Whatever the challenges of housing migrants and asylum seekers, the government mustn’t resort to private landlords

This morning the government announced that it’s abandoning plans to house asylum seekers in a Pontins Holiday Park on Merseyside. The move comes after Sefton Council, local Tory MP Damien Moore and a significant percentage of the local community opposed converting the resort in Ainsdale into asylum accommodation.

Following the blaze of publicity over conditions at the Manston migrant processing centre in Kent, and general disquiet about housing migrants and asylum seekers in hotels, the government has quietly but frantically been pursuing other options for housing large numbers of individuals and families awaiting processing.

Last year the Home Office approached Sefton Council – and a number of other local councils with Pontins holiday parks  – to sound out whether or not they could be converted for use as migrant centres. In all cases the resorts were actively in use as holiday venues, yet the company was very open to the idea. The locations included Camber Sands in Kent, Brean Sands in Somerset, Pakefiled in Suffolk, Sand Bay in Weston-super-Mare and Prestatyn Sands in north Wales.

Undoubtedly the Pontins group suffered significant commercial damage during the Covid lockdown which probably initiated the discussion, but the company’s continued support for the proposal points to the housing of migrants being far more profitable than accommodating holiday-makers.

In all cases the plans caused uproar within the nearby communities, many of which are in Conservative-controlled areas. In the case of the latest rejection, Damien Moore claimed that the Sefton proposal was “completely inappropriate” and would result in further pressure on local children’s services, which have already been rated as “inadequate” by the regulator, Ofsted.

The reaction has been much the same wherever the centres have been suggested, and it’s a strong argument as most of the UK is already struggling under the deterioration of local services. One only has to look to the Republic of Ireland, where there has been pretty much an open door policy to migrants (with little effective government oversight), to see that many towns and regions are now struggling seriously to cope with the influx and the demands on local services that it brings.

One might have though that, as a recent descendant of immigrants himself, our Prime Minister might have had some degree of empathy for the problem, but he was quick to dismiss recent calls to revive a plan to turn a former RAF base in Linton-on-Ouse, near his constituency, into a processing centre for asylum seekers.

The favoured solution to this long-standing problem has been to ship people to coastal and deprived towns, where it’s perceived there will be a lower level of local opposition to incomers and less fixation with the market value of local private housing. Local councils have been heavily complicit in this drift, which has seen countless migrants shipped away from large, urban centres and into more remote and geographically distant locations, where ironically they become even more isolated, and local services and amenities are both stretched, and less widely accessible. Far worse, these vulnerable individuals and families find then themselves being processed through the government system and into the hands of local private landlords, many of whom are operating highly aggressive, profit-driven construction and housing operations that councils are failing to monitor sufficiently.

When any government becomes subject to immense pressures, checks and safeguards are the first to suffer, and it’s a weakness that allows in unscrupulous and often dangerous people and processes. In recent years there has been an invisible sweeping up and transportation of vulnerable people – not just migrants and asylum seekers across the UK, but also the mentally ill and homeless – out of our city centres where they are visible and politically damaging – to rural and deprived areas where – initially – they merge invisibly into the landscape.

For the shedding councils there are pleasing improvements in homeless and refugee figures, and government targets get met. For the receiving councils there are attractive grants, and equally their housing and social care targets are met. Beyond the town halls there are mutually profitable arrangements with local builders and landlords, and planning laws get relaxed to allow the destruction or conversion of local buildings into small-scale accommodation units.

Take a look at the list of upcoming planning applications in any such area and you’ll see a plethora of applications for ‘conversion to HMO’ – homes of multiple occupation. In the majority of cases these applications are presented and rubber stamped on the grounds of addressing an apparent ‘desperate shortage of housing for young local people’. Invariably they are social services funded accommodation for incomers, where the rent comes straight to the landlord from the government. This is an attractive and easy proposition for the landlord, and enables local councils to boast both a hand on social action targets and evidence of having met local house provision requirements.

Where it leaves the residents of these properties, and the local communities they will have to interact with, is another matter. Ruthless landlords, and a lack of meaningful support from local councils is leaving many strangers in a distant land highly isolated and vulnerable. Far worse, the privatisation of the humanitarian function, the political footballing over the treatment and locating of migrants and asylum seekers, and the lack of any meaningful dialogue with local communities is creating a perception that those in need are both a problem, and a significant danger to the stability, welfare and prosperity of communities already struggling with financial woes and lack of services.

Having said that, there’s plenty of evidence that local residents actually tend to be welcoming, and certainly community charities, church groups and even local businesses tend to step in where there’s a need that central government and local councils aren’t meeting. Unfortunately this also means that there’s no urgency for authorities to intervene or support people and communities in providing the necessary support and infrastructures needed to cope with an influx of new residents.

Currently, the government is down to targeting about 20 locations for large-scale accommodation projects. Figures are being deliberately blurred, but it is believed that the government has also taken over more than 200 hotels across the UK, with cities towns and villages from London to Lincolnshire, north Wales to Devon, housing some 37,000 migrants. There are clusters of hotels in urban areas, but equally people have been dropped in remote locations such as the Hilton Garden Inn in Dolgarrog, Snowdonia, six miles from the tourist town of Conwy. Here, all holidaymaker reservations and events have been cancelled until at least March, causing the local MP, Robin Millar, to expressed his concern about “the impact on local communities and the suitability of this property, in this location, for this purpose. It is a hotel, not a detention centre.”

Undoubtedly the temporary attraction of migrants and asylum seekers to hotel owners will wane, as the weather improves and tourism demand returns. IThe creation and supply of HMOs will also dry up eventually as upper limits also exist on local development strategies. Knowing this, the government is furtively clearly chasing large-scale solutions, including redundant airfields, industrial estates barracks and old MOD sites as it’s only idea for a solution.

The explosion of bad publicity surrounding the visit of several human rights and welfare agencies Manston reception centre in Kent only served to confirm that a government which sees the arrival of desperate incomers as ‘an invasion” to be shipped to Rwanda and places “stop the boats” as one of its five key policy pledges, has little or no intention of reaching out in any meaningful or productive to help those in need.

Far worse, it’s failure to act quickly, effectively and with humanity has left vulnerable families and individuals adrift in a strange land, at the mercy of ruthless exploiters and isolated by an increasing public perception that the stranger in our midst presents the country with a potential for social and economic disaster, rather than the possibility of helping us to rebuild our economy and contribute towards the creation of a better and more prosperous society. Suspicion and rejection of our neighbour is the remnant of an old, English, fortress mentality that has no place in a modern, apparently caring, democracy.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and political theologian