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Quantock School History: Press Archive

Go-ahead for asylum hostel enrages village

by Keith Perry
The Guardian, 9 August 2000

The hamlet of Over Stowey, nestling in Somerset's Quantock Hills, would be a suitable place to house 74 asylum seekers, a planning inquiry ruled yesterday.

Residents and parish councillors in the all-white community of 314 reacted with shock and disbelief at the news that the planning inspectorate had overturned Sedgemoor district council's refusal to approve a planned hostel for asylum seekers.

The Baptist charity Kaleidoscope said it now hoped to turn the former Quantocks boarding school into a temporary sanctuary for refugees from the Balkans, Sudan and Sierra Leone. It planned to keep them occupied with English lessons, sports and swimming while the Home Office decided on their cases. During the case, the charity argued that there was a need to rehouse asylum seekers to take the pressure off the south-east and London.

Embittered residents said the decision was a "disaster" for the local community, which has already been divided by the proposals.

Rocketing crime, begging, racial tension, and plummeting house prices could result, said residents, who have been backed by Tom King, the MP for Bridgwater and former Tory defence secretary. He sent a letter of objection to the planning inquiry.

The asylum seekers would be housed in two dormitory blocks. Some would be given full board but the rest would receive food vouchers worth 30 a week to spend in local supermarkets. Medical care would be provided by local GPs and the asylum seekers would be bussed into Bristol and Bridgwater for shopping trips, and to see their lawyers. There would also be an on-site team of counsellors.

Arthur Barrow, 55, who has lived in Over Stowey all his life, said the sale of his 600,000 farm collapsed yesterday after the purchasers said they would only buy his property if the decision went against the scheme. He described the ruling as "despicable".

"The majority of these asylum seekers will be 18 to 40. They are in an isolated rural area with nothing for them to do. I can't start to imagine the effect this will have on the area. Property values will plummet.

"I am resigning as a parish councillor forthwith. What point is there in having a parish council that acted on the wishes of the majority of the parish when its views are overturned?"

Chairman of the parish council, Mike Lampson, said: "Planning permission lasts for five years so even if the family that owns the old school decides not to go ahead and sells it, another buyer could still push ahead with the asylum scheme. It is a total disaster for the area."

The chairman of the planning inquiry, Philip Wilson, an architect who was appointed by the environment secretary, John Prescott, said the appeal proposal had been prompted by a "need arising from guidance issued by central government to ensure asylum seekers do not become concentrated in specific areas".

"I recognise the fear of some local residents concerning the presence of people from other ethnic backgrounds. I consider this is, in most cases, genuine but I do not consider it to be well-founded," he wrote. The Rev Martin Blakebrough, director of Kaleidoscope, said the centre would have 15 staff and the asylum seekers, including three families, would stay up to six months.

The former school, where Mr Blakebrough's uncle was headmaster, had approached the charity. He acknowledged that there were some strong feelings against the scheme, but said he felt that much of the acrimony had been "whipped up" by the rightwing press.

"The whole aim is to provide an environment where people can access support and work through trauma in a tranquil environment. People can be assured that it if did go wrong, we would close it. We are not there to make a profit from these people like ruthless landlords, but we will obviously recoup our costs."

The local vicar, the Rev Phil Denison, said: "Everything was taken into consideration at the hearing and those in the best position to judge these matters have made what they feel is the right decision.

"Somerset and Over Stowey are cosmopolitan places and have always been enriched by receiving visitors. I feel we will only benefit from having a more multicultural society here. Perhaps some people have invested quite a lot of time and money in opposing the scheme and don't like losing."