Thanet council leader Ash Ashbee says she is “absolutely dismayed” that the authority was not notified or consulted about the use of former student accommodation in Broadstairs to house people seeking asylum – and has revealed a council offer to lease the site for emergency accommodation was in progress.
The Conservative leader says she and the council only found out about the situation after being contacted by a resident who had spotted lights on at the 86 room site.
The premises, on the former Canterbury Christ Church University Thanet campus, has been procured by Clearsprings Ready Homes which has a 10-year contract to manage asylum seeker accommodation in England and Wales and, along with Serco, has the contract for the government’s adult asylum dispersal scheme. The intention of the scheme is that by distribution across the country no one area will be overburdened with giving accommodation support.
Cllr Ashbee said she has not made public comment on the Manston processing issue, although last year she had warned government of the potential of crisis at the site, as it was being dealt with at central government level.
But she has expressed anger at the use of the campus accommodation without any prior notification to the council.
She said: “As leader of Thanet council I had no knowledge of what was taking place and had to find out through third hand information, not the Home Office nor the contractors had the decency to notify the district in any shape or form.”
Council plans to procure building
The council leader says the Clearsprings takeover comes as a double blow because the council has been working to procure the building for emergency accommodation.
She said: “Since August I have been trying to procure the building for Thanet council. I have been putting together a financial plan so we could provide accommodation for emergency housing for our homeless in Thanet. This is why it is a double kick in the teeth.”
Kent County Council had also expressed interest to use the site for unaccompanied asylum seeking children and there had been interest from an NHS and Age UK partnership, she revealed.
Cllr Ashbee said the council was close to being able to put in a “complete offer” for the site, adding: “The accommodation is set out into single rooms and would not have been suitable for families unless we did some work. We didn’t want to take it on as single rooms and had a design to try and provide between 16-20 units suitable for families.”
She says the council received details of the asylum dispersal scheme around 4 weeks ago with Clearsprings – and Serco- being given the contract to find accommodation in England and Wales.
She added: “This is exactly what has happened here.”
The council leader says there is little chance for local authorities to compete with contractors backed with central government money who can offer “big deposits and secure rentals.”
She said: “It is a total disregard by the Home Office and disrespect for the district council. How can I explain to the people of Thanet that I did not know anything about this, it has been done with no risk assessment and no consultation.”
Cllr Ashbee said instances of taking over accommodation without consultation had been “the whole crux” of the reason for a letter to the Home Secretary signed by 14 council leaders across Kent and Medway.
She raised concerns about housing more than 80 males in one building saying it is not something the council would consider as suitable.
She said: “They need housing in exactly the same way as the people in Thanet who are homeless need accommodation but we need to talk about it, it is very divisive to operate like this.”
She added: “I can only apologise to the people of Thanet on behalf of the Home Office for allowing this situation to arise. If we had known about it we would have been able to tell the ward councillors and been able to communicate it (to residents).”
Cllr Ashbee says Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick is due to meet with Kent council leaders in the coming days and she will be raising the issue in “no uncertain terms.”
Around 30 people have moved in to the 86 room site today (November 5) with capacity for around 50 more people.
South Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay says he contacted the Minister last night (November 4) to clarify the situation. Mr Mackinlay says because this site has gone through a third party contractor the Home Office might not have been aware of the location.
The site is now privately owned by a London college after Christ Church University put the campus up for sale.
Accommodation is being procured by the Home Office to alleviate issues of overcrowding at processing centres including Manston. North Thanet MP Sir Roger Gale said earlier this week he is confident Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick will “get a handle” on the situation.
People go to Manston centre for “processing” after arriving in the UK via small boat Channel crossings. This is supposed to take 24-48 hours but many, including women and children, have been at the site for weeks. Facilities at the centre are not designed for long term stays.
On Monday 1st November, an urgent, pre-action letter was sent to the office of the Home Secretary on behalf of the charity Detention Action and a woman held at the Manston facility.
The letter represents the first legal action taken against the Home Secretary for “the unlawful treatment of people held at the facility.”
The charity Detention Action provides support and practical advice to people held in immigration detention.
James Wilson, Deputy Director of Detention Action, said: “We have taken this action out of serious concern for the welfare of thousands of people, including children, still being detained at Manston for periods far beyond legal limits. We are calling on the Home Secretary to declare that anyone held at Manston for more than 24 hours is being detained unlawfully. We are also asking that the Home Secretary allow access to the facility for organisations qualified to provide support in immigration detention settings.”
Campaigners who protested outside the Manston centre earlier this week say the conditions are inhumane and it needs to be shut. A further protest will be held this Sunday at 2pm.
‘More suitable accommodation’
A Home Office spokesperson previously said: “The number of people arriving in the UK who seek asylum and require accommodation has reached record levels, placing unprecedented pressures on the asylum system.
“The Government is working with all local authorities in England, Wales and Scotland to provide more suitable accommodation for asylum seekers and to end the unacceptable use of hotels, with more than £21 million in grant funding already been provided to local authorities to help them respond to challenges in their area.”
The Home Office says all local authority areas in England, Scotland and Wales became an asylum dispersal area by default on 13 April 2022. Officials say the shift to ‘Full Dispersal’ will increase the number of suitable properties that can be procured for ‘destitute asylum seekers.’
The changes to asylum dispersal have been backed by extra government funding. More than £21million in un-ringfenced grant funding has been committed to make sure eligible LAs can provide wraparound support locally.
Officials say local authorities will also receive £3,500 for each new accommodation bed dispersal accommodation in the 22/23 financial year (1 April 2022 and 31 March 2023)
Officials say the Home Office engages with councils as soon as possible when using sites for asylum accommodation.
They add: “There are currently more than 37,000 asylum seekers in hotels costing the UK taxpayer £5.6 million a day. The cost of accommodating Afghans in bridging hotels is £1.2million a day.
“Hotels are a short-term solution to the global migration crisis and we are working hard to find appropriate dispersed accommodation for migrants, asylum seekers and Afghan refugees as soon as possible. We would urge local authorities to do all they can to help house people.”