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Quantock School History: Press Archive

Rural revolt over asylum seekers' hostel

by Geoffrey Gibbs
The Guardian, 17 June 2000

The B-word has been much in use in Over Stowey this week. Not bogus, as in asylum seekers. But, but - as in "I have nothing against asylum seekers, but ... "

To their evident discomfort, residents of this normally peaceful corner of rural Somerset have found themselves under the media spotlight in a row about a religious charity's plans to house up to 74 asylum seekers in a former boarding school on their doorstep.

The proposal has bitterly divided this ancient parish, a clutch of hamlets spread along the eastern edge of the Quantock hills near Bridgwater.

The area, whose beauty and tranquillity once attracted Coleridge and Wordsworth, remains a highly sought after place to live, the sort of place young locals can no longer afford.

A cottage requiring 20,000 spent on repairs was recently snapped up for over 130,000 - more than 50% above the expected auction price. The Daily Mail pundit Paul Johnson has a rose-covered country bolthole here.

With their neatly mown lawns and polished Range Rovers in the drive, the small number of historic houses clustered around the 14th century church exude affluence.

Crime is low, the pace of life slow and untroubled. And that is the way most villagers would like to keep it.

For two days this week they have been reliving their worst fears. Kaleidoscope, a Baptist charity that wants to house asylum seekers in the dormitory blocks once occupied by the boys and girls of Quantocks school, has been appealing against the local authority's decision to block the plan.

Sedgemore district council rejected the proposal in January on the grounds that the site did not meet Home Office criteria for asylum seeker accommodation. Because of the remote rural location difficulties were likely to be encountered in providing support services.

Opponents - a large majority of the 314 members of the parish - agree. They must now wait until the government appointed inspector, Philip Wilson, gives his ruling later this summer.

Under the Kaleidoscope plan, asylum seekers would have access to the former school's swimming pool and sports hall - now run as a club for local people - and be provided with a regular minibus service to Bridgwater.

But those fighting the scheme say they will soon become bored. Pubs and shops are a two-mile trudge away in Nether Stowey.

For some, though, nimbyism runs deeper. There is resentment that money is being spent on asylum seekers at a time when the rural economy is on its knees. There are those who are by nature suspicious of outsiders. Over a drink in Nether Stowey, a few from the surrounding area denounce all asylum seekers as scroungers who should be sent "home" without more ado.

Mike Lampson, 63, a retired company director and farmer who chairs the parish council, said villagers had been unfairly portrayed as having a "lock up your daughters" view.

"If we are landed with them they will be given hospitality and every consideration given to any other person that lives here. But if common sense and logic prevails they will turn the plan down for the good of the asylum seekers themselves.

"If you shut 50 young men up in a school for six months or even longer they are going to get fed up. What are they going to do?

"I think what people are worried about is the fear of the unknown. There are no ethnic people in the village and all people have to go on are press accounts of what has happened over the last year in places like Dover. You can understand people's fears."

Joan Watson, who has lived in the village for 20 years, said: "There are going to be so many of them in such a small community and a lot of them are going to be young men. I have nothing against refugees or asylum seekers. If it was only a dozen it would be wonderful because we could absorb them into the community. But you can't absorb that many."

Margaret Swords said people were worried they would "get up to no good" one way or another. But she was also angry that money could be found to provide them with transport in a community where bus services for local people barely exist.

"The money is there to fund the asylum seekers, but it's not there to look after the countryside people of this area, and people are cross," she said. "It's not because people here are not sorry for asylum seekers, we are. But don't we count for something first?"

Gloria Goddard, 34, whose house is next to the grounds of the former boarding school, said she did not like the idea of large numbers of single men being housed there.

Clutching 20-month-old Harry, she said they should be placed in a city where there were facilities for the men to go out and enjoy themselves.

"At the moment there is no crime here at all, or very little, and I am worried that crime will go up. With 50 single men in an area where there are no single women they will get bored and frustrated. What will they do all the time? One or two families up there would be alright, but I don't like the idea of there being lots of single men."

Retired GP Philip Jago and his wife are among the few to have spoken out strongly in favour of the idea.

The local vicar, whose home is in Nether Stowey, has also given strong backing to the proposal. But opponents claim many of the 80 signatures he gathered on a petition supporting Kaleidoscope were those of people outside the parish.

"It is a perfect use for the school. It's absolutely tailor-made for the job and I think the asylum seekers would fit in well here," Dr Jago said. "There was a school there before that had far more people and the village seemed to survive. Asylum seekers will have a lovely home here. Of course there will be problems, but they are all things that can be sorted out. The overall vision is a lovely one. I think they will find more of a welcome here than might be thought."

Not from one member of the local branch of the Women's Institute, however. The woman, who refused to be identified, insisted she would have nothing to do with them.

"They could cause disruption. I go walking up on the hills and if I thought they were up there I wouldn't want to go because I have heard of them being a bit of a nuisance even in town centres."