Birmingham to halt housing for asylum-seekers

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The Independent Online

Birmingham City Council is to stop providing housing for asylum-seekers, citing a need to prioritise local people amid long waiting lists for accommodation.

The local authority announced yesterday that it will not renew its five-year contract with the UK Border Agency (UKBA) when it expires on 30 June 2011, following a sharp increase in the number of homeless people in the city. Councillor John Lines, who is in charge of Housing, said that he expected other councils in the West Midlands to follow suit.

"Over the past year, we have seen a sharp increase in the number of homeless people in Birmingham and we must help the citizens of this city first and foremost," he said. "With a long waiting list for homes, we really need all our properties for our people in these difficult economic times."

He estimated that 7,500 homeless people will have applied for long-term housing in Birmingham by the end of this year, and said their interests should be prioritised ahead of those of asylum seekers: "What this (existing contract) is about is putting hundreds of homeless people in bed and breakfast while asylum-seekers are being given homes," Mr Lines said.

Birmingham City Council provides nearly 200 homes for asylum seekers as part of the West Midlands Consortium, which also includes local authorities in Wolverhampton, Dudley and Coventry. It has given notice to its partners that it intends to leave the group next June.

Britain's second largest city, in a mirror of the Coalition Government at Westminster, is run by a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Last month, the council sparked trade union fury by writing to 26,000 council employees informing them of plans to change their terms and conditions as part of a bid to save £300m. Stephen Hughes, the council's chief executive, said at the time: "The magnitude of this financial pressure is immense."

Mr Lines denied that the decision to stop providing accommodation to asylum-seekers who are dispersed to the West Midlands by UKBA was related to cost saving: "I won't gain a penny, I won't lose a penny," he said. "We aren't alone in this," he added.

The Conservative councillor said the decision had been made "in the interest of local people".

The UKBA said last night that it was confident it would still be able to house asylum-seekers in the region, using alternative public and private sector providers.

However, Birmingham's decision will leave a gap of up to 190 homes, and if other local authorities follow suit the shortfall could grow considerably.

Wolverhampton City Council, which provides 124 homes for asylum-seekers, said it had also been looking at ways to "exit the contract" but had not yet reached a final a decision, the BBC reported last night.

Coventry and Dudley, which together supply 147 homes, have both said they intend to continue working with the UKBA but were monitoring the situation.

Sir Albert Bore, leader of the Labour group on Birmingham City Council, said he accepted that the authority's housing department is "under stress with a big waiting list, an increased number of homeless and asylum seekers to cater for" but, that it "should not have led to the council refusing to provide accommodation for a reasonable number," he said.

Gail Adams, UKBA's regional director for the Midlands and East of England, said that she was "disappointed" by Birmingham's decision to withdraw from the West Midlands Consortium, adding: "The Consortium's existing contract will continue until June next year. UKBA will manage the transition to new accommodation in accordance with the terms of the contract."

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