Developer flips squalid Bexhill asylum site to government for 142% ROI

Developer flips squalid Bexhill asylum site to government for 142% ROI

The government has bought a derelict, contaminated brownfield site to use as an immigration removal centre, delivering £9m profit for private vendors in just 13 months.

A private property development company, Brockwell Group Bexhill LLP, has sold a derelict brownfield site to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities for a staggering return on investment of 142% in just 13 months.

This is the site of the former HMP Northeye, at Bexhill-on-Sea in East Sussex, which was subsequently used by the UAE government for military training purposes. The UAE bought the site from the Ministry of Defence in 1994 and wound down the majority of its operations there in 2010; the last remaining residents left around four years ago. The Home Office now intends to use the site to accommodate asylum-seekers.

The Guardian newspaper revealed in April 2023 that the site’s buildings are in a squalid state; they will need levelling to make way for a new build. That same month, it was confirmed that the buildings and ground are contaminated with asbestos: stripping two metres of topsoil from across the site is likely to cost hundreds of thousands of pounds.

It would appear that during the 13 months prior to the government’s purchase, nothing was done to improve the site: there was no cleaning, clearing or development. And according to the Guardian, no planning applications were made for the site in the last 12 to 24 months (and would be required for any change of use). Nevertheless, the site is listed as “in planning” on the website of one party connected to Brockwell Group Bexhill LLP).

The facts: purchase and sale

An FOI request made by Save Northeye, a campaign group in Bexhill which is protesting the Home Office’s plans for the site, revealed that the government purchased the site for £15.3 million on 21 September 2023. An earlier HM Land Registry title search obtained by One Life To Live found that Brockwell Group Bexhill LLP had bought the land just 13 months previously for £6.31 million. The difference in price shows a profit of £8.99 million, or 142% return on investment.

The local authority’s preference for the site

In 2019, Rother District Council’s Local Plan allocated the site for the development of 140 homes, 30% of which would be affordable housing, along with sports fields and a children’s play area. The plan calls for “a Green Infrastructure framework and landscape-led masterplan” – not a new-build asylum centre. In a statement on its website, the council said: “It is disappointing that neither Rother District Council nor local residents were informed by the Home Office of this [purchase].”

Questions must be asked of the government

  • How were private developers able to turn such a large profit on this squalid, contaminated site in just a year, and achieve a significantly lower purchase price in 2022 than the government in 2023?
  • Did the government explore why the 2022 price was so low – and if so, what was the answer?
  • If the price was so low in August 2022, why didn’t the government buy the site then? As early as May 2022, campaigners against large-scale accommodation sites for asylum-seeker already knew that the Home Office was looking to set up a site at Bexhill.
  • Why has the government purchased this particular site? The MoD disposal database lists many parcels of land which already belong to the Crown, many of them sizeable and with existing accommodation blocks.
  • Having bought the site, why does the government state on its website that “No final decision has been taken to use the site”?
  • How can the total cost possibly be less per head/per night than hotels, taking into account the site purchase price and the costs of decontamination, levelling, new build and contracted operation of the site?

On 29 March 2023, Minister for Immigration Robert Jenrick announced that the Home Office planned to use “a site in East Sussex” for asylum accommodation. The same day, the Independent revealed that this would be the site of the former Northeye Prison at Bexhill-on-Sea. On 31st August 2023, Rother District Council confirmed that the site will be used as an immigration detention centre rather than an accommodation centre.

The local campaign group

By the time the purchase was completed, the Save Northeye campaign had already lined up a legal team in preparation for an application for a judicial review of the government’s decision to use the site, and his CrowdJustice fund, to cover his costs, has already raised almost £18,000.

Comment

The government cannot claim on the one hand to be solving the problem of the hotel cost when on the other hand it is buying up large tracts of expensive yet tainted land and planning major new builds. It’s time for greater transparency with the taxpayer, who ultimately foots these bills. It is also time to recognise that we should revert to the pre-COVID system of allowing asylum-seekers to live among us in the community, and not containing them in bizarre camps behind fences and barbed wire.