news analysis of lack of consultation over new asylum centres

Since the concept of asylum accommodation centres was announced
in October 2001, the home office has appeared to be working
unilaterally, particularly when identifying potential sites. There
is a feeling that little regard has been given to local councils or
communities on the suitability of their neighbourhoods as sites for
the proposed centres, writes Clare

The Navy base HMS Daedalus in Gosport, Hampshire, is the latest
place to have been chosen as a potential accommodation centre
-Êfor 400 asylum seekers.

Two thousand people attended a rally in Gosport at the weekend
protesting against the plans and the lack of consultation The local
community is now in a position all too familiar to other places
previously selected as potential sites.

Home office minister Lord Rooker announced three sites in May last
year: RAF Newton in Nottinghamshire; Throckmorton Airfield in
Worcestershire; and a defence storage and distribution centre at
Bicester, Oxfordshire. Sites at Sully Hospital in Glamorgan,
Airwest in Edinburgh and RAF Hemswell in Lincolnshire were also

But Roger Vine, assistant chief executive of West Lindsey Council,
which covers Hemswell, says the first the council and local
community heard about the plans was through the media. “The home
office was difficult to get information from,” Vine says. “We said
we would want a public meeting to involve everyone, but they said

According to Vine, the home office was prepared to use emergency
powers and override usual planning procedures.

“They did not seem to appreciate the normal planning process and
what we would want to do, which was to involve everybody in order
to make the best decision,” Vine says. “To use emergency powers in
this context was inappropriate.”

But last week, the Home Office announced that the Hemswell, Sully
Hospital and Airwest sites would not be pursued. Throckmorton has
also been dismissed.

Vine believes the plans for Hemswell were dropped as a result of
the community campaign against the proposed centre. They argued
that the infrastructure, roads, transport and services were
inappropriate to support a centre of that size.

“We felt from the outset that we could not be ridden roughshod
over,” Vine says. He adds that the home office’s handling of the
latest plans in Gosport would reveal whether it had learned any

But early indications appear to show that the home office has
learned little. Chris Carter, Conservative councillor for
Lee-on-Solent West, says Gosport council first heard about the
plans for a centre at HMS Daedalus just six days before they were
announced on 11 February.

Carter said home office officials had met council officers the
previous week and had insisted that the plans remain confidential
for two weeks. This prevented the council communicating anything
until 19 February – a week after the government’s public

At the meeting, home office officials said the centre would house
families and young men. But six days later they revealed the centre
would cater for just single males. “This demonstrates their
indecisiveness,” Carter says.

HMS Daedalus is on the border of Gosport and Fareham. While
information provided to Gosport was scant, inaccurate and late,
Fareham council faired even worse and was told nothing.

Although the government says HMS Daedalus was selected because it
was an urban area, Carter argues that Lee-on-Solent is rural, with
a mainly retired population and few services. “We are not against
asylum seekers, and we are not racist. Race does not come into it.
There are just no services here,” Carter says.

He believes the home office knew it would not be a popular decision
and was seeking to avoid protests. “I don’t think the home office
wanted our views. It wanted to ride roughshod over us,” he says,
echoing Vine. The council has now set up an action group to fight
the proposals. Peter Gilroy, chairperson of the Association of
Directors of Social Services’ asylum task force, says people in
Sittingbourne, Kent, were also unhappy about the lack of
consultation over plans to convert Coniston Hotel into an asylum
induction centre.

The council was notified about the plans on 8 January but the
tendering exercise took place last July.

“There is a general problem nationally with the National Asylum
Support Service and the way it consults,” Gilroy says.

“People get suspicious and, once the trust is lost on issues like
this, it does make it more difficult locally and nationally, he
warned. “The more clumsy the consultation process, the more
problematic things become.”

In relation to Coniston Hotel, a home office spokesperson admits
“there were some issues”. The government is to review the plans to
convert hotels into asylum induction centres after councils
complained about the lack of consultation.

In the latest announcement about HMS Daedalus, immigration minister
Beverley Hughes promised the government would be “working closely
with the local community as we develop our proposals and go through
the planning process”.

But Carter believes this consultation period will focus on the
site’s physical viability rather than the concerns and wishes of
the local community.

A home office spokesperson says that the government does not make
sites public until they are a serious option, adding that it was
“not helpful” for potential sites to be in the public domain before

Despite the pattern of local protests and creation of action groups
in areas where sites have been proposed, a Mori poll for the
Refugee Council last year found that only 10 per cent of the people
polled would be unwelcoming towards asylum seekers entering their

“There is general goodwill when the public understand precisely
that people fleeing persecution need support,” a spokesperson for
the charity says.

This suggests that protests are not directed towards asylum seekers
themselves, but at the lack of official regard to communities’
feelings and wishes, and a fear that local services cannot cope
with large influxes.

Whether it is possible for asylum seekers to integrate into
communities against this hostile backdrop remains to be seen. Based
on their experiences of such centres in Europe, the Refugee Council
believes that asylum seekers housed in 750-bed accommodation
centres will struggle.

But the importance of integration for the successful resettlement
of asylum seekers in Britain was highlighted this month when
Refugee Council head of policy Alison Fenney urged the government
to adopt a long-term integration process from the time an asylum
seeker arrives in the UK.

Hughes’s pledge to work with the community over HMS Daedalus
must be widened by the Home Office to carry out work with other
communities if this cycle of misinformation and hostility is to be
broken. Lack of consultation is aggravating fears to the detriment
of asylum seekers. Future consultations must be thorough and not

“It is important that everyone is consulted in a proper manner,”
the home office spokesperson says.

As Gilroy adds: “It is much better to have an open and transparent
policy of consultation with local communities as, in the end, it
will help the policy rather than destroy it.”

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