centre for female prisoners would “complement” the wellness village or “contradict” the project.
Rachel Nugent-Finn, Conservative Senedd candidate for Bridgend and Porthcawl, also said she is opposed to the centre opening in either site and completely agrees with Mr Wallis.
She said the proposal for a centre at Sunnyside House is “just a ridiculous proposition for a site at such a sensitive service”.
“I care very much about the residents and what they want. I care very much about service users as well so in this particular case, the two proposed site are simply not acceptable.”
Sunnyside House is a two-storey office building, built in the 1970s. Bridgend County Borough Council is currently in the process of building a £23 million wellness village next door, on the site of the old Sunnyside council offices and magistrates court. The development will feature 59 homes and a new £10.7m healthcare centre.
The new centre will be the first of its kind, aimed at preventing 12 local women from re-offending. It is is designed to help women improve their lives while staying close to their children and families.
Support for domestic abuse and mental health issues will also be offered, as well as help for women who have left the centre and are settling into new homes.
According to the MOJ the women will have to attend the new centre as part of their sentences and must engage in rehabilitative support. The building will also be staffed by the National Probation Service at all times with a no drugs or alcohol policy and a zero-tolerance approach to violence.
But Kathryn Thomas, who lives near the proposed site in Bridgend, said housing female offenders there would not help their development.
Ms Thomas, who has lived in the area for 20 years, said it is “a quiet area” with mostly elderly people living nearby but the nearby Bowls Hall car park has been a “hotspot” for antisocial behaviour for a long time.
She also said there is “a lot of bother” at Newbridge Fields in the summer, where there are also incidents of antisocial behaviour and drug-taking. She fears these issues could prevent the female offenders being reformed as they could become involved in local crime.
“It would be fantastic if they could go somewhere where they could partake in society in a more positive way but I think they’d step out and within moments they would come across a new group that wouldn’t do them any good,” she said.
‘Meet with us’
Bridgend council has opposed the plans for a centre in Bridgend and Porthcawl, claiming it understands the need for such services but the county borough is already home to a prison and Wales’ only youth offending institution and so the facility would be a further strain on council resources.
Labour councillor David White said he supports the plan for the women’s centre “in principle” and it is “a much-needed resource” but to put it in Bridgend county borough would “put pressure on already struggling budgets”.
Cllr White said it is currently unknown how secure the facility would be and it “could have a massive impact on the local residents”. He also said there are already parking issues in the Sunnyside area, which could be made worse by the new centre.
Sarah Murphy, Labour MS candidate for Bridgend and Porthcawl, supported the stance by Bridgend council.
“Rather than making the decision in London, the Ministry of Justice must come and meet with us and see the locations and surrounding areas up close,” she said.
“I believe then they will agree that neither site is appropriate. If an all-Wales pilot scheme for women offenders is to be a success, it needs to be done properly and in the right place, not just for surrounding communities and businesses, but for the women themselves.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “The centre will help tackle the causes of low-level offenders’ behaviour, reduce re-offending and ultimately keep the public safe. We are engaging with local authorities and communities before we make a decision on the site location and no formal planning applications have been submitted.”
The MOJ, Welsh Government, and other Welsh partners hope to open a centre in Wales by the end of 2021. A formal planning application will not be submitted until after the Senedd and Police and Crime Commissioner elections in May.
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