Despite fierce local opposition, unanswered fundamental questions and seemingly misleading and politicised Home Office press releases, the Government is planning to convert a former Sussex prison into an asylum detention centre. 

The proposed site in Bexhill, East Sussex, was formerly HMP Northeye. It operated as a prison until 1992 when it closed over fear of asbestos contamination caused by a fire started by rioting inmates. 

In March 2023, the government announced its desire to develop four new asylum centres in the UK – Northeye being one of them. The former Immigration Minister, Robert Jenrick, stated in Parliament that the development of these sites was part of the government’s plan to “stop the boats” and “cut the cost to the taxpayer” by reducing the use of hotels as asylum accommodation. 

Aside from these commonly repeated phrases, no other wider information was provided regarding the appropriateness of housing asylum seekers in a former prison that is possibly contaminated,  or about the purpose of the site, its redevelopment cost, and the potential impact on the local community.  

In September 2023, it was revealed via a freedom of information request that the Home Office had bought the site for £15.3 million. Thirteen months earlier, the government had sold the same land for £6.3 million. 

On 13 December 2023, 9 months after the initial announcement, the Government published the only, to date, publicly available information regarding its intentions for Northeye. 

The published information does not provide an answer specifically to why Bexhill was chosen, saying only that “the site is suitable” and “we are committed to securing the welfare of asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute”.

No answer has been given as to who will be accommodated there or the intended length of stay. The intended capacity is 1200 people, but no decision has been made on whether people will be free to come and go. As for the cost to the taxpayer, no figure has been given. 

The only section of the released document of any length is relating to the reason sites like Bexhill are needed, at least in the eyes of the Home Office.     

Broadly, it says that Bexhill, and sites like it, are needed to reduce the use and cost of hotels for accommodation while asylum claims are processed. The increase in “illegal” channel crossings has placed significant strain on the asylum system and caused asylum claim processing times to skyrocket. It goes on to argue using sites like Bexhill will act as a deterrent to further crossings. 

While it is factual that a significant number of asylum seekers are being housed in hotels due to a backlog of asylum claims, this backlog was largely not created by new asylum applications, but rather by a sustained decline in the amount of asylum claims processed by the Home Office annually.

Using the Home Office’s own data we can see that between 2016 and 2022 the number of asylum applications increased by 143%, by comparison the backlog increased by 515% over the same period. 

The lack of government transparency in its plans for Bexhill is very possibly a deliberate strategy to avoid public scrutiny, potential legal challenges, and accountability. It looks increasingly likely that the Government will circumvent planning laws by applying a Class Q emergency order for the Bexhill site. This would allow the government to bypass the local council, skip the public consultation phase, and leave oversight for the project entirely with the Home Office. A final decision on Bexhill has not been made yet, but this could change very quickly and potentially very quietly.       

Photo by Matthew Ansley

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