Fresh calls for a new justice centre in Gloucestershire to replace the county’s “broken” court buildings are being made, writes Leigh Boobyer
Gloucestershire’s Police and Crime Commissioner Martin Surl says Gloucester Crown Court and Cheltenham Magistrates Court are “no longer fit for purpose”, and is proposing a new justice centre is built next to the police’s HQ in Quedgeley instead.
The county has lost five courthouses since 2010, and in March the crown court’s 200-year-old cells had to be closed as they were “too much of a Covid-19 hazard”.
Last week the county’s police and crime panel – a committee which challenges Mr Surl and Gloucestershire Constabulary on policing – agreed to lobby Cheltenham’s MP Alex Chalk for his support as he is also a junior minister for the Justice Department.
Mr Surl said there had been “little interest from the county’s six MPs”.
Similarly, Cheltenham Borough Council’s overview and scrutiny committee agreed to write to Mr Chalk on the same issue asking for his backing.
In a statement Mr Chalk said he is “always happy” to discuss proposals for a future court building, adding that the Government is this year “making its biggest investment court and tribunal estates in more than a decade”.
“Alex is of course always happy to discuss any proposals for the future court estate.”
Mr Surl said in last week’s meeting he had raised the county’s “failing” courts with both the Justice Minister Robert Buckland and Secretary of State Chris Philip.
He told the panel: “If we do nothing, mark my words we won’t have a court system in Gloucestershire. It will all be in Bristol.
“I don’t mind where the court goes; anywhere that is accessible is acceptable to me. I’m just trying to be helpful. Waterwells has great transport links and IT connectivity and as the government likes to say is ‘shovel ready’. But, if someone can come up with another location, I will get behind it, but that would likely cost more money.
“If this county does not get behind this, or take it off me we will get nothing. There is a billion pounds of funding out there, to modernise the court system. We can talk about it, we can argue about it or we can say our courts are rubbish, our waiting lists are rubbish and we can actually fight as one to get a new court.
“But I am sick to death of arguing. A bit disappointed the MPs don’t reply to my letters – let’s forgive them, they’re very busy people, I’m sure it’s an error – but we need to do this.
“I will do my bit to offer the land at a reasonable price, not for profit, to keep it in the public domain so we don’t have to buy it off the private sector. But I can’t keep it much longer if we carry on like this”.
In 2010 Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) began a national reform programme which saw courts closed across the country.
Among the courts lost a decade ago were Cirencester Magistrates, Cheltenham County and Coleford Magistrates courts leaving just the magistrates court in Cheltenham, the crown court and a combined civil and family court in Gloucester.
A spokeswoman for Mr Chalk said: “As we respond to Covid-19, the Government has doubled the maintenance budget meaning that, combined with the £48million already set aside this year, it will be the biggest single investment in the courts and tribunals estate in over a decade.
“That will mean improvements to Gloucester Crown Court and Cheltenham Magistrates’ Court – building on the developments we have made throughout the pandemic to deliver a more effective, accessible and networked court service.
“Alex is of course always happy to discuss any proposals for the future court estate.
“Meanwhile the immediate priority must be to recruit and deploy Gloucestershire’s share of the 20,000 new police officers to fight crime in our county.
“With rates of domestic abuse spiking during Covid-19, it is also essential that the £15m package of additional Government funding provided via PCCs to support victims of this dreadful crime gets rolled out quickly to the front line.”