A small village and a plan for 74 refugees: asylum issue is brought home to the shires

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The Independent Online

A sleepy English village, a plan to "foist" refugees and tales of the "luxury" lifestyle they will enjoy courtesy of the British taxpayers - these are the ingredients necessary to fuel the emotive controversy about asylum-seekers.

A sleepy English village, a plan to "foist" refugees and tales of the "luxury" lifestyle they will enjoy courtesy of the British taxpayers - these are the ingredients necessary to fuel the emotive controversy about asylum-seekers.

Over Stowey, at the foot of the Quantock Hills, has been chosen by a Baptist charity to turn an empty former boarding school into a temporary sanctuary for 74 asylum-seekers, from the Balkans, Sudan and Sierra Leone.

A test case inquiry at the local council in Bridgwater, Somerset, was told yesterday that the district council had already refused the charity, Kaleidoscope, planning permission because it did not think the accommodation satisfied Home Office guidelines. The charity is appealing against the decision. If it wins the way would be open to disperse asylum-seekers into rural communities across England to take the pressure off the South-east and London.

The issue has led to acrimony at Over Stowey, which has an all-white population of 314. There has been heated public meetings, families and friends have been divided and the vicar and the chairman of the parish council are at odds. The former Conservative cabinet minister Tom King, a local MP, has also expressed concern.

Objectors say that as the village does not have a shop, post office or even a pub, it is unsuitable for the refugees, who are mainly young men. Some also fears the plan will lead to crime, as well as house prices falling. The chairman of the parish council is particularly worried the refugees might chat up English girls.

Some villagers are scandalised by the benefits theasylum-seekers will be getting during their stay at Quantocks School. They would have access to a gymnasium and a swimming pool and would also get free trips to nearby Nether Stowey, as well as shopping centres beyond in Bristol and Bridgwater by minibus.

The inquiry, at Sedgemoor District Council, is being chaired by Philip Wilson, an architect appointed by the Government for the role.

He said: "The south-west consortium responsible for housing asylum-seekers has identified the Bridgwater area as an appropriate area forasylum-seekers. Had it not been suitable it would not have been identified."

The Rev Martin Blakeborough, director of Kaleidoscope, said the centre would have 15 members of staff and theasylum-seekers, including three families, would stay up to six months. He said the former Quantocks School, where his uncle was headmaster, had approached the charity.

Mr Blakeborough said: "I have no doubt we would provide a centre of excellence which would act as a model. The overall aim is to provide an environment where people can access support and work through trauma in a tranquil environment.

"I believe it is a place where people will find acceptance. I believe the local community is very caring and I believe that is a very positive thing."

The local vicar, the Rev Phil Denison, agreed the village would be able to cope with the scheme. "We are a 100 per cent white population here but I have enjoyed the benefits of a multi-cultural population elsewhere. I worked with Vietnamese boat people arriving in the country. And this would be of benefit to our community."

Mike Lampson, the chairman of the parish council, led a delegation of villagers to the planning inquiry, which has received 69 letters - including one from Mr King and another from the local health authority - concerned about the additional burden on their facilities.

"It would be untrue to say there wasn't an element of racism but it is very small. There is a lot of fear of the unknown and worry about what might happen," he said. "They would have no money, only vouchers. Where would they get the money? Would it be left to thieving? They want to go to the pub - would they be chatting up the girls?"

Arthur Barrow, 55, who attended the hearing with his wife, Pauline, said: "I have nothing against the asylum-seekers themselves. It's just the environment they are bringing them into. They will be two miles from any shop.

He added: "It will also affect house prices in the area. I know of two or three properties that had difficulty selling as people wanted to wait until after the inquiry. This is a small community. There is nothing for them here."