Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former councillor in Suffolk
Dispersal areas were created during the Labour years to cope with the influx of asylum seekers and refugees, and provide them with accommodation. However, the process was, and continues to be, very secretive. It is time for more honesty between local authorities and their residents because the process is having an increasing impact on communities.
Trevor Phillips, former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, has warned of massive social unrest, identifying an assault on British values and behaviours, and ‘white racism’, with ‘mutterings in the pub and at the school gates’. He is not wrong.
For example, one of the main issues raised on the doorstep during the local elections was housing.
In one dispersal area, it is rumoured that 60 per cent of a development of 100 new council homes has been allocated to incomers. Elsewhere in the town, council tenants repeatedly complained that ‘my son/daughter has been on the waiting list for ten years, but the house next door has just gone to a foreigner – it’s not fair.’ Few people could argue with the unfairness, especially when the properties concerned had apparently been refurbished.
Private rental properties are also being used, at public expense, often without the residents’ management company’s knowledge or consent. This can be disruptive when anti-social behaviour (such as the well organised drug dealing which took place in a block of flats near me for months before the police were able to collect sufficient evidence to intervene, arresting eight people) impacts on other tenants, so they move elsewhere, leaving a vacuum to be filled by more foreigners. The usual vetting procedures applicable to the private rented sector don’t seem to apply, and it is very difficult to establish who can be held accountable; local authorities are unresponsive and patronising in the event of complaints, or when advice is sought.
Dispersal would imply temporary, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, with the character of designated areas remorselessly changing. Another concern is that ‘you go into town and never hear the English language’ – something of an exaggeration, perhaps, but it sums up the way many residents now feel excluded, and could also explain why some High Streets are suffering.
Frankly, a lot of people say they feel unsafe, although there is little or no evidence to support this, but media reports of incidents such as in Cologne add to the tension. It is the unfamiliar and the lack of information which prompts these comments, as well as the number of young foreign men in groups who dominate the streets at certain times. To put it bluntly, people feel threatened and vulnerable, yet they are scared to express their views because they‘re likely to be accused of racism, with the result that they don’t hang around after work to go for a meal or visit the theatre unless these venues are immediately accessible by a well-lit open (not enclosed) car park, or they can take a taxi door to door, instead of walking. So much for keeping fit!
The British people have always been generous to those fleeing conflict and abuse, and rightly so, but such generosity has been a response to having a full understanding of the circumstances and need.
The same should be true today before the welcome mats are distributed.
It is hypocritical of some in the media and arts, as well as politicians, to demand ever more numbers, when their often gilded lives mean that they are far removed from what is actually happening on the ground in our towns and cities. An impassioned speech in Parliament, at an awards ceremony or a one-off trip to Calais may attract the headlines, but returning to their multi-million pound homes in London or more affluent counties doesn’t give them any idea of how normal people’s lives are affected beyond the M25.
The burden appears to fall largely on areas already under pressure as they adapt to a changing industrial landscape. Three-quarters of local authorities refuse to take any migrants, whether refugees or asylum seekers, putting ever greater pressure on those which do – whereas if the numbers were evened out across the country, there would be considerable benefits, not least in helping people to fully integrate, something which Trevor Phillips calls for. Instead, at present there is a tendency for them to create and coalesce around their own growing communities in the dispersal areas which can only inhibit learning the English language and developing an understanding of the broader British culture – so important to acceptance.
Since only a small number of asylum seekers apparently have permission to work, they are not governed by the same clock watching which tends to dominate the lives of working people, which means they feel free to congregate late into the night and early morning, playing loud music and partying when others are trying to sleep. They drop cigarette butts, and other litter without challenge; instead of putting their rubbish in their own designated bin, without any regard to the need to pre-select before dropping into the blue, brown, black or green, they use a neighbour’s.
Petty to some people, this behaviour shows a lack of respect and leads to growing frustration (and anger) in areas where even private bins have to be left publicly accessible down side paths close to the pavement because there’s nowhere else to store them, so finding them full of someone else’s stinking rubbish is offensive. It is also an invasion of privacy, adding to that sense of vulnerability.
All people, whoever they are and wherever they come from, deserve to feel safe, and that includes British citizens in dispersal areas, many of whom feel their services and values are being undermined and community tolerance stretched. Consequently, local authorities have serious questions to answer, if only to enable their long-term planning:
1. How many refugees and asylum seekers have arrived in each designated dispersal area annually since the scheme was introduced, and the total number still resident?
2. Where are they housed: council, housing association or private rented, including the number of units and bedrooms in each category?
3. How many are allowed to work and have jobs?
4. How many additional school places have been/are being created in response?
5. How are the refugees and asylum seekers funded, and the cost to the public purse?
6. What is the precise meaning of ‘dispersal’ – is there a time limit for the duration of their stay in one area? If so, how is relocation managed?
7. Who is accountable, providing a named point of contact for information?
Honesty is, after all, the best policy. It certainly is if public support for further hospitality is to be corralled, especially for unaccompanied children; Kent County Council is already over-stretched so it is imperative that those local authorities which have so far neglected to embrace the dispersal agenda now rise to the challenge, telling their residents why. Perhaps the most vociferous luvvies would foster or adopt some of the more vulnerable, giving them the loving homes they deserve?
The nub of the challenge is providing homes.
The latest figures from the NHBC (National House Building Council) confirm a nine per cent drop in the first quarter of this year, with the total for the 2015-16 financial year falling far short of the 200,000 annual target, at just 152,329, compared with 152,262 in 2014-15. Consequently, local authorities’ priority must be a strategy to meet housing need for everyone, including British citizens as well as the desperate families and children fleeing the daily horrors of war-torn countries.
It’s surely time to recognise that ‘dispersal’ is not temporary, and make appropriate plans.