What’s the current status of the large-scale asylum containment sites?

What’s the current status of the large-scale asylum containment sites?

Last updated 27 October 2023

TL;DR

  1. Linton-on-Ouse (2022) – Home Office defeated, site cancelled
  2. RAF Wethersfield – Operational 12.7.23. Appeal Court hearing (JR/planning) on 31 Oct/1 Nov 2023
  3. RAF Scampton – Not yet operational. Appeal Court hearing (JR/planning) on 31 Oct/1 Nov 2023
  4. Bibby Stockholm barge, Portland – Operational 7.8.23. JR on planning grounds against the Home Office refused on 11.10.23; fresh appliction for a JR issued against Dorset Council on 13.10.23
  5. Former Northeye Prison, Bexhill – Not yet operational; now to be a detention centre
  6. Catterick Garrison – We always suspected a Rishi ruse, but plans were confirmed on 28.9.23

How it all began

On 13 August 2021, Politics Home announced that the Home Office was planning to create asylum accommodation centres for 8,000 people – and was being accused of ‘warehousing people’. These sites are what we call ‘large-scale containment sites’, each to be significantly larger than any previous or pre-existing site such as Napier Barracks. Napier has averaged around 380 people in non-COVID periods. For a range of reasons, these large-scale sites are considered to be quasi-detention (see the Inquiry into Quasi-Detention from the APPG on Immigration Detention).

Linton-on-Ouse – 14 April to 9 August 2022

After reading the Politics Home article, I wrote to every county and district councillor in my own county of North Yorkshire, along with all of the chief executives, plus every MP (including Rishi Sunak), to say this was a terrible idea: please don’t consider allowing a site in North Yorkshire.

Unfortunately, on 14 April 2022, Priti Patel – then home secretary – announced plans to set up the first such site at RAF Linton-on-Ouse, 11 miles from York. So I joined the Linton-on-Ouse Action Group. The group worked very closely with North Yorkshire County Council (Cons), Hambleton District Council (Cons) and Linton-on-Ouse Parish Council, plus local MP Kevin Hollinrake (Cons). Hambleton District Council was incensed that the Home Office had not sought planning permission, and announced its intention to take the Home Office to judicial review (JR). Pre-action paperwork was issued, and the Home Office missed several deadlines for responding. Meanwhile, the campaign group kept up relentless pressure in the media. Eventually, Priti Patel’s pilot project became such a poisoned chalice that neither she nor Kevin Foster (parliamentary under-secretary of state for safe and legal migration) would engage with anyone on the subject, including their own Cons MP Kevin Hollinrake.

The first of the 1,500 asylum-seekers had been due to arrive at Linton (a village of 700 people) on 31 May. However, at 5pm the night before, the Home Office paused all plans for the site. Contractors downed tools and all of the staff recruited by Serco were paid to stay at home for months. Finally, on 9 August 2022, defence secretary Ben Wallace announced that he was withdrawing the land from the Home Office, effectively putting an end to Priti Patel’s plans. Was it infighting among government departments? Or did he strike a deal with Patel, saving her face so she wouldn’t have to cancel the site herself?

The government spent almost £3 million on the cancelled project. What they don’t talk about publicly is what it additionally cost them to buy out of their £32.8 million contract with Serco – which the Linton-on-Ouse campaign group believes to have been a further £20 million.

RAF Wethersfield, Essex

On 27 February 2023 I received a phone call from someone who lives near Wethersfield, saying: “What happened at Linton? It’s now happening here.” She is a volunteer with the local Fields Association, which had already spent 18 months protesting MoJ plans to build Europe’s largest prison on the massive tract of land that had been RAF Wethersfield. The complex, involving 14 five-storey buildings, would hold approximately 1,715 category B and C inmates, totalling 3,430 inmates. The site would have 1,000 parking spaces. And it’s in an exceptionally beautiful rural area. Then – along comes the plan for a new centre: a containment site for 1,700 asylum-seekers, as leaked by the Guardian on 4 March 2023. But rather than ending up with one or the other, it seems the local villagers could get both: that’s 5,130 new people contained on the site, plus at least 1,500 people working there. That’s 6,530 people, in a place where the nearest settlements are the village of Finchingfield, at 1,500 residents, and Wethersfield at 1,300. There’s a reason ‘field’ appears in both village names!

