On Wednesday (12 April), I convened and chaired a meeting in Bexhill with Home Office officials and leaders of our local service providers to discuss the plans for Northeye and the community challenges which this proposal has raised.
Our aim during the meeting was to seek more detail about the proposed asylum centre and to connect those who run our local public services directly with the Home Office officials responsible for the project. Participants gained further information about the proposals for the site, clarification on those who will potentially be accommodated there, and how the Home Office will work to ensure resources are available and local concerns are met.
The meeting was also an opportunity to raise the questions and concerns which have been raised with me, and with local councillors, by residents.
The attendees at the meeting were the Home Office, Sussex Police, NHS Sussex, East Sussex Fire and Rescue, East Sussex County Council and Rother District Council. The Police and Crime Commissioner and the Leaders of both County and District Council were in attendance as well as Councillors representing the local area. The agenda was as follows:
- Update on proposals from Home Office
- Planning process and public consultation
- Health provision and expected public impact
- Policing and security in and outside the centre
- Fire and Rescue impacts
- Adult social care impacts
- Impact on homes immediately adjacent to the centre
Following the meeting, I promised to produce and make public a summary of the issues that were discussed. All of the attendees have now had the opportunity to review my write-up. The final summary can be found below and is structured in the same way as matters were discussed during the meeting.
I remain committed to ensuring that information about this project is made available to the public at the earliest opportunity. I have also stated that I will put a public meeting together when I can convey the information which we all need, and we have the clearance from the police and security to do so, for the safety of everyone. Given the proposed site is still pending results of contamination and environmental surveys, which I detail in my summary below, a public meeting will be best held when we have more certainty and information to discuss.
I will continue to update my website as more information and clarification is received.
Update on proposals from Home Office
Opening the meeting, the Home Office confirmed that the proposed asylum seeker centre at Northeye will only accommodate asylum seekers who currently have an application that is being processed in the UK’s asylum system; for example, those currently residing in hotels.
Asylum seekers arriving in the UK illegally going forward, such as those coming across the Channel in small boats, will not be accommodated at Northeye.
Those asylum seekers accommodated at the centre will have been through the security screening process before they arrive at Northeye, and their backgrounds and needs will have been assessed and understood. Only those deemed to have low-level needs will be accommodated there.
There will be a target that all applications will be processed within 6 months of an asylum seeker arriving in the UK. There will be an expectation that asylum seekers will have a maximum stay at Northeye of around 90 days.
Those who are granted asylum will then move out of the centre to find somewhere more permanent to live. Those who have their asylum application refused asylum will be removed from the centre.
There will be a dedicated team onsite processing applications. Asylum seekers will have access to lawyers.
Northeye will accommodate no more than 1200 asylum seekers at any one time. Asylum seekers will be moved in in phases. There will be no ‘big bang’ arrival. It is anticipated that the first 400 will arrive in September, followed by another 400, with the final 400 arriving by December.
There are currently over 100,000 people in the UK with an outstanding asylum claim. By processing people in the way described above, and with measures set out in the Illegal Migration Bill, which is currently progressing through Parliament, designed to deter people from arriving in the UK, the Home Office expect the pressures on the asylum system, and the numbers of people claiming asylum here, will begin to fall.
The Home Office has exchanged contracts with the vendor. A toxicology report is currently being undertaken to establish the level and volume of contamination on the site, and any associated costs, to ensure that the site is both safe, and any required works represent value for money for the taxpayer.
It is anticipated that this process will take around six weeks. Once this is completed, and all is considered safe to continue, the purchase of the site will go through and the centre will be set-up. Further details on this can be found later on in this summary.
There will be an induction and orientation course on arrival to ensure asylum seekers arriving at Northeye are taught how to integrate and become good citizens and neighbours. This induction and orientation will be provided in the local languages of the asylum seekers, and they will also have English language lessons provided to ensure a smoother transition into the area.
The Home Office will establish a series of subgroups with local stakeholders, including the police, NHS, and local authorities to determine the specific details on the design and workings of the site. I will go on to provide further details about these subgroups later on in this summary.
