Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
Under the Blair government, Ipswich was made a ‘dispersal area’ for immigrants, without any prior debate with local people. Hundreds were dispatched to the town, many of whom remain, having set up their own businesses, or taken a range of jobs, including in warehouses and factories, as supermarket drivers and in social care. They were also housed in housing association or council-owned properties. As they settled, they were signed up to all public sector services, including the NHS and local schools providing education.
Over the years, they have established their own communities, dominated by barber shops and specialist food outlets, in specific locations; learning English wasn’t always a priority for adults, and it is increasingly commonplace to hear a range of foreign languages in the town centre.
As happened across the country, the pandemic triggered a decline in the town centre, with the loss of big name retailers. Sadly, crime rates have risen in recent years, with county lines a serious issue; personal safety has also become an issue, with extra monies being channelled into better lighting and a greater police presence in the most vulnerable areas.
So, it was a shock to learn that a further 200 asylum seekers are to be sent to the largest hotel, Novotel, in Ipswich town centre. The Home Office insists it ‘consulted’ the local authority, but it didn’t listen to concerns raised.
Tom Hunt, the local Conservative MP, opposed the plan, raising it in Parliament, and David Ellesmere, the Labour Council Leader, complained that Ipswich is the only town in Suffolk having to cope with such an influx, saying “95 per cent of the county’s allocation come to Ipswich, when another hotel on the outskirts (at Copdock) has already been taken over. The Home Office has gone back on its pledge to spread asylum seekers evenly across Suffolk. We’re having more pressure put on our services, when other districts are not doing their fair share.”
The Council issued a temporary stop notice under planning legislation, and – on 27th October – the High Court granted an emergency injunction. Tom Hunt has also applied for a Parliamentary debate.
Research by Anglia TV local news indicated that staff in hotels providing hostel accommodation are likely to lose their jobs.
The loss of these two prime hotels will have a serious impact on tourism and the business community, as well as residents, with weddings and other major events cancelled. Novotel, alone, attracts hundreds of business people, theatre and football supporters, who spend their money in the nearby specialist shops and restaurants; without them, the local economy will suffer serious decline.
Further decline is inevitable, with many local residents now preferring to shop in other parts of the county, including Bury St. Edmunds and Woodbridge, where they feel safe and choice is broader (and parking a lot cheaper).
Liz Truss may no longer be Prime Minister, but for the Home Office to take such action is not the route to Levelling Up and growth, growth, growth. Rishi Sunak commented some months ago that even areas which appear to be affluent (as does Suffolk) face deprivation. Ipswich is just such a place, and its situation has been made a lot worse by the Home Office.
Suffolk is a major agricultural area, but farms find it difficult to recruit workers; consequently, it would make sense to locate more asylum seekers in rural areas, enabling them to have jobs and contribute to the economy.
With only four per cent of asylum seekers being processed, and hotel costs hitting a reported £2.4 billion annually, government is now proposing that they be housed by private landlords. Local people across Suffolk have been very generous in homing Ukraine refugees. But there remains a serious shortage of properties for rent, both in the public and private sectors, whether for the local population, or asylum seekers, especially in deprived areas across the region, including Ipswich.
Be in no doubt, local people – and politicians – are very angry. Next year’s local elections will reflect that anger.