In January 2022, the Home Office ran a consultation on a Planning Statement in support of the continuation of a Special Development Order for a temporary change of use of Napier Barracks in Kent, which is currently being used as accommodation for asylum seekers, up to September 2026. Seeking Sanctuary (CSAN member) is closely involved with asylum seekers arriving in Northern France and Kent. Phil Kerton, founder director of Seeking Sanctuary, here shares his observations on the site and its current use.
I have visited Calais many times over the past 5 to 10 years, as a member of Seeking Sanctuary, and observed the impact of large numbers of exiles encamped around the town, needing supply of food, water, clothing, sanitation, waste disposal, worship spaces and shelter. Drawing on this experience, what can we say about the use of Napier Barracks as an accommodation centre for hundreds of asylum seekers?
The obvious solution is to close the Barracks as asylum accommodation with immediate effect, moving people to safe housing in communities where they can be granted some measure of dignity and start to become familiar with daily life in the UK.
Several reports during the first 17 months of operation have been extremely critical, although improvements appear to have been made in the past 6 months or so. These improvements mainly result from allowing local volunteers to enter the premises or to make contact via Zoom to provide some meaningful diversions to residents. Their efforts are essential alongside Home Office provision, but it is not clear how volunteers can be assured of access in the long term, given the seemingly arbitrary decisions sometimes handed down via the site management team.
My problem in commenting on the Planning Statement is that I doubt if many of my concerns about scrutiny of the quality and consistency of work by contractors and the scope of what they can achieve while keeping costs within a budget can validly be considered by a planning authority. However, we can live in hope, considering that we might reasonably expect the Home Office to check upon day-to-day operations more frequently and stringently than in the past. For example, it has taken many months for a start to be made at removing barbed wire from the fences and providing some cover to the wire netting to give a measure of privacy to those inside.
I consider that the ‘crisis’ in accommodating asylum seekers has mostly been caused by the Home Office’s tragically slow processing of claims, rather than by an excessive number of new arrivals. Recruitment and training of Home Office staff would cut the need for temporary accommodation and allow successful claimants to move on to more conventional stocks of dwellings.
Napier Barracks was run down by the Ministry of Defence for a number of years, never being fully occupied, but catering for small numbers of personnel attending brief training courses nearby. The Home Office failed to address faults in the building before moving people in, and until recently did little to robustly assure their upkeep. The continued use of Napier Barracks should be subject to additional conditions. For example:
- The establishment of a proper building inspection and repair programme (for example for leaks, electrical wiring and fittings, plumbing, heating, doors and windows), to prevent further deterioration, reporting monthly on progress and subject to independent external scrutiny of thoroughness and quality.
- Measures to alleviate the military- and prison-like ambience. Internal redecoration is essential if use is allowed to continue for more than a few months – again, with routine reporting of progress against planned actions and external scrutiny of quality. Previous comments suggested that redecoration was not worthwhile when initial consent was for only one year of operation.
- Home Office assurance that its contractor’s senior staff on site do possess the experience and skills that are needed to run large-scale communal accommodation.
- Rooms should be provided where confidential face-to-face and phone interviews can take place.
- Maintaining the sporting facilities at a decent standard, whereby residents might play more sports against various local teams. Following its military adventures in and before the 19th century, Great Britain left a love of cricket in the Middle East, especially in Afghanistan, and village teams in the North of France have prospered by recruiting new citizens to their squads.
The Planning Statement does not provide actual figures for the duration of asylum seeker stays during recent use of the Barracks. It appears that only postulated targets have been provided, without any indication of their reality.
The Home Office should indicate if all the communal buildings and facilities listed in Section 3.4 of the Planning Statement are provided with appropriate services and suitably furnished, and what plans have been made to maintain these provisions and to rectify any faults. The Planning Statement also states that: “the site is in an area of High Risk of unexploded ordnance”. No measures are proposed to quantify and alleviate this risk or to plan for the possible eventuality of explosions.
The equality impact assessment accompanying the Planning Statement states that various “other improvements” have been put in place by the Home Office. Various reports have suggested that a good number of these are provided by local volunteers. If so, what plans are there to assure that they are sustained?
Traffic Assessments in various Appendices to the Planning Statement present lengthy reports of interesting data from various other locations, none of them involving large scale accommodation of asylum seekers, concentrated in one enclosure. Given that the Home Office has placed numerous people in the Barracks for many months and its contractors have monitored arrivals and departures, surely more directly relevant data can be presented and analysed?
The use of curtains to partly or wholly divide dormitory beds has been common. More solid and relatively airtight partitions should be provided everywhere, and the spacing of beds adjusted to reduce the probability of transmission of disease.
If, unhappily, the number of residents remains considerable, the numbers of usable washbasins, showers and toilets should be increased to reflect this fact.
The views expressed in this blog post are the author’s.