Planning process and public consultation
The Home Office then went on to explain that they are currently at the design stage of the proposal. This will determine which part of the site requires refurbishment or replacing. The current design and layout of the site will be retained, and no major alternations are planned to be undertaken.
An Environmental Impact Assessment and Habitat Screening Application are currently being undertaken. Assuming that both screenings are negative, a Class Q planning notice will be issued. This is a government emergency power to self-grant planning permissions for 12 months. During this period, all works to make the site fit for purpose will be undertaken. There will be no public consultation during this period.
A Special Development Order will be sought during this 12-month period. This will be granted by the Home Secretary and will confirm the future of the site, for a further period of time. This further timeframe is yet to be determined.
During the Special Development Order stage to determine the longer-term future of the site, there will be stakeholder engagement with relevant parties and the public to shape proposals. The longer-term future will not be determined unilaterally by the Home Office.
The Home Office cited the example of the former military base Napier Barracks that is being used to house asylum seekers. During the Special Development Order stage, a website was created containing all relevant documentation, with local people being contacted and given the ability to write in with their views on the future of the site. A similar website will be created for Northeye during the Special Development Order stage.
As mentioned above, a toxicology report is currently being undertaken to establish levels of contamination. The Home Office provided reassurance that contamination is not as significant as many people fear and that this is a purely precautionary approach.
77 boreholes have been drilled onsite, with two flagging issues of contamination. Asbestos has been found in the heating system. As a result of the fire on the site in 1986, traces of asbestos from the roofs has also been found in the ground. Asbestos will be removed from the site by specialists.
The Home Office has also worked with the Environment Agency to confirm there is no water contamination. Work will also be undertaken to ensure that the sewage system on site is fit for purpose.
Health provision and expected public impact
The next section of the meeting focused on health provision and local capacity.
The Home Office advised that they are engaging with the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to develop sustainable health solutions that can be replicated as a standard model across asylum seeker centres.
The Home Office stressed that this must be a collaborative approach between agencies and local stakeholders, and the model will not be determined unilaterally by the Home Office.
A multiagency subgroup for healthcare provision (as well as for fire, the police, and the local authority) will be established between the Home Office and local healthcare stakeholders to design an appropriate model for Northeye. This subgroup will include the local Integrated Care Board.
The subgroup will work to ensure that local capacity and staffing is not compromised. It will determine whether it may be necessary for a private or hybrid solution to be established should local public provision not have the necessary capacity. The details will need to be worked through to create a model specific to Northeye and Bexhill to ensure no further strain is put on local healthcare provision.
As asylum seekers arriving at Northeye will have previously been screened, their needs will have already been established. Only asylum seekers who are deemed to be suitable, with low-level needs, including healthcare needs, will be admitted to Northeye. Those with more serious or complex requirements will not be accommodated there.
The Home Office explained that some health problems, such as mental health conditions, may only present themselves later on during an asylum seeker’s stay. Welfare officers will be available onsite to respond to these, and if a person’s needs are determined to be more serious and not suitable to be dealt with at Northeye, they will be moved to a more appropriate site elsewhere.
The provision of dentistry will also be part of the discussion within the health subgroup to examine local capacity and establish whether a specific facility may be required for Northeye.
A third party will provide out-of-hours healthcare support. It will be determined during discussions within the subgroup where the boundaries between service providers starts and ends to ensure there is continuity of service.
The Home Office were made aware of the need for the subgroup to be established as soon as possible and they will come back shortly to confirm timings.
Policing and security in and outside the centre
As I mention above, the Home Office confirmed that all asylum seekers arriving at Northeye will be screened before they arrive. This will include checking criminal convictions to ensure that only those deemed suitable are accommodated there.
On arrival, all asylum seekers will undergo an orientation and induction course. Here they will be coached in local norms, customs, and values, and taught what issues such as antisocial behaviour are to ensure they can be good citizens and neighbours.
The Home Office explained that the purpose of Northeye is to process applications speedily. The application process for those with higher level needs will inevitably take longer, and so only those asylum seekers with low level needs will be accommodated at Northeye.
