Braintree responds to prisons plan amid council office protest

Stop Wethersfield Airfield Prisons group photo outside a Braintree District Council building

Stop Wethersfield Airfield Prisons protestors lobby councillors attending a Braintree District Council meeting - Credit: Will Durrant

Braintree council won't take a view on plans to build a mega-prison complex in the district.

Protestors fighting against a plan to build one of the largest prison complexes in Europe lobbied politicians at Causeway House in Braintree yesterday (December 13).

The protestors - from Stop Wethersfield Airfield Prisons (SWAP) - asked Braintree district councillors to oppose a Ministry of Justice proposal to construct two prisons for 3,430 inmates in Essex.

But council leader Graham Butland said his administration will not comment on the proposal until the planning process is complete.

The MoJ is yet to submit a planning application to Braintree District Council.

The protestors believe that the former World War Two airbase should become a community space.

The SWAP protest was coordinated by Wethersfield resident Michelle Garrett.

Michelle said: "The MoJ's proposal is illogical.

Most Read

"The area is served by poor infrastructure, so bringing in the construction traffic will impact us.

"But even when the prison is built and they need staff, laundry, visiting families - let alone the existing traffic - the roads will be blocked."

Michelle said she is open-minded about how the former base should be used.

She added: "Rewilding is one of the best options, but so is a country park or solar farm.

"There are options which would mean these politicians have a sustainable legacy."

Three Stop Wethersfield Airfield Prisons protestors David Seacombe, Michelle Garrett and Tom Price

David Seacombe and Michelle Garrett, who live in Wethersfield, and Tom Price from Shalford - Credit: Will Durrant

Fellow protestor David Seacombe has lived in Wethersfield for 11 years.

He said: "I don't disagree with prisons in this country or more prison space, although I am not the best judge of that.

"But there are lots of reasons why this proposal is not suitable, taking away the fact that I'm a resident.

"There is no precedent which suggests that closed prisons should be in rural settings - they are normally on a main road near a crown court.

"If offenders are going to be rehabilitated back into mainstream life, then they need to be near their families.

"That won't be the case at Wethersfield."

SWAP protestor Tom Price said the scheme was "idiotic".

Stop Wethersfield Airfield Prisons protestors show off their banner at a Braintree District Council office

Stop Wethersfield Airfield Prisons protestors show off their banner at a Braintree District Council office - Credit: Will Durrant

At a Braintree District Council meeting, councillors took questions from SWAP members.

They raised concerns that the proposals could harm the environment, heritage, and residents' mental health.

Councillor Butland said any suggestions as to how the airfield should be used in the future is up to the landowner - the Ministry of Defence.

Cllr Butland warned that if the council takes a view on the proposal, the government could step in.

He said: "Given Braintree District Council's potential role in any future application coming forward, will not have a view on whether it ‘supports’ the proposed prison or not until that planning process is concluded."

Councillor Graham Butland (Conservative Party), Braintree District Council leader

Councillor Graham Butland, Braintree District Council leader - Credit: Conservative Party

Cllr Butland admitted the council had recommended the airfield as a potential prison site when it was approached by the MoJ in 2016.

In the same year, Cllr Butland told the Dunmow Broadcast: "RAF Wethersfield is an eyesore and something needs to be done.

"Prisons bring jobs."

He added: "It’s not a greenfield site, it’s a brownfield site because it has a ruddy great runway on it."

Outside the building on Monday night, Cllr Nick Unsworth, the Green Party group deputy leader, said he personally supports SWAP.

He said: "There are other ways to create jobs than a prison.

"The land could be a Wethersfield Forest.

"We could bring bison back - that would be brilliant!

"The landowner needs to think outside the box on this."

Councillor Nick Unsworth, the deputy leader of the Braintree Green Party group

Councillor Nick Unsworth, the deputy leader of the Green Party group, the largest opposition party on Braintree District Council - Credit: Cllr Nick Unsworth

The MoD said surplus land is offered to other public bodies before it is sold.

A Prison Service spokesperson said: "We are committed to working with the local community on these plans which would bring considerable benefits – creating hundreds of jobs while boosting demand for local businesses.

"A consultation taking in views from local residents has just closed and we will set out any plans in due course."

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter