Bicester bitter at asylum centre

21 Aug 03

22 August 2003

Two councils are urgently looking for grounds to take legal action after Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott overruled a planning inspector and gave permission on August 19 for a centre for 750 asylum seekers.

Cherwell District Council leader George Reynolds said he was 'bitterly disappointed' by the decision to build the accommodation centre on a former Ministry of Defence site five miles from Bicester, Oxfordshire, 'in the middle of nowhere'.

'We argued that the proposals were wrong both for the potential residents and the local community,' he said.

Cherwell has gained powerful backing from Oxfordshire County Council, which fears it will face a huge bill for providing education and social services to the asylum seekers. 'The Home Office has made some suggestions about covering the costs but these certainly do not cover them all,' said assistant planning director Chris Cousins.

Oxfordshire said that after a public inquiry the planning inspector had opposed the centre, stating it would be contrary to planning policy and create a burden for local service providers.

The inspector said: 'The proposal seems to me to be driven by the availability of some surplus government-owned land and by an undemonstrated belief that this rural location would aid self-containment of the centre.'

Cousins said: 'John Prescott has ignored the findings of the independent inspector. It is a very bad decision which flies in the face of established planning policies. The county council and Cherwell will be scrutinising the decision to see if there is scope for a legal challenge.'

The Home Office said that asylum seekers would stay at the site for 'a short period of time while their applications are processed'.

Holding them in the centre would alleviate pressures on local authorities in areas where they are currently dispersed, it said.

Home Office minister Beverley Hughes explained: 'I realise members of the local community have concerns about the centre, although I do not accept that [it] will be a detriment to the local area. We will waste no time in moving ahead with work at Bicester.'

The decision also angered the Refugee Council, whose development director Anna Reisenberger said it had 'grave concerns' about putting hundreds of asylum seekers in a remote rural location.

Rushcliffe Borough Council has objected to plans for a similar centre at RAF Newton, in Nottinghamshire. A decision is awaited.


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