Guardian (UK), Apr. 6
Opponents of government plans to build an accommodation centre for hundreds of asylum seekers in the countryside today lost their high court battle.
Cherwell district council, backed by local residents, was refused a judicial review against a decision by the deputy prime minister, John Prescott, to give permission for the centre near Bicester in Oxfordshire.
The Conservative-run council had argued at a recent two-day hearing that the proposals were legally flawed.
But today Mr Justice Collins, sitting in London, said: “In all the circumstances I am satisfied that no grounds have been established which would justify me in deciding that the defendant’s decision was wrong in law.”
The site, between the villages of Arncott and Piddington, has been earmarked to house up to 400 single men, 50 single women and 300 family members while their asylum applications are being processed.
Mr Prescott gave the go-ahead for the first of the new breed of large-scale centres after overriding local opposition and an independent planning inspector’s advice.
Residents expressed fears that unacceptable pressure would be put on local services, including health and education.
There was also concern that tension could be created as young, single asylum seekers, who could come and go from the centre as they pleased, moved around in large numbers.
In his ruling, the judge said: “I appreciate this will be of considerable disappointment to the many who oppose the establishment of this centre.
“But I can only act if an error of law is established and, for the reasons I have given, there is, in my judgment, no error which could produce relief.
“The defendant [Mr Prescott] was entitled to exercise his own judgment on the weight to be attached to the material matters and thus to differ from the inspector. The claim must therefore be dismissed.”
The council was ordered to pay the costs of the case and was refused permission to appeal. The judge said: “There is intense public feeling about this case but that in itself is no good reason to grant leave to appeal.”
During the hearing, David Elvin QC, appearing for the district council, described the centre as “a new concept in the UK”, arising out of the Home Office’s bid to tackle the accommodation problems created by foreign nationals claiming asylum in the UK.
He said the Home Office was launching a series of trials involving 3,000 asylum seekers, 750 of whom would be housed at the centre.
All new centres were to be located away from London and Kent, which were already under pressure as asylum seeker entry points to the UK.
The Bicester centre would be self-contained, “something like a small village community with its own facilities, including library and schools” along with an administrative centre, with facilities for hearing asylum claims.
Asylum seekers would not be detained, but free to come and go, with a small cash allowance, and able to receive visitors, provided they were signed in.
Home Office immigration minister Des Browne said: “At present, inner city dispersal areas take on virtually all responsibility for asylum seekers and it is only fair that all parts of the country share responsibility.
“The centres will be largely self-sufficient, with health and education facilities on site, and should not be seen as being detrimental to the local community.
“I hope that the local community will work with us as we develop our plans in Bicester and drive forward with our reforms to create an asylum system that all people can have trust and confidence in.”
He added: “The trial of accommodation centres is an essential part of our reforms to overhaul the asylum system and there is an urgent need to get them up and running as quickly as possible.
“The planning process has added considerable time to the programme but, nevertheless, we have always been committed to abiding by it.
“The centres will help us set up an end-to-end system, allowing us to quickly process asylum claims while keeping in better contact with asylum seekers and removing those whose claims fail.”
The Conservative MP for Banbury, Tony Baldry, who campaigned against the centre, condemned today’s ruling as a “totally disastrous result”.
He said: “No organisation involved in the day-to-day welfare of asylum seekers thought this was the right policy and the court’s decision raises serious questions over the democracy of planning policy.
“If ministers can put up two fingers to a planning inspector after a planning inquiry, what’s the point of having them?”
He accused the government of planning to build the centre as part of a “got to be seen to be doing something” policy, prompted by media coverage of the Sangatte detention centre in France.
Mr Baldry said: “It was dreamed up on the back of TV footage of Sangatte but the idea of fitting asylum seekers into the Oxfordshire countryside is a crazy policy.
“I suspect if it ever happens, it will be a disaster because they will simply drift away into the countryside.”
He went on to state that the development in Bicester would set a precedent for centres to be built all over the country.
“The government is determined to roll these out across the country,” he said.
“What’s happening in Bicester today could be happening in towns and villages across the country tomorrow.”
Chief executive of the independent Immigration Advisory Service, Keith Best, on the other hand, said he believed the centre would never be built.
“It is still likely to be a white elephant,” he said.
“With the government now talking about overseas processing centres the arguments against large accommodation centres are the same as before.
“I still take the view that not a single centre will ever be built because the Treasury will not allow the Home Office to have the money to build such a speculative project when the Home Office has already shown it is incapable of controlling its spending on asylum.”