RAF Scampton: How the row over asylum accommodation plans unfolded

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RAF Scampton Credit: West Lindsey District Council

A judge has dismissed a High Court challenge by campaigners seeking to safeguard the former RAF Scampton airbase.

The failure of the judicial review means the Home Office can now move ahead with its contentious proposals to house hundreds of asylum seekers on the site in Lincolnshire, which was vacated by the RAF in 2022.

Mrs Justice Thornton said the government used correct language when referring to "the emergency" facing the UK in the light of accommodating asylum seekers.

In her 37-page ruling she wrote that it had been "able to demonstrate the existence of an event or situation which threatens serious damage to human welfare in the UK by virtue of homelessness, which in the present case, relates to asylum seekers."

Judicial review is a type of court proceeding in which a judge reviews the lawfulness of a decision or action made by a public body. In other words, judicial reviews are a challenge to the way in which a decision has been made, rather than the rights and wrongs of the conclusion reached.

The Story So Far

For decades RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire was renowned as the wartime home of 617 Squadron - the Dambusters - and, later, the Red Arrows aerobatics team.

But that rich history was swept aside when, in 2018, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced that the base would shut as part of cost-cutting measures designed to save £3bn by 2040.

Four years later veterans gathered for a flypast and parade that marked the formal closure of the base after more than a century of aviation.

It was the end of an era.

RAF personnel, including Guy Gibson (second right), at RAF Scampton during World War II. Credit: MoD/PA

Spring 2023

In March 2023 West Lindsey District Council unveiled what it called "a landmark deal" to buy the 800-acre site from the MoD and transfer ownership to its new development partner Scampton Holdings Limited.

The £300m deal aimed to regenerate the site by providing aviation heritage, business, aerospace, space and aviation technology, and education opportunities.

Those plans appeared to be scuppered when, within days, reports emerged that the Home Office was considering using the site to house hundreds of asylum seekers.

The scheme was met with widespread anger and disbelief in the local area.

At the end of March, the immigration minister confirmed the community's fears, with Scampton earmarked for around 2,000 asylum seekers at any one time, mostly originating from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. The first were understood to be arriving in October.

West Lindsey District Council soon began legal action.

The authority's director of planning, regeneration and communities, Sally Grindrod-Smith, said: "Any move to use the site for asylum seekers would likely curtail the nationally significant plans, which the council has been working on since 2018.

"Simultaneously we are considering all legal options, including urgent judicial review proceedings."

RAF Scampton: Timeline

  • 5 Sept 2022 - RAF Scampton closes bringing an end to years of aviation history 

  • 6 March 2023 - West Lindsey District Council agrees 'landmark' £300m deal to regenerate the site

  • 7 March - Home Office considers using site to house hundreds of asylum seekers

  • 29 March - Home Office confirms plans to use RAF Scampton

  • May - Council's application for interim injunction is unsuccessful

  • 14 July - Permission granted for judicial review 

  • 24 Aug - Portable buildings moved onto the runway of the former base

  • 31 Aug - Home Office hosts first public engagement events

  • 22 Sept - West Lindsey District Council issues 28-day Stop Notice

  • 31 Oct/1 Nov - Judicial review held in the High Court 

  • 13 Nov - Suella Braverman is sacked as home secretary and replaced by James Cleverly, MP for Braintree, where MDP Wethersfield is located.

  • 1 Dec - Home Office hosts second public engagement meetings

  • 6 Dec - Judge Mrs Justice Thornton dismisses claims in the judicial review

Summer 2023

In May the council asked a judge in London to impose an interim injunction preventing the Home Office moving "materials, equipment or people" onto land at Scampton, but was turned down.

In July it was granted permission to launch a High Court in the form of a full judicial review.

Also successful was Braintree District Council, which is opposing Home Office proposals to house thousands of migrants at the former Wethersfield Airfield in Essex - now a training centre for Ministry of Defence Police - where 46 single adult men were accommodated in July.

However the Home Office - which says there are 51,000 asylum seekers in hotels across the UK, costing taxpayers about £6m a day or £2.3bn a year - ploughed ahead with its plans at Scampton, using cranes to install portable cabins on the former airbase's runway.

Temporary cabins being put into place at RAF Scampton in August 2023. Credit: LDRS

Sarah Carter, leader of the Save Our Scampton campaign, said people were being given the impression that transforming Scampton into an asylum centre was a done deal.

She said: "It's a bit disrespectful because we got this judicial review pending - what happens if we win it? Then they've got to take everything back off at taxpayers' expense."

She later pitched a tent by the site entrance in protest at the proposals.

With work to prepare the site allowed to continue, frustration was growing every day at the lack of information coming from the Home Office. At the end of August it hosted the first of a series of community engagement events, but they did little to quell local anger.  

Autumn 2023

In September the council served a 28-day stop notice ordering the Home Office to cease work on site, claiming it had breached planning laws relating to the listed buildings and archaeology on the former base.

Leader of West Lindsey District Council, Cllr Trevor Young, said the evidence of ongoing preparatory work was "extremely disappointing".

He added: "It is an offence to contravene the stop notice and I urge the Home Office to cease all works in line with this legal action."

The Home Office said it was considering the implications of the stop notice.

Local people who attended new engagement meetings on 1 December dismissed them as "propaganda" and criticised the Home Office for not providing information.

A Home Office spokesperson said: "Accommodation sites such as Scampton provide more orderly, suitable accommodation for those arriving in small boats and will reduce the impact on communities due to on-site healthcare and catering.

 "We are working closely with councils and key partners, including local police to make sure appropriate arrangements are in place."

What Happens Next?

West Lindsey District Council says it will consider all options in the light of Mrs Justice Thornton's decision.

Council leader Cllr Trevor Young said the authority remained "firmly of the view" that the former airbase is not suitable for accommodating 2,000 single adult male asylum seekers.

He said: "We will continue to work hard to protect the £300m investment proposal that is on the table."

The council's director of planning, regeneration and communities, Sally Grindrod-Smith, said: "Whilst this is not the outcome we were hoping for, we have been planning for all possible scenarios.

"We will continue to hold the Home Office to account, in order to protect our services, communities and the investment opportunity, which will secure the long-term sustainability of the area."

Both West Lindsey and Braintree District Councils now have seven days to appeal Judge Thornton's decision.

If they choose to take this route and have permission granted to do so, their case would be heard by three senior judges at the Court of Appeal in London.

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