Hilariously, in a breathtaking display of hypocrisy, Priti Patel (the architect of the entire asylum large-scale containment centre programme, remember?) has spoken out strongly against the site at RAF Wethersfield, since it’s close to her Braintree constituency. Staggeringly, she has accused her successor, Suella Braverman, of secrecy, evasion and lack of clarity. Patel has “campaigned vigorously against plans to house thousands of migrants at RAF Wethersfield”, claiming the Home office bypassed planning application rules. Everything, in other words, that she herself did at Linton-on-Ouse.

Things haven’t gone well at RAF Wethersfield. It became operational on 12 July when around 50 asylum-seekers were moved there. Very rapidly, cases of TB, scabies and scurvy were confirmed. For weeks, men were denied access to visits or leaving the site, and could not make or receive phone calls; it took weeks for the buses to become operational, and as of mid-September their windows remain blacked out. On 28 September, the BBC reported that at least 8 asylum-seekers are on hunger strike over food and conditions; on a visit, the chair of the local parish council was offered a meal which he said was ‘appalling’. In a video released to the Independent, Care4Calais says that an asylum seeker who collapsed while on hunger strike was denied emergency medical help.

Braintree District Council (BDC) has stood up to the Home Office from the start, and even the local MP, foreign secretary James Cleverly, has said he’s far from thrilled. The government admits the RAF Wethersfield site has a range of contamination risks including undetonated explosives, ground contamination and asbestos. Here’s the legal timeline for RAF Wethersfield:

29 March 2023 – BDC applied for an injunction on the grounds that the Home Office should not attempt to rely on the use of ‘Class Q’ to avoid applying for planning permission.

19 April – BDC was not granted an injunction.

23 June – That decision was appealed and was unsuccessful. However, the council was granted permission to progress with a JR.

12 & 13 July – The permission hearing for a JR was held at the High Court in London. Three JRs were considered (BDC’s, plus one brought by local resident Gabriel Clarke-Holland, plus one brought by West Lindsey District Council over RAF Scampton). However, in a startlingly belligerent move, the Home Office chose the morning of the 12th July – the first day of the JR permission hearing – to move the first 46 asylum-seekers onto the RAF Wethersfield site, taking it operational with just hours to go before the hearing even began.

14 July – The court announced that BDC had been given permission to progress to a full JR.

25 October 2023 – Care4Calais launched a separate claim against the Home Office, claiming that it isn’t properly screening the asylum-seekers to be sent there, and that their acute segregation from society – behind barbed wire fences and guard huts, not permitted to leave the site under their own’steam’ – amounts to quasi-detention. There is a CrowdJustice fund for the legal costs.

31 October & 1 November – The full JR for all 3 claimants took place on 31 October and 1 November at the High Court in London.

RAF Scampton, Lincolnshire

On 29 March 2023, the Home Office confirmed that RAF Scampton was to become a large-scale containment site for 2,000 asylum-seekers. Initially, the plan was for asylum-seekers to be moved to RAF Scampton from hotels, but in mid-May 2023, the Home Office announced that they would instead come from the short-term holding facility (STHF) at Manston.

The news was a particular blow for RAF Scampton because of its historical significance: it originally opened in 1916 and served in both world wars. The ‘Dambusters’ raids by No 5 Group RAF took off from RAF Scampton, led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, and more recently it was home to the Red Arrows. Because of this history, after RAF Scampton closed an investment company was set up and on 6 March announced its intention to pour £300million into the site, creating aviation heritage, business, aerospace, space and aviation technology and education opportunities along with thousands of jobs. The Home Office instantly killed off these plans.

Asylum-seekers were due to arrive at RAF Scampton in August, in blatant disregard of the pending legal action, but on 28 July it was revealed that this would be delayed until October because the Home Office hadn’t got its act together on works at the site.

Since then, West Lindsey District Council (WLDC) can only be commended for its refusal to be bullied by the Home Office; for its self-confidence as a local planning authority; and for its commitment to the investment plan. Here’s the RAF Scampton legal timeline:

31 March 2023 – 2 days after the site was announced by the Home Office, WLDC confirmed that the Home Office did not have the appropriate planning permission and therefore the council had issued pre-action correspondence.

11 May – Mixed news resulted from the High Court hearing, in which WLDC lost its application for an injunction. However, the Home Office undertook not to move asylum-seekers onto the site until after 3 July; it was also revealed that as early as February, senior civil servants strongly recommended NOT to progress with the proposals. On the same day, WLDC applied to intervene in the court of appeal proceedings with Braintree District Council (BDC), and to join forces with RAF Wethersfield for a JR.

