A historic airfield in the North Essex countryside was last year considered for two mega prisons housing 3,500 prisoners. This year, Home Secretary Suella Braverman changed plans, to create accommodation for up to 1,700 male asylum seekers instead. Braintree Council applied for a legal injunction against it, but on 21 April, Mr Justice Waksman ruled that he had no power to grant the injunction, effectively ruling in the Home Office’s favour.
World War II
The airfield was built near Wethersfield during WW2. It is thought that Spitfires flew from here during the Battle of Britain. Used by both the RAF and US Air Force, it was re-activated during the Cold War in the 1950s. It became a museum in 1990 after it was decommissioned and was eventually closed down by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) in April 2022.
In 2021, when the Ministry of Justice initiated their proposal to build two new mega prisons, a local campaign ‘Stop Wethersfield Airfield Prisons’ (SWAP), mobilised against it. In March 2023, the campaign switched to protest against the latest plan. Many of the objections to the prisons development also apply to the new plan.
Aside from its historic connections, the 300-hectare site has become a haven for wildlife during decades of disuse. 75,000 trees have been planted and much of the area has been rewilded.
Many protected birds, plant and animal species, including the rare great crested newt and European turtle dove, have thrived during its ‘neglect’. EAB has written before about how the site could be used as a natural amenity for the public.
Unsuitable and isolated
Campaigners believe the site is unsuitable for a large community of asylum seekers. They say that housing over 1,500 men in a ‘military camp’ in such a remote location is inhumane. You can only get to the area by country lanes, there is no public transport and it takes half an hour to walk to the village. Accessing medical and dental treatment would be challenging.
Unsuitable and unsafe
A recent geo-environmental study highlighted the risk of dangerous contaminants like asbestos, radioactivity and explosives such as TNT in the bomb dump area and explosives store.
Unsuitable and distressing
Nearby is a clay pigeon shoot, and many locals feel that asylum seekers who have fled from war-zones may be traumatised by what sounds like gunfire.
Local MP, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, had stated opposition to the plan. Conservative-controlled Braintree District Council applied for an injunction against the centre’s establishment. This prompted Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper to ask in Parliament whether the Foreign Secretary was backing legal action against the Home Secretary.
No planning application
The Home Office had not applied for planning permission for mobile accommodation units, and the council contended that residents should be consulted.
However, the government’s lawyer argued that the application could be classed as an emergency under ‘Class Q’, allowing normal planning laws to be bypassed. The hearing concluded on 21 April with Mr Justice Waksman agreeing that the growing number of asylum-seekers represented a ‘qualifying emergency’.
Whilst ruling in favour of the Home Secretary, the judge also decided to forward the case to the Court of Appeal due to the wider implications. Wethersfield is one of several MOD properties being considered for this use.
Braintree Council is “disappointed” and maintains that the site is unsuitable. Nevertheless, the Council hopes the Home Office will share plans with them so that they can identify actions to “support any asylum seekers accommodated, as well as minimising any impacts on… local communities.”
The Home Office has already started making preparations to the site and it could be ready by September. However, Wethersfield could only accommodate a tiny percentage of migrants currently in hotels and by September there are likely to be thousands more new arrivals to house.
An unlikely solution
The government lawyer stated that it is a “time-limited solution” for 12 months. However, it is difficult to see asylum-seeker numbers reducing in one year. The issue remains controversial and is likely to influence voters in May’s local elections.
Future local input restricted
Ministers recently proposed changes to planning permission laws to enable the government to turn disused military bases into migrant camps without local consultations. This would mean that in future communities would be unable to fight developments or apply for injunctions.