Most legal challenges to large asylum-seeker sites are about the fact that the Home Office never obtains planning permission. The latest claim is designed to put an end to the Bibby Stockholm barge, and it comes from the mayor of Portland – who must crowdfund £15,000.
During Priti Patel’s tenure as home secretary, the Conservative government hit upon a new wheeze. The idea was to stop treating asylum seekers as people deserving of a new life, in a community, and to start decanting them – like objects – into former military sites, former prisons and barges.
At these new containment sites, asylum-seekers are about as far from communities as you can imagine, usually behind barbed wire and where no one can see what is happening to them. These are not accommodation sites: they are now quasi-detention centres. And they are an uncomfortable warning that ‘othering’ people, and removing them from society, is how concentration camps began.
The first attempt at a containment site was last summer: Priti Patel wanted to put 1,500 people onto the former RAF station at Linton-on-Ouse, 10 miles from York. Thanks to Hambleton district council and North Yorkshire county council (as they were) and the Linton-on-Ouse Action Group, of which I was a member, we saw off those plans in just 14 weeks.
During that time, I came face-to-face with Home Office officials in Linton’s village hall, and discovered more than I wanted to know about government. I saw for myself the contempt for local people, the shambolic incompetence, the knee-jerk decisions, and the lying. Oh, the lying.
The Home Office came back hard
I always knew that the Home Office would bide its time after Linton and then come back swinging. In early March this year, I received a tentative phone call from someone who lives near RAF Wethersfield. “I think it’s happening here”, she said. And a few weeks later, someone from RAF Scampton. Then someone from Bexhill. The Home Office is making its way around the country, trampling on rural communities and coming up with Machiavellian plans for asylum-seekers.
And then there is the barge. “Barges are a solution … and we will do (sic) as many as it takes”, claimed Rishi Sunak. But that was before the scenario with the Bibby Stockholm began to lose its moorings in spectacular fashion, set to the Benny Hill theme tune.
So from my home in Ripon, I’ve been campaigning against the barge for the past four months. I wrote a briefing about the retraumatising effects of being made to live on water when you’ve made treacherous crossings of the Mediterranean and the Channel. I discovered that the barge will cost more per head than hotels, so the government strategy is a nonsense. I wrote the report on fire safety which caused such a fuss and led to a delay in the barge becoming operational. And, of course, the recent discovery of Legionella bacteria in the barge’s water supply heralds an even more appalling turn in events.
The legal challenge to the barge
I’m currently working with the mayor of Portland, Carralyn Parkes, in her legal challenge designed to close down the Bibby Stockholm site. She is the local councillor for the ward where the barge is berthed. Dorset council briefly considered taking legal action itself, but abandoned the idea after getting what seems to have been very different legal advice. So Carralyn is taking on the Home Office herself.
The public must seek planning permission for even relatively small changes to their properties, yet the Home Office has no regard for those same rules. It did not seek planning permission at RAF Linton-on-Ouse, or at RAF Wethersfield, or at RAF Scampton. And it has not sought planning permission for the Bibby Stockholm barge. It is our view that if it had, permission would have been refused.
Carralyn is asking the courts for a ‘judicial review’, which means considering whether a government decision was lawful. The legal argument around planning is complex, because the barge site straddles both land and sea – and neither the operation on the water, nor the one on the land, could exist without the other.
- First, the legal team is asserting that Portland Harbour is within the jurisdiction of the local planning authority, and so planning permission must be sought. This then has implications for overcrowding and environmental control.
- Second, the barge is effectively a permanent structure, like a pier, dock or marina, not the sort of transient visitor which Portland Port normally sees (such as cruise ships docking for a few hours). The Bibby Stockholm is connected to the land for supplies, electricity and sewage, and for asylum-seekers and staff to get on and off. The permanence of the mooring therefore requires planning permission.
- Third, work has been done on shore to support the barge: creating the exercise compound, putting up fences and structures, changing a building’s use, installing plumbing and electricity, and demolition works. These require planning permission.
A call for help with the crowdfunding
To cover her legal costs, Carralyn needs to raise £15,000. She’d love your support via her CrowdJustice page, and would be very grateful for any donation, however large or small. Carralyn really does have a strong chance of ending this – and almost certainly putting a stop to any future barges, as a result.
It could be that the government has overplayed its hand on immigration. Their miscalculations could be their undoing at the next election.