26 May – The court approved WLDC’s application to intervene in the court of appeal proceedings with BDC, despite Home Office objections.

12 June – WLDC intervened in Braintree District Council’s High Court appeal (a) against the interpretation of Class Q and (b) around the refusal to grant an injunction for RAF Wethersfield.

23 June – The Court of Appeal dismissed the injunction for RAF Wethersfield but supported WLDC’s request to allow full consideration of Class Q to be heard through the pending JR procedures.

12 & 13 July – The permission hearing for a JR was held at the High Court in London. Three JRs were considered (WLDC’s, plus two regarding RAF Wethersfield: one brought by BDC and one by local resident Gabriel Clarke-Holland).

14 July – The court announced that BDC had been given permission to progress to a full JR.

8 September – WLDC served a one-month temporary stop notice on the Home Office (pursuant to section 171E of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990), stating that there had been a breach of planning control relating specifically to the listed buildings and archaeology on the site. The temporary stop notice required the Home Office and all associated contractors to cease all works in respect of the listed buildings, all intrusive surveying works, ground works and the installation of fencing on the site. Significantly, this notice was issued BEFORE the JR at the High Court, set for 31 October & 1 November.

22 September – In a very significant move, WLDC’s planning officers served an enforcement notice and a stop notice on the Home Office, requiring ALL work to cease at RAF Scampton and for the Home Office to:

  • stop using the site as accommodation for asylum seekers
  • halt operational development works to the site, including the installation of Portakabins and ancillary works
  • cease all intrusive groundworks
  • restore the site to its original condition!

Nevertheless, despite the stop and enforcement notices, WLDC has received a number of reports (including videos) from local residents about construction works continuing at RAF Scampton.

31 October & 1 November – The JR hearing on planning grounds took place on 31 October and 1 November at the High Court in London (with RAF Wethersfield). According to Hamish Falconer, Labour’s MP candidate for Lincoln, even the governnment’s barrister admitted that Scampton will cost more than hotels per head.

Bibby Stockholm barge, Portland, Dorset

On 4 April 2023, ITVx revealed that the Bibby Stockholm would to be used to contain asylum-seekers on a floating barge at Portland Port. Flush from the success of accommodating Ukrainian refugees on 2 cruise ships in Scotland, perhaps they thought it would be plain sailing. Also, the port is private land: the more private deals its strikes, the less the Home Office has to reveal through FOIs, claiming ‘commercial sensitivity’. And perhaps the Home Office hoped to avoid the planning permission debacle they had seen at Linton-on-Ouse. Ports are meant to berth barges, surely? And the Bibby Stockholm was built as a floating hotel? And surely you don’t need planning permission for stuff on water (to be contested in court!).

What could possibly go wrong?

  • Well, how about the strength of public opposition against this madcap scheme?
  • There was the domino effect of other ports around the country rushing to insist they would never take an asylum barge.
  • The 47-year-old barge needed a lot more repairs in dry dock than expected; entire sections of its hull were rotten and needed replacing. This caused a lengthy delay.
  • The Bibby Stockholm didn’t leave left dry dock until 7 July 2023, which is when the Home Office presumably took control of the vessel. Since then, asylum-seekers have only spent a total of 4.5 days on board, out of a total of 81 days which the taxpayer has been funding. The cost of the non-operational period has been £3.8 million to date (as of 26 September 2023).
  • On 11 July, One Life To Live proved that the barge would never be cheaper, per head/per night, than the equivalent cost of using hotels, thus destroying the entire strategy behind the barge.
  • On 31 July, One Life To Live published a briefing pointing out the significant fire risks on board the Bibby Stockholm. This featured on the front page of the Times and led to the Fire Brigades Union launching legal action against the Home Office.
  • As we all know, the ‘deadliest strain‘ of Legionella was discovered on board on 7 August, the very day the first asylum-seekers arrived.
  • Even when operational, only a maximum of 39 asylum-seekers were ever on board until the time of writing (26 September 2023).

