To consider any Part I business accepted by the Chair as urgent.
Use of Ibis Hotel as accommodation for Asylum Seekers
The Leader advised that, on 3 December 2022, the Council was notified that the Home Office wanted to work with Hertfordshire County Council and Stevenage Borough Council to determine which cohort would best fit the Ibis Hotel site up until 16 December 2022, noting that it had a maximum bedspace of 178. This was in addition to the 183 asylum seekers already placed by the Home Office in the Novotel Hotel adjacent to Junction 7 of the A1(M).
The Leader stated that neither she nor officers believed that the use of the Ibis Hotel was acceptable, and felt that it would bring significant challenges for public sector providers, for local communities, and for those accommodated.
The Leader commented that there was already stretched educational and health provision in the Borough and nationwide, which would be stretched further by the use of hotels by the Home Office for the above purpose. She recognised the Council’s shared obligation to provide a safe environment for those seeking asylum, but considered that it was unacceptable that disruptive, challenging and inappropriate proposals for the use of large scale hotels within Stevenage were still being brought forward by the Home Office.
The Leader was surprised that the Home Office was prepared to use the Ibis Hotel for the accommodation of asylum seekers, which they had discounted some months ago. The Home Office had completely disregarded the work of the Regional Strategic Migration Partnership.
The Leader stated that she had no confidence in the Home Office’s pledge that the Ibis Hotel would only be used for the purpose until 16 December 2022. She had also learned that the Home Office had signed a booking contract with the hotel owners in Mid November 2022, but had failed to notify the Council, the Local MP, or partner authorities of its pending use until 3 December 2022. As a result, the Council and its partners had been unable to put any support provision in place for the asylum seekers.
The Leader explained that the hotel would contain single male asylum seekers, a decision which had been taken with no regard to the community safety concerns already raised by the Council and its partner organisations since the Novotel had been identified as a similar contingency hotel.
The Leader advised that, in response to the Home Office notification, the Chief Executive had respectfully, but firmly, asked Home Office officials to remove the Ibis site for future consideration beyond 16 December 2022. The Council had also called for an urgent meeting with the Home Secretary and the Local MP to make the strength of local views known. This was in addition to a request that the Home Secretary (or her representative) visits the Novotel Hotel in Stevenage to see how unsuitable it was for the placing of asylum seekers.
The Leader expressed a further concern that moving exiting hotel use into a dedicated form of hotel provision could breach planning regulations, noting that legal challenges had been launched elsewhere in the country. As a result, the Council was seeking legal advice on this matter.
The Leader also drew attention that no new burdens funding had been provided to the Council and its partners by the Home Office to support the asylum seekers, in particular local health screening services. She added that inspections would be undertaken by the SBC Environmental Health Service and Hertfordshire Fire & Rescue Service to ensure that the hotel premises was a safe place to accommodate the asylum seekers.
The Leader referred to the Labour Group’s motion being submitted to the Council meeting on 14 December 2022 urging the Government to carry out an urgent review of the policy of using hotels for the accommodation of asylum seekers. The motion also calls on the Government to work with local authorities to develop more sustainable options for the accommodation of asylum seekers, including for example the use of Ministry of Defence modular buildings, alongside properly resourced support packages that met the needs of individual asylum seekers. Also for a review of the asylum seeker application process to speed up decision making, and to ensure that appropriate infrastructure is in place before decisions were made.
The following comments were made by Members:
· a further reason why the Ibis Hotel was an inappropriate location was its distance from any green/open space areas in the town;
· it was confirmed that hotels used for the accommodation of asylum seekers were able to refuse approaches from the Home Office, but that it should be borne in mind that such use would provide guaranteed income for the hotels, some of which may be seeking to recover losses incurred as a result of under-occupation throughout the Covid pandemic;
· concerns regarding the potential lack of hotel accommodation for overnight business people as a result of two hotels in Stevenage being used to accommodate asylum seekers; and
· concerns regarding the impact on Knebworth Park of the current use of the Novotel Hotel (in terms of the reduced number of visitors, some of whom may have stayed overnight at the hotel). Similarly, the impact of cancelled weddings and Christmas and other events at the hotel.