Rural protesters lose asylum centre fight

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The Independent Online

The much-delayed scheme to build Britain's first accommodation centre for asylum-seekers in the Oxfordshire countryside was approved yesterday after a bitter battle between the Government and protesters.

The much-delayed scheme to build Britain's first accommodation centre for asylum-seekers in the Oxfordshire countryside was approved yesterday after a bitter battle between the Government and protesters.

Three years ago, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, announced plans for a network of centres to take the pressure of dealing with asylum-seekers off London and other major cities.

Council-backed residents have fought a two-year campaign against the proposed complex near Bicester, claiming it would lead to an influx of "criminals and perverts". But their attempt to overturn the decision by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, to give the project planning permission was rejected yesterday by the Court of Appeal.

It upheld a High Court ruling that Mr Prescott had done nothing wrong in law when he approved the scheme. Des Browne, the Immigration minister, said he recognised residents' concerns, but he did not believe the proposal would be a "detriment to the community". He said accommodation centres would be an essential way of helping to ensure ensure asylum applications were processed quickly and effectively.

Dionne Arrowsmith, of the Bicester Action Group, said: "This decision is completely and utterly disappointing for many thousands of local people. We've fought a very long campaign and we are absolutely gutted."

Cherwell council is considering an appeal to the Lords. Its leader, Barry Wood, said: "We felt we had to stand behind the local people and fight an injustice. The planning inspector said no but the Government just bulldozed it through."

In 2002, the Home Office submitted its proposals to Cherwell council to house up to 750 asylum-seekers in a purpose-built site on former Ministry of Defence land. It could hold 400 single men, 50 single women and 300 family members.

The centre will have health and educational facilities. Asylum-seekers will stay for up to six months while their claims are assessed. They will get a small allowance and, although they will be free to come and go, they will be expected to stay overnight.

The Home Office has awarded the contract to operate it to Global Solutions UK Ltd, formerly Group 4. It is due to be running by mid-2006.

Mr Blunkett floated the idea of four such centres, but the initiative has struggled in the face of opposition from residents. Mr Prescott vetoed plans to turn the former Newton RAF base in Bingham, near Nottingham, into a centre and the Home Office has scrapped a proposal to house 400 single men at the disused HMS Daedalus air base at Lee-on-the-Solent, Hampshire.

Tony Baldry, the Tory MP whose Banbury constituency includes Bicester, said: "This is deeply disappointing. It will disappoint local residents who have every reason to be worried. And it will disappoint refugees after the dire warnings of every welfare organisation. Ministers have bulldozed through this friendless policy and made a mockery of planning democracy."

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