COUNTRY HOTELS BOUGHT FOR ASYLUM SEEKERS
The Sunday Times (United Kingdom)
January 19, 2003
BYLINE: Jonathan Leake
THOUSANDS of asylum seekers are to be housed in country mansions and former hotels being bought by property firms working for the Home Office. David Blunkett, the home secretary, has commissioned 20 accommodation and property companies to find large buildings that have planning permission for use as hostels. The tactic avoids the need to consult local authorities or residents who might delay the plans. The scheme has provoked fury among people around the new centres. The first, whose sale to Accomodata, the Home Office contractor, will be agreed tomorrow, is the three-star Coniston hotel in Sittingbourne, Kent. About 100 asylum seekers will be housed at the mansion. A similar deal is being done in the village of Caythorpe in Lincolnshire. Caythorpe Court, a grade II-listed hunting lodge, has been bought by the Angel Group, another contractor. The Home Office refused to reveal the cost of the scheme but confirmed that at least 10 centres were planned. The decision to target buildings that will need no planning permission marks a sharp change of tactics by the government. It faces a crisis in the asylum system with about 80,000 people claiming refuge in Britain last year. The cost of dealing with asylum seekers has risen from Pounds 751m in 2000-01 to an estimated Pounds 1.5 billion this year. Last year ministers agreed a system where arrivals would spend two weeks in “induction centres” before moving to “accommodation centres”. Those whose asylum claims were refused would be sent to one of six “removal centres”. Implementation has been slow, with attempts to open two of the first accommodation centres -in Bicester, Oxfordshire, and at RAF Newton, near Nottingham -being rejected by local planning authorities. The appeals have taken months. In Sittingbourne, by contrast, the conversion from hotel to induction centre will take a week. As a hotel the Coniston offered en suite facilities in all its 62 rooms, plus a restaurant. Derek Wyatt, Labour MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, described the move as a “disgrace”. “We are seeking a judicial review,” he added. “There has been no consultation.” Around Caythorpe Court the feelings are similar. Terry Norman, a retired engineer, has set up a protest group to block the plan. “An Englishman’s home used to be his castle, but the fear in the village is that it is now going to be his prison,” he said. Last year Beverley Hughes, a Home Office minister, said she wanted to build confidence in the asylum system and disperse asylum seekers around the country. But this weekend the latest moves were being criticised by the Refugee Council, which said it was wrong to send asylum seekers to places where they would be unwelcome.