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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Diane Taylor

Council loses attempt to block asylum centre on Essex airfield

Accommodation blocks on the former airbase in Wethersfield, Essex
Accommodation blocks on the former airbase close to Wethersfield, a village with a population of 700. Photograph: Martin Pope/Getty Images

A high court judge has rejected a council’s attempt to block government plans for an asylum centre at a Ministry of Defence airfield in north Essex.

Braintree district council sought an injunction to try to prevent the Home Office from placing up to 1,700 people at MoD Wethersfield, close to the village of the same name, which has a population of 700 people.

It was one of the sites identified when the immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, unveiled plans last month to house asylum seekers in disused military bases to reduce reliance on hotels.

Giving a ruling in London on Friday, Mr Justice Waksman concluded that the court did not have the legal power to grant the council’s application for an injunction, and therefore ruled in favour of the government.

The council brought the action as the Home Office had not applied for planning permission to house asylum seekers in mobile units on the tarmac at the airfield. Instead, the Home Office had relied on permitted development rights known as class Q, which allows such permission to be bypassed in cases of emergency. The council argued that planning permission should be sought and local people consulted.

Lawyers for the Home Office and for the council disagreed on whether or not the need to accommodate a large number of asylum seekers constituted an emergency under class Q rules.

Representing the home secretary, Paul Brown KC outlined to the court what he considered to be on emergency situation due to the numbers of asylum seekers now in the UK and those projected to arrive this year.

“The flow of small boats has not stopped,” said Brown. “There are estimates of another 56,000 arriving in small boats this year. If that happens the number of asylum seekers could go up from 109,0000 to 120-140,000. In summary there is a general emergency.”

He added that homelessness for these people was a real risk if the home secretary was unable to use places such as Wethersfield to accommodate them.

“It is for 12 months only. It’s a time-limited solution. It’s clear there is no breach of planning control,” he said.

However, Wayne Beglan, acting for Braintree council, disagreed. He told the court: “All of the procedural safeguards that have been identified are bypassed. It would be a flagrant breach of planning control. This does not fall within class Q.”

Mr Justice Waksman said: “There’s a real prospect of homelessness of asylum seekers. It’s plainly intended to avoid and mitigate homelessness on the part of the asylum seekers. I do not accept it’s simply about cost (of hotels) it’s also question of the general sustainability of hotel options going forward.”

He granted permission to Braintree district council to appeal to the court of appeal.

A Home Office spokesperson said it welcomed the judgment. “Delivering accommodation on surplus military sites will provide cheaper and more suitable accommodation for those arriving in small boats whilst helping to reduce the use of costly hotels.”

In March, the Home Office was accommodating 109,000 asylum seekers, 48,000 of them in hotels, costing £6.2m a day.

Alan MacKenzie, the chair of The Fields Association, a local organisation campaigning against the Home Office plans, said the ruling was “disappointing” but welcomed the judge’s decision to grant a right to appeal.

Unusually the written arguments submitted to the court on behalf of the home secretary cited the European convention on human rights, which has often been criticised by the government.

Referring to the asylum seekers, the document states: “These include people who have already undergone perilous journeys to escape dangerous conditions in their own countries. The failure to address their needs raises considerations under articles 3 and 8 of the European convention on human rights.”

RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire has also been earmarked by the Home Office to accommodate up to 2,000 people and the local council there has also launched legal action against the government. A site in Bexhill, East Sussex, has also been earmarked.

The levelling up and regeneration bill now going through parliament, if passed into law, would grant the government powers to bypass normal planning permission for asylum accommodation and other urgent developments of “national importance”.

A report by the engineering consultancy Buro Happold commissioned by Wethersfield Airbase Scrutiny Committee, a collaborative initiative between 13 parish councils, has identified various potential sources of contamination on the site including solvents and radioactive materials.

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