Page last updated at 07:37 GMT, Wednesday, 27 May 2009 08:37 UK

Residents angry at being 'dumped on'

Debabani Majumdar
BBC News, Dagenham

The site for proposed prison
The 45-acre site used to be part of a Ford factory

The quiet residential streets of Dagenham in east London are at the centre of a campaign opposing plans for a huge prison.

The government wants to build one of London's biggest prisons for 1,500 inmates in Beam Park West, a disused Ford factory site.

On 27 April Justice Secretary Jack Straw announced the 45-acre site as the location of its choice for the privately-run prison, one of many around the country to resolve prison overcrowding and an alternative to Titan prisons.

The London Development Agency (LDA), which owns the land, said it has been in talks with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) for a location for the past two years since another proposed site nearby, Beam Reach Park, in Havering borough, was discounted following protests and plans for a business park there.

The MoJ said the proposed prison will be a modern facility and not a "Victorian replica" and LDA said it will ensure extension of Docklands Light Railway (DLR) to Dagenham and generate 800 jobs.

But residents are angry at not being consulted before the announcement in the Commons.

Dagenham MP Jon Cruddas said he came to know of the plan only 30 minutes before Mr Straw's speech. He now plans to unveil an internet campaign against the plans this week.

The site for proposed prison

Dagenham councillor Philip Walker criticising the plans

In the past few weeks Mr Cruddas along with residents has been distributing hundreds of leaflets in the area.

He said: "The people are very angry about it because of the lack of courtesy and respect for them in just dropping it on them from a great height.

"The proposed site was not even on the list of 76 designated sites for a possible prison recently unveiled under a Freedom of Information request."

Barking and Dagenham Council had hoped to build a major sports facility and housing developments but those plans seem to have "fallen off the edge", he added.

"We were told that this Thames Gateway was going to be a fantastic process that was going to uplift the area, with really high quality housing and proper infrastructure, the Olympics was going to work alongside this to really regenerate the area and instead there's a sense that we have just become a dumping ground."

Phil Waker, a local councillor and the chairman of the governors of Beam Primary School which sits across the road from the proposed prison site, echoed the feeling.

"We don't want to be nimbys and say 'not in my backyard' but if its got to be near our backyard at least we got to have a say in where its got to go. It could be further away from our community."

Christine Stevens, a teaching assistant there, said: "I think it's a lousy idea. We thought we would get something like a Barking and Redbridge football club or a West Ham training ground, houses or even a small industrial estate but not a great big prison."

'Controversial' start

Michael Pennock, chair of Leyz and Rookery Farm Tenants and Residents' Association, said: "No prison is escape-proof.

"Also I understand 800 jobs would be generated, but would they go to Dagenham people?

"We should have a DLR system through here and it should come regardless of a prison."

In his Commons speech Mr Straw said proposals for a new prison can be "controversial" but once established "almost without exception the local community becomes very supportive".

Research shows prisons "have no adverse effect on house prices or crime rates", he said.

An LDA spokesman said: "A new prison on Beam Park West would see the site cleaned up and developed. It would create hundreds of permanent jobs and could bring additional benefits to the local community".

Peter Andrews, chief executive of London Thames Gateway Development Corporation, added his approval saying: "The scheme will also further strengthen the case for getting the DLR extension to Dagenham Dock and a new station at Beam Reach."

Schoolchildren at Beam Primary School
Beam Primary School sits across the road from the site

Greenwich Council which granted planning permission to new a young offenders' facility, Isis, and approved plans to create a prison in Belmarsh West, as an extension of Belmarsh Prison, counts the benefits of having a prison.

Councillor Peter Brooks, the council's deputy leader, said Belmarsh Prison is a "significant contributor to local employment" and the new projects would bring more jobs for residents and new public transport opportunities like Crossrail.

Despite assurances Rob Whiteman, chief executive of Barking and Dagenham Council, said: "We are very concerned that this has been announced without consultation with local residents and the council.

"Since the announcement we have been told verbally that the prison will create new jobs that will be reserved for local people and the mayor and government are committed to the DLR extension to Dagenham Dock.

"However we have not seen any firm detail on this," he said.

Havering Council said it was "relieved" the prison will not be in its area but added it had "concerns" about the Dagenham proposal.

The MoJ said it hopes to secure the proposed site in 2010 and plans to consult the public too.

Local residents also want a public consultation and they say they want it sooner rather than later.

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