Asylum: a question of value, or values? Proposed accommodation centres have stirred up many fears, not least about their effect on house prices.
February 08, 2003, Saturday
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH(LONDON)
Lonsdale reports BYLINE: By SARAH LONSDALE SECTION: Pg. 05 LENGTH: 1606 words Sandra Kennett’s four-bedroom semi in Victoria Road, Sittingbourne, is on the market for pounds 150,000. Although this is a fairly good price for a decent-sized family house in this Kent market town, within an hour’s commute from London, Mrs Kennett has not had any viewers, nor does she expect any. The reason is simple: Victoria Road, a pleasant residential street off the main A2 into Sittingbourne with a mix of Victorian terraces and later semis, runs down the side of the Coniston Hotel. The Coniston is a fairly nondescript, small-town hotel: migraine-inducing, geometric-patterned carpets in the dining room; cheap Constable prints on the walls; dusky rose plush velvet upholstery to the bar seats. Yet the hotel – described as “Sittingbourne’s finest” by local MP Derek Wyatt – is at the centre of a storm over Home Office plans to turn it into an induction centre for asylum-seekers. Mrs Kennett, who works at the local bingo hall, says she is not a racist – “I don’t care what colour people are, be they black, pink or blue” – but she, like many Sittingbourne residents, is worried that losing the Coniston will mean losing an important community venue for regular functions such as wedding receptions, parties and line-dancing classes. She is also worried that she will not be able to sell her house – not, at least, while the controversy simmers on. The Home Office was due to start bringing the first asylum-seekers to the Coniston on January 27, but when the news leaked out a fortnight before, the town went ballistic. Home Office ministers and Home Secretary David Blunkett have accused the National Asylum Support Service (NASS), which is responsible for the induction centres, of incompetence in the way it has handled this hugely sensitive issue. Even Migrant Helpline, the refugee charity which is set to help run the induction centre at the Coniston, has criticised NASS. There is now a period of consultation under way; meanwhile, Sittingbourne’s residents continue to protest and the local council prepares to challenge any decision to house refugees in the hotel through the courts. Rumours are rife: there have been claims that since the news of the proposed induction centre emerged in early January, prospective purchasers have pulled out of deals on houses near to the hotel. Having spoken to a number of local agents, however, The Daily Telegraph has not been able to confirm these stories. Dee Quealy, of Quealy and Company, a Sittingbourne estate agent for the past 17 years, says that he has completed several deals on properties within 10 minutes’ walk of the hotel, and no purchasers have pulled out since the beginning of the year. Other rumours centre on the company Accommodata, which has a contract with the Home Office to provide bed spaces for asylum-seekers at the Coniston. Suspicion has been fuelled by the problems that local people have encountered in trying to track down a UK address for the company and by the fact that the hotel’s owner claims not to have known the intended purpose of the hotel when he decided to sell it last year. The Daily Telegraph obtained two telephone numbers for Accommodata employees: one a mobile number and one for an office in in west London. Paul Greenwood, group operations director for Accommodata, did not return our call; and Sarah Naish, its operations manager, referred us to the Home Office press office. A spokesman there said: “We cannot divulge the company’s address, just as we would not divulge the address of a private individual.” However, he added, NASS would have established that Accommodata was “an OK company to do business with”. Accommodata already has contracts with the Home Office to provide accommodation for asylum-seekers. It usually operates by leasing a property from a third-party owner, as has happened with the Coniston. Tony Fuller, head of development at Migrant Helpline, says the charity is already involved in running an accommodation project with Accommodata in Croydon, south London, and that the company has always been “very professional”. Liberal Democrat county councillor Peter Morgan says that whatever the political views of the people of Sittingbourne, the excessive secrecy surrounding the plans has only helped to stir up passions. “My experience is that if you hold consultations before controversial decisions are taken, you defuse much of the anger. As it is, I have been astonished at the racist sentiments expressed by some residents.” The Home Office plans to open a number of induction centres throughout the country this year. Refugees will stay at the centres for a 10-day period while they learn about