The rural Essex village that could triple in size under government's asylum seeker airbase plans

Tony Clarke-Holland, chairman of the Fields Association which is worried about the plans to house asylum seekers at Wethersfield Airfield in Essex.
Credit: ITV News Anglia
Tony Clarke-Holland, chairman of the Fields Association which is worried about the plans to house asylum seekers at Wethersfield Airfield in Essex. Credit: ITV News Anglia

A community says it will be overwhelmed if government plans to house up to 2,000 asylum seekers on an old airbase go ahead - more than tripling its population overnight.

People living in the picturesque village of Wethersfield in Essex have seen fences erected inside the neighbouring military site in recent weeks as rumours circulated that the final few army families still living there were being moved out earlier than planned.

But they say they have been told virtually nothing by the Home Office which could take over the base from the Military of Defence in a matter of days as part of its plans to house thousands of asylum seekers.

Wethersfield currently has around 700 residents living in homes surrounded by the Essex countryside. The nearest town, Braintree, is around eight miles away and locals describe public transport as "virtually non-existent".

The government is considering housing up to 2,000 asylum seekers on the neighbouring Wethersfield Airfield, a former British and US airbase which has most recently been used by military police.

Villager Graham Lucas said there had been scant communication from the Home Office although they had been told via the district council that the site would not be a detention centre.

"People will be able to come and go pretty much as they please," he said. "We all understand the situation but, really, in this location it's just not suitable.

"There really aren't the facilities or infrastructure here for them. If they are going to try to walk into one of the villages, there's no pavements, it's busy traffic and roads. I'm really worried about the safety of people."

Villagers say work has been ongoing on the site at Wethersfield Airfield in recent weeks. Credit: ITV News Anglia

The government is under pressure to end its use of hotels to house asylum seekers while they wait for their applications to be assessed. Around 50,000 are currently being housed at a cost of £6m a day.

Ministers say the best way to do that is to stop people smugglers bringing people into the UK on small boats - and insist they are doing all they can to break that chain.

In the meantime, they need to find long-term accommodation for the many thousands of people hoping to be accepted into the country as refugees.

But the area's MP, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, previously told ministers the airfield was inappropriate and the Tory-led Braintree District Council said it was "considering all legal options" having objected to the plans.

The proposals are also being protested by the Fields Association, a residents' group set up to oppose "inappropriate and unsympathetic overdevelopment of the North Essex countryside".

Its deputy chairman, Tony Clarke-Holland, said 250 people had attended a community meeting at the weekend to express concerns about the areas doctors, dentists and roads being overwhelmed.

Wethersfield has one primary school and a post office while the village of Finchingfield, to the west of the airfield, also has a village store and a handful of pubs and tearooms.

Mr Clarke-Holland said, while the Home Office insists no decision has yet been made, villagers were not convinced.

"When you see lorries arriving with fencing, specifically to keep the asylum seekers away from the army families, trees being felled, buildings being cleared, you know something is happening," he said.

"Nothing like that has happened on that site for 20 or 25 years. You know something is going on."

Juliet O'Brien says rumoured plans to house asylum seekers at Wethersfield Airfield are not being made with people's welfare in mind. Credit: ITV News Anglia

Juliet O'Brien, who lives in a village neighbouring Wethersfield, said the government did not seem to be taking the welfare of the asylum seekers into account - and were simply seeking an easy solution.

"This site is owned by the government so it's free land to them and I think they just feel like they can dump what they see as their problems here," she said.

"That's not helping the asylum seekers. It's not giving them the respect and support they deserve. These are people who are fleeing from war and persecution. They deserve our help rather than being dumped in a huge camp with no support and no facilities nearby."

A spokesman for the Home Office said they could not comment on individual proposals but added: "We have always been upfront about the unprecedented pressure being placed on our asylum system, brought about by a significant increase in dangerous and illegal journeys into the country.

"We continue to work across government and with local authorities to identify a range of accommodation options, as well as engaging with key stakeholders as part of this process."

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