Holyrood stalling over timescale of £80.5m new Inverness prison project
FEARS are growing that plans for Inverness's new multimillion-pound jail have been delayed indefinitely.
A state-of-the-art £80.5 million prison, which is expected to be built close to Inverness Shopping Park, will replace the city's overcrowded Victorian-built jail in the Crown and had been expected to open in the early 2020s.
But regional Conservative MSP Edward Mountain is now calling for an accurate timeline after being told in January that it had slipped down the priority list.
He is pressing Scotland's justice minister Humza Yousaf for answers after a written request asking when it will be built was not answered with specifics.
Mr Mountain said: "It is very telling to see how reluctant the justice secretary is to confirm when the new Inverness prison will be built.
"This begs the question, is the construction of the new prison delayed indefinitely?
"If that is the case, this would be totally unacceptable given the well-documented overcrowding issues affecting the current HMP Inverness.
"The Scottish Government must put the new Inverness prison further up the priority list as a matter of urgency.
"I'm very disappointed by the situation. I asked a sensible question of this government and they have refused to answer it apart from saying maybe some time in the future.
"They have spent a huge amount of money on the site which is now going to sit there gathering dirt and nothing is going to happen."
Mr Yousaf told him the timescale for the new prison is dependent on sufficient capital funding "relative to other competing priorities".
He added other priorities include planning a replacement for Barlinnie – Scotland's largest prison – and that the Scottish Prison Service's budget is continuously kept under review to reflect changing demands.
Mr Mountain believes there is too little investment in the Highlands.
"This government has spent a fortune developing new projects in the central belt. We have seen railways constructed for millions of pounds to decrease the travel time from Glasgow to Edinburgh by five minutes," he said.
"I want to see more work done up here on resources, like a new prison, that people need. It needs to be functional and have capacity for women, so that people across the Highlands don’t have to travel miles to visit people who are in the prison – which is a real fear."
Inverness councillor Carolyn Caddick said: "The proposed new prison will be of great benefit to Inverness, so I really hope this project is not being delayed.
"Not only will it provide increased job opportunities, it will also mean prisoners can be moved from the current Victorian prison, which is not really fit for purpose."
Fellow councillor Ian Brown said: "It is all public money and some priorities can jump to the front but this is disappointing. Hopefully the delay will be temporary because it is clear that a new prison is needed."
Prison reformers also underlined the need for a new facility in the Highlands that can do more to rehabilitate inmates and help reduce re-offending.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: "A site has been bought on the east side of Inverness and outline planning permission has been obtained for the construction of HMP Highland. Development of a suitable design is progressing.
"The Scottish Government and Scottish Prison Service are committed to modernising and improving our prison estate. The current priorities are development of the new female estate, a replacement for HMP Barlinnie and then HMP Highland.
"We are taking forward a range of actions to stop people going to prison in the first place, including promoting effective alternatives to custody such as by extending the presumption against short prison sentences and we hope that parliament will support that plan later this year."