their rights and responsibilities while living in the United Kingdom. Last summer, the Home Office advertised for companies with an interest in providing accommodation for these centres to come forward. Several companies, including Accommodata, responded and the Home Office signed a contract with Accommodata in December last year. The anger and fear in Sittingbourne is echoed in the sleepy Lincolnshire village of Caythorpe, where another company, the Angel Group, has been looking into the possibility of housing refugees in a former hunting lodge. The Angel Group is a major property company and already has Home Office contracts to provide accommodation for refugees in the north of England. In December, it was asked by the Home Office to see if it had any properties that could be used for emergency accommodation for asylum-seekers in the short term. The company had recently bought Caythorpe Court, with long-term plans to convert it into a private residential estate, and offered it as a potential emergency accommodation site. Although the Angel Group received a faxed letter from the Home Office on January 29 advising that it had decided not to use Caythorpe Court as “short-term accommodation for asylum-seekers”, there is still uncertainty in the village. Local resident Terry Norman says that the company’s reticence about plans for Caythorpe have made local people very suspicious. “We know people in the village whose house sales have fallen through and we are extremely anxious and frightened,” he said. Although The Daily Telegraph has received a letter from the Angel Group confirming that the Home Office had decided not to use Caythorpe Court as short-term accommodation, this letter paints only half the picture. A Home Office spokeswoman told us this week that Caythorpe Court is still on offer to the Home Office as a potential large-scale accommodation centre for asylum-seekers, similar to ones to be piloted at RAF Newton in Nottinghamshire and an MoD storage centre in Bicester, Oxfordshire, once local planning inquiries are completed. A spokesperson for the Angel Group replied to our inquiries about this apparent discrepancy: “Any future use of Caythorpe Court by the Home Office is up to the Home Office to bring forward.” The Angel Group was the subject of a furious speech to the House of Commons delivered by Peter Bradley, MP for the Wrekin, just before Christmas. He said that the Angel Group treated the village of High Ercall “with utter contempt” over plans for another project involving asylum-seeker accommodation at Centrex, a former HGV training centre near the village. “The Angel Group does have form,” he said in his speech. “Unless it can get its act together and show good faith, it should be blacklisted and the Home Office should no longer be prepared to deal with it.” Peter Bradley says secrecy surrounding the Angel Group’s acquisition of the Centrex site created an angry atmosphere in High Ercall, which prompted the arrival in the village of the British National Party. He adds: “To the infinite credit of my constituents, once they realised that it was the BNP who had turned up, they showed them the door.” Racist groups have also been active in Caythorpe and Sittingbourne, much to the disgust of locals, some of whom are more worried about bovver-booted skinheads in the town than they are about asylum-seekers. Kent police have had to install extra CCTV cameras outside the Coniston hotel and only last week the building was rammed by a car. Roger Truelove, a Sittingbourne councillor, says the BNP is having a very destructive influence on the area and that the perception has now developed that Sittingbourne is a racist town. Although the BNP has recently announced that, in the local elections in May this year, it plans to put forward candidates in the Medway area of Kent, it is not putting up any candidates in Margate, Dover or Ashford – where the only induction centres in the UK are currently up and running. Although there was some racist violence in Dover and Margate a few years ago, now that the towns have come to know and accept their visitors, things have calmed down a lot, says Graham Tutthill, a Dover resident and chief reporter on the Dover Mercury. “When the first lot of refugees arrived in Dover in the mid-1990s, there was a bit of a culture shock,” he says. “But the tension has eased greatly now and the people of Dover are far more tolerant. The last time the BNP tried to organise a demo in the town, no local people turned up.” In other places where asylum-seekers have been established in the long term, there is a similar level of tolerance. Dorothy Rowe, a writer, lives next door to a hotel in north London that has been used to house refugees for the past eight years and she has had no problems with them. “The children who have stayed there are utterly delightful and the adults are gracious and quiet,” she says. “Would that all neighbours were the same.”