Asylum seekers with more serious needs, or who have caused issues or disruption in asylum accommodation elsewhere in the country will not be put in Northeye.
There is currently a security presence onsite and this will be increased once the centre becomes operational. This is provided by a third-party security provider.
The Home Office will work closely with the service provider and Sussex Police to ensure clarity between the two parties about what the boundaries will be for the onsite security and where Sussex Police will be needed to step in. This discussion will take place with other relevant parties in the subgroup that will be formed in due course.
An Operational Management Plan will be put in place taking account of a wide range of possible security scenarios that could potentially arise. The service provider will work proactively with stakeholders to share information and spot potential issues early so they can be dealt with.
The Home Office confirmed that additional funding will be made available to Sussex Police to deal with any extra pressures they may face associated with the opening of the centre. Exact details of how this additional funding will be allocated will be determined shortly.
During the meeting, the Home Office also advised that research undertaken by police forces elsewhere in the country has shown that there has been no uptick in criminal activity associated with the opening of asylum centres.
The Home Office stressed that asylum seekers being accommodated at centres elsewhere in the country come from a diverse range of backgrounds, with many being professionals in their country of origin.
I have previously been informed by the Home Office that around 70% of asylum seekers from countries of the type expected in Northeye have their claims for asylum granted due to having a sound reason to flee their home country. Claims for asylum will be viewed negatively should any law-breaking or trouble occur during the applications stage. For this reason, past experience shows that behaviour has not been an issue.
Fire and Rescue impacts
Moving on to discuss fire safety measures, the Home Office confirmed that the Northeye site will be fully fire compliant before the first asylum seekers move in.
There will be full engagement with East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service during the planning and development of the site, including on the Operational Management Plan for the centre. Matters such as evacuation procedures, safety education for the asylum seekers accommodated onsite, and information on prevention will also be discussed.
Staff working onsite will be given training in fire safety and consideration will be given to additional fire protection where appropriate, such as a sprinkler system.
The Home Office explained that following a fire at Napier Barracks, a concerted effort was made to establish onsite activities, such as sports, drama and arts, and a significant amount of attention was paid to residents’ welfare. These recreational activities have proven effective at minimise the risks of incidents such as fires occurring.
It is expected that a similar programme of sports and arts will be established onsite at Northeye with the voluntary sector being heavily involved.
Adult social care impacts
As I have mention above, all asylum seekers arriving at Northeye will have been through a screening process to establish their needs.
The majority of asylum seekers that will be accommodated at Northeye will be young adult males. As such, their needs will be low level. The Home Office explained that they recognise the challenges many local authorities currently face in providing adult social care and will work with them to develop a suitable plan for Northeye.
The Home Office acknowledged that age verification has previously been an issue. They provided reassurance that they are reviewing current processes to ensure that the system is more rigorous and that only those suitable are accommodated at Northeye. East Sussex County Council will be included in this process so they can input the lessons they have learnt locally when dealing with asylum seekers living in hotels.
There will be a particular focus on identifying mental health concerns and safeguarding onsite, to ensure the right support is available.
Those asylum seekers being accommodated at Northeye will have a small financial allowance each week to ensure their clothing needs can be met. The voluntary sector will also be linked in to assist with this, which has proven to be successful on other sites.
The Home Office also confirmed that no alcohol will be allowed on site. Any instances of alcohol or drug use will be dealt with.
The Home Office will keep East Sussex County Council updated on the timescale of appointing a service provider to run the site, so that work to develop suitable safeguarding measures can be commenced as soon as possible.
Impact on homes adjacent to camp
I made it clear that special attention needs to be given to residents who live within close proximity to Northeye. The Home Office provided assurance that they will liaise closely with residents to work through any concerns that they have regarding this proposal.
Access to the site was discussed and I asked the Home Office to give consideration to establishing an alternative entrance that would have less of an impact upon local residents.
The Home Office confirmed that there will be an engagement process with residents in the community. Residents will have opportunities to ask questions and a dialogue will be established with them. I have asked for this process to begin as soon as possible.