Application for a judicial review: Home Office

To add to this catalogue of disasters, on 7 August (the day the first asylum-seekers arrived on the Bibby Stockholm, and perhaps the Home Office thought it had got away without having to face legal action over planning), local Portland resident Carralyn Parkes announced her application for a JR to challenge the use of the Bibby Stockholm, on planning grounds. Although acting in her personal capacity, Carralyn is also the mayor of Portland and is the councillor for the ward where the Bibby Stockholm in berthed.

The permission hearing, as to whether a JR would be granted, took place at the High Court in London on 10 October 2023. I was in court for the day. The judge and counsel for all sides (including Dorset Council, as interested party) agreed it was a complex case, not least because of how to deal with ‘accretions arising from the sea’ and the significance for future plans for more barges. The judgement was read in court the following day, 11 October: the application was rejected.    

Application for a judicial review: Dorset Council

Further to leading comments by the judge at that hearing, just 3 days later (on Friday 13 October) the team applied for a fresh JR – this time against Dorset Council for failing to enforce planning regulations. A hearing date is yet to be advised.

Former Northeye Prison, Bexhill, East Sussex

In late spring 2022, the Linton-on-Ouse campaign group received a Facebook message from a resident of Bexhill saying they thought the same thing might be happening there. Nothing much came of this at the time, but we listened and waited. Rumours continued to bubble over the next 9 months until finally, the Home Office announced on 29 March 2023 that it planned to purchase the 80-year-old site of the former Northeye Prison at Bexhill to create a large-scale containment site for 1,200 asylum-seekers, like the RAF sites.

However, on 1 September 2023, in what had probably been the plan all along, the Home Office announced that Bexhill would be an immigration removal centre (IRC) – in other words, a detention centre to hold asylum-seekers awaiting deportation. (For those unfamiliar with the system, this type of detention is purely administrative and does not indicate that the individual has committed any crime.)

According to our HM Land Registry title search in April 2023, the land was last purchased for £6,310,000 on 11 August 2022 – by the Brockwell Group Bexhill LLP, which was only incorporated on 8 July 2022. There were 4 founding directors of that partnership; a solicitor has since resigned, as has a firm called Faircruise Ltd. The remaining directors are Hoxtonspeirs Wharf LLP and Brockwell Group (Holdings) Ltd. Across the 4 original directors, 2 are registered at one address and 2 are registered at another.

Shortly after the plans were announced in March 2023, One Life To Live started to research the site. Having found urban explorer footage on YouTube which reveals that the buildings are severely dilapidated and squalid, we passed the footage to the Guardian, who published this article. Asbestos has been found at the site. Locals have called it an ‘environmental health disaster zone’ and local (Cons) MP Huw Merriman has said the buildings will require “total demolition and rebuild”. With the cost of purchasing the site, purpose-building an IRC and staffing it accordingly, this will be a very expensive project and has only become ‘necessary’ because of the passing of the Illegal Migration Act.

On 24 October 2023, One Life To Live arranged an exclusive story release with BBC Newsnight, the Guardian and the Times, revealing that the government purchase of the Bexhill site cost 142% more than the vendors’ own purchase of the site a year earlier. Questions must be asked about the difference in price and the due diligence conducted by the government – if any.

Meanwhile on the legal front, a local resident has instructed Duncan Lewis solicitors and begun a CrowdJustice campaign with a view to seeking a JR.

Catterick Garrison, North Yorkshire

The Home Office hasn’t felt the love of local MPs over these containment sites – and yet all of the MPs have been Conservative (coincidence? One Life To Live thinks not). At Linton, Kevin Hollinrake MP did a great job of raising merry hell. James Cleverly MP has muttered his discontent over RAF Wethersfield; Edward Leigh MP has made his feelings clear throughout about RAF Scampton; Richard Drax doesn’t want the Bibby Stockholm in his constituency. These aren’t junior MPS, and having them engage in in-party scrapping doesn’t look good. The solution? For Rishi Sunak to announce that he, too, was willing to place asylum-seekers at a site in his very own constituency in North Yorkshire! Surely if the prime minister was willing, what could his MPs possibly have to complain about?

