Just over a month ago, Rishi Sunak unveiled the latest attempts by the government to curb Channel crossings and clear the backlog of asylum claims by the end of 2023.
In December, Sunak told MPs in the Commons he would soon be bringing forward alternative asylum seeker accommodation for 10,000 people currently housed in hotels across the country, including “disused holiday parks, former student halls of residence and surplus military sites”.
But earlier this week, this pledge to stop spending £5.5mn a day on hotels suffered a blow when the University of Hull confirmed it was not prepared to sell two former student halls of residence to the Home Office.
Hull University potential asylum seeker accommodation
While Sunak chose not to identify any particular locations in his speech, the Home Office had already earmarked two vacant student halls of residence in Cottingham near Hull as potential sites.
Since the mid-1960s, these sites had been home to around 1,000 students during the academic year attending the nearby University of Hull. A ten-minute bus ride from the main campus in the city. The Lawns and Ferens Hall were until recently among four halls of residence in what bills itself as England’s ‘largest village’, which sits in the neighbouring East Riding.
Having been replaced by new housing on the campus itself, the two sites were put on the market and advertised as development opportunities with the nine-acre Ferens Hall site already designated for potential new housing under local council planning policies. Immediately next door, the more modern Lawns complex occupies a much larger 29-acre plot in a parkland setting.
Sunak’s reluctance to identify potential sites ensured most of the headlines about his speech concentrated on small boats. However, details soon started to emerge locally about the Home Office’s approach to the University of Hull.
David Davis unhappy with government plans
Among those particularly unhappy about the idea was Haltemprice and Howden MP David Davis, whose constituency includes Cottingham.
Once the issue was made public, he accused the home secretary Suella Braverman and immigration minister Robert Jenrick of deliberately keeping him in the dark about the approach during a recent meeting about wider immigration issues.
Davis told the Hull Daily Mail: “At the meeting with Jenrick and the secretary of state, nothing was mentioned about this at all. I only discovered afterwards through other means that there had already been an approach made to the university about The Lawns and that Jenrick was personally encouraging the vice-chancellor to support a sale. As the constituency MP, I think that was discourteous to say the least.”
By then, Davis was already dealing with criticism from other constituents living in nearby North Ferriby where a major hotel had closed and reopened as a centre for asylum seeker accommodation. Needless to say, his own government’s handling of the issue was not going down well.
Having lost the argument against changing the hotel’s operation, he was now facing a backlash from voters over proposals to empty other hotels and place up another 1,000 asylum seekers in his own political backyard.
Home Office in panic mode
Back in Cottingham, local councillor Ros Jump described the Home Office as in “panic mode” by trying to strong-arm the university into a quick sale. She said:
“The Home Office seems to be in panic mode with no proper strategy and a bottomless budget. Has anyone audited the standard of contractual services provided by the management companies who run the current accommodation centres?
“This is our money – taxpayers’ money – and public coffers have already suffered eye-watering wastage with the Covid PPE scandal.”
The University has now confirmed it is not prepared to sell either site to the Home Office, or to any other would-be buyer who intended on doing a deal with the Home Office to use them for accommodation. Vice-Chancellor Professor Dave Petley said:
“We have listened closely to the feedback from the community and following constructive conversations with members of the community, regional MPs, the police, the NHS, local authorities and stakeholders, we have taken this decision based on the concerns that have been raised.”