Court of Appeal

braintree resident appeals high court judgement in wethersfield asylum centre case

The High Court of Justice has today handed down judgment dismissing claims against the Home and Levelling Up Secretaries by our client Gabriel Clarke-Holland, and by Braintree District Council and West Lindsey District Council, that challenged plans to set up asylum accommodation centres to house thousands of vulnerable asylum seekers at Weathersfield Airfield and RAF Scampton. We act for Gabriel who is a local Braintree resident.

The Claimants had brought a claim against the government arguing that the Home Secretary acted unlawfully by relying on emergency powers under Class Q of the Town and Country Planning Act, to set up asylum accommodation in military bases by circumventing the ordinary planning consultations. They also argued that the Levelling Up Secretary produced an unlawful Environmental Impact Assessment because it only considered the environmental impacts of the plan over 12 months, when there was evidence that the government planned to use the sites for longer.

Mrs Justice Thornton DBE heard arguments over two days about why the Claimants considered the plans unlawful. They pointed to a significant body of evidence that showed government officials had discussed use of the site for five years. This followed the Claimants making repeated requests for disclosure from the government about how long they intended to use the site which uncovered evidence of contracts with contractual periods of two or three years. Evidence uncovered also showed the government tendering for two-year service contracts in relation to asylum centre management services. The Claimants argued that the government had not been forthcoming in disclosing their plans, failed to meet their duty of candour and pointed to evidence suggesting that a different plan had been announced publicly than what was being discussed internally.

Mrs Justice Thornton; however, dismissed the claims.

In her judgment, the Judge said that there was an emergency in the UK faced by asylum seekers who are at threat of homelessness. She agreed to consider the Claimant’s expert evidence by Professor Jonathan Darling of Durham University and acknowledged that the increase in demand for asylum accommodation was, in part, caused by the Secretary of State’s own policy choices that allowed a backlog of asylum claimants due to a slowdown in decision making. While she agreed with the government that the situation was an emergency within the meaning of Class Q she also added that there had been ample time (over three years) for the government to have made a planning application.

While the Judge also accepted the Claimants’ submissions that there is evidence to indicate that the use of the site was likely to continue beyond the 12 months emergency period, she rejected the claim on the basis that no final decision over the duration was made. The Judge further concluded that evidence post-dating the government’s decision on 29 March 2023 should not be considered. This meant that although the government announced, one day before the start of the hearing, that it would make a Special Development Order to use the site for a further three years, this evidence could not be taken into account in the case. In reaching her Judgment, the Judge regrettably relied on the Defendant’s ex-post facto evidence while refusing to consider the Claimants.

Following the judgment, our client has filed an application for permission to appeal to the Court of Appeal. He has said that in finding evidence of a proposed use over 12 months, and potentially a cumulative impact beyond the emergency period, the Judge’s conclusion that the environmental screening assessment was lawful is wrong. He has pointed to existing case law and argued it was wrong to discount evidence post-dating the decision which clearly shows that the government always planned to use the site beyond 12 months. West Lindsay District Council and Braintree District Council have similarly applied for permission to appeal. The High Court will now decide whether to grant the Claimants permission to proceed to the Court of Appeal.

Gabriel Clarke-Holland has said:

“I am grateful to the Judge for sitting over two days hearing my case. I have decided to appeal the judgment because I strongly believe that these plans are unlawful. The evidence strongly suggests that we were misled by the government, especially about how long they planned to use the site, and this is harming vulnerable asylum seekers on the site, local residents and services.”

Sue Willman of DPG has said:

What stands out from this judgment is that the Home Secretary always planned to use the accommodation centre for at least 2-3 years whilst using her emergency powers claiming it was a 12 month development. The lack of a full planning process, upheld in this case has led to local residents feeling their views and knowledge are ignored. That is unhelpful for rule of law and democracy.”

Local people will be campaigning against plans by the Government to continue using the site for longer than 12 months by way of a Special Development Order which must be approved by Parliament to have any effect.

On 21 November 2023, the Home Secretary said that he hopes to close the Wethersfield asylum camp as soon as possible and reiterated his previous comments that he thought it was unsuitable as asylum accommodation due to the remote nature of the site and limited transport infrastructure.

In the meantime, the Home Secretary continues to accommodate asylum seekers on the site, with reports suggesting capacity will reach 1,000 by Christmas. Deighton Pierce Glynn have acted on behalf of over 30 residents, most of whom are vulnerable victims of torture and trafficking, and who have severe health problems, making them unsuitable to be accommodated at military sites. Over 25 were subsequently transferred off the site to alternative accommodation. We and other firms are still receiving instructions from individuals who continue to be transferred to the site but who appear clearly unsuitable. Further legal challenges are anticipated imminently as a result.

Gabriel is  represented by Sue Willman, Emily Soothill and Ahmed Ali from Deighton Pierce Glynn Solicitors instructing Alex Goodman KC, Charles Bishop and Barney McCay from Landmark Chambers. He is crowdfunding the costs of his case here:

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