So, wrapped up with the other announcements on 29 March 2023 was the plan to place asylum-seekers at Catterick Garrison in the prime minister’s North Yorkshire seat. I never believed it for a moment. Here’s why:

  • Catterick Garrison has recently become the British Army’s biggest base in the world. As a result, space is at a premium: there just aren’t the vacant buildings to take a large number of asylum-seekers. I even asked a serving soldier, stationed at Catterick Garrison, to look at what sites might be available. That soldier did their best, and the answer came back: none.
  • The government is happy for fear to be stoked up amongst local populations about the danger of ‘undocumented illegal single male migrants roaming free’ at containment site locations, because it fuels the anti-refugee rhetoric. However, Catterick Garrison is a special case. If there were anything to fear from such men, the MoD would never allow them to be placed at such a security-critical site as our biggest army base. And the Home Office would never live down the outrage which would be expressed by army families living on the base, especially when many wives and children live without their partners who have been posted elsewhere for extended periods.
  • The Catterick Garrison plan was patently a sop to other MPs to get them to pipe down about sites in their own seats. “Look, I’m doing it, too!” said Rishi. It was only ever going to be a temporary announcement until the other sites were operational, and then we believed that the plans for Catterick Garrison would quietly be dropped.
  • We believed that Catterick Garrison would instead involve a small number of army houses allocated to Afghan evacuees, and indeed 19 houses have now been provided for Afghan families leaving hotels.

Not only has there never been any sign of a large-scale contingency site at Catterick, but it seemed like the plans were indeed quietly dropped. Edward Leigh MP (he of RAF Scampton fame) blasted the prime minister’s failure to follow through with his plans for Catterick: “We now understand that the generals have said that they don’t want a bunch of Afghans and Iraqis next to their squaddies, so nothing is happening with regard to illegal migrants being put there.”

Update 28 September 2023: Just 2 days after I posted the above, and exactly 6 months after Catterick was first ‘announced’, ITVx revealed that prime minister Rishi Sunak has said that “asylum seekers will be housed in Catterick Garrison in Richmond“. But Sunak said he couldn’t say when, because apparently that’s nothing to do with him, and and he didn’t say where at Catterick.

I don’t believe for a moment asylum-seekers will be placed en masse at Catterick Garrison; I think it will continue to be handfuls of Afghan families coming out of hotels. But if it does go ahead, my money’s on Wathgill Camp (see below), 6 miles WSW of the garrison. According to Google Maps it has decent accommodation blocks; it’s far enough away from sensitive installations and army families; and – just as the Home Office likes – it’s away from any possible scrutiny, in the middle of the North Yorkshire moors. It’s a training camp, recently used for training Ukrainian soldiers (who left in April), so no one lives there who might need moving out. A small staff cohort and admin function would need relocating, which could be straightforward.

Wathgill Camp, near Catterick Garrison, North Yorkshire
Wathgill Camp. Photo © Copyright Siobhan Brennan-Raymond

What’s next?

Much hangs on the outcome of the following:

  • The JRs for the sites at RAF Wethersfield and RAF Scampton, at the end of October 2023, as to whether there is an ’emergency’ which would make it permissible for the Home office to bypass the normal planning permission laws and rely on Class Q (as it is already attempting to do)
  • The permission hearing for a JR for the Bibby Stockholm, to be heard on 10 October (notably before the above)
  • The Home Office’s compliance with WLDC’s stop notice and enforcement notice at RAF Scampton
  • The Rwanda appeal hearings in the Supreme Court on 9, 10 and 11 October 2023. Until this is resolved, despite the passing of the Illegal Migration Act, the Home Office is continuing to treat migrants arriving by boat as asylum-seekers and permitting them to claim asylum. This means that they are not ‘illegal migrants’ and thus the other key provisions of the act, to detain and depart all arrivals by boat, do not yet cut in.

The news that the site at Bexhill is to be an IRC (detention centre) was a wholly predictable signal that the Home Office is likely to want to convert all of these containment sites into IRCs. First, however, they must clear the outrageously costly backlog of claims which has caused the need for hotels. If they can clear the hotels of existing asylum-seekers, and dispense with hotels in future because all boat arrivals will supposedly be ‘illegal migrants’ who must be detained, then there will be minimal need for accommodation and maximal need for detention space.

Currently the IRC estate is hopelessly inadequate for coping with the number of arrivals. The combined maximum capacity of both the IRCs and STHFs is around 2,802 people – yet 45,755 people arrived by boat in 2022. Immigration detention centres are already spilling over into already overcrowded prisons. So it is extremely likely that the Home Office plans to convert the sites into IRCs as soon as they can. And at Portland, the question remains whether the private company which runs the port, in light of the shocking damage it has suffered to its reputation as well as its cruise business, has the stomach to renew its contract for the after 18 months – especially with an IRC.