Month: January 2016



Thanet council leader Chris Wells

 Over four and a half million Syrians are refugees from war in their country. Half of them are children. Last year Thanet District Council, at the time controlled by UKIP, said they would accept EIGHT refugee families. This is the lowest figure among Kent’s district councils.  

In the following interview, conducted in December 2015, Emily D M Robinson asked Thanet  councils leader, UKIP’s Chris Wells, about the background to the council’s decision. The following is the interview in full.

How do you feel issues of immigration have been dealt with by past councils? 

WELLS: Councils have relatively little power over what happens with immigration. One of the difficulties we have is being part of the big powerful south east and having a relatively low level of housing demand, and one of only a couple of areas that offer cheap rented accommodation.

Whenever there is a wave of immigration coming into the south east of England, we seem to catch the brunt of it. Whether the immigration comes in from Africa, from Afghanistan or wherever, we seem to catch a big wave in Cliftonville. Particularly in that bit of Cliftonville where 90%, which I believe is the highest in the country, of the housing is privately rented, and is where these guys come and flock, whether illegally or legally. That gives us as a council an issue to manage. It’s very difficult to manage that issue when you’re not in control of the people who come in.

With that in mind, have you been able to make any changes that you’ve really wanted to introduce or have you met a lot of road blocks in that regard?

WELLS: The biggest change we’re probably making is a continuation of a previously successful policy. Four and a half years ago we designated part of Cliftonville, as a council, as a selective licensing area, where we took greater controls over landlords and how they operate. The law allows you to run that for five years. We’ve lost a couple of years off of the front of that five years because of a judicial review from the local landlords, so we’ve only had it for three years.

We have seen success in limiting anti-social behaviour, limiting the amount of people who may be tucked into flats and crammed into areas and overcrowding. We’ve got an award winning group called the Margate Task Force multi-agency who operate through that area frequently, trying to control what’s happening in those areas.

We will, in the spring, be putting forward to Kent council an option to renew that and run it for another five years, in order to readdress those issues and make sure those areas come up to what we would expect.

Is there any difference in future plans in terms of how you deal with Syrian refugees coming in compared to economic migrants?  

WELLS: I suppose the difference in one sense is that because of the nature of the controls that go with having Syrian refugees and coming from government by negotiation is you have a degree more control over that than you have over the wide scale immigrant impacts that come from people who come in simply because they can do so under EU legislation.

What we have been able to do, perhaps for the first time in a long time, is measure what we think we want to offer sensibly and weigh that in accordance to what the government is willing to fund, and accept a number that felt reasonable under our current circumstances.

We are one of the most deprived parts of the south east and we are still one of the areas that has more problems and issues with immigration than many others. Even though the headline figures are less than what one might expect. At least we feel to a degree we have a control over the numbers that come in, and have an idea of what services they may need and whether we will be able to offer and meet them.

The issue that we usually have is that groups of people turn up and we find out weeks later that they’re here when they start putting in requests for services or things that are needed by them. So at least we were able to plan for this particular group.

Did you find negotiating that number an easy process?

WELLS: Basically an appeal went out across the whole of the south east for councils to put in bids, if you like, for the numbers they thought they could cope with and they could actually deal with. I think the largest I’m aware of in Kent is Ashford who said they would take 50 families over the five years concerned. The others said they would take 10, 12 or whatever.

We decided to look at eight families and the reason for that is very simple. It is because the other issue we have here is that we do have rather more unaccompanied asylum seekers who come in on their own and they are fostered in large numbers in this area because fostering is a big employment for this area. So in a sense we’ve already take our fair share of asylum seekers.

We decided that actually we should be in the lower end of the numbers for the Syrian families on account of the numbers of those unaccompanied refugees.

Which parts of Thanet are going to see a bigger impact from the crisis? Are you aware of where the families are going to be going. For instance, are they going to be going together in the same town or are they going to be spread out throughout Thanet?

WELLS: Funnily enough we are going to a conference on Monday in London which is about the experience that some areas who have already taken these refugee families have had. And, if I understand correctly, some have grouped them together, some have spread them apart and I understand there’s an argument for both particular positions.

There are a couple of very simple things that I think we have decided and that would be important to us. The first is that they will not be going to Cliftonville West which is where we have the rest of the refugee and immigration problem. It’s the poorest part of the three towns so we really know they shouldn’t go in there.

Our instinct at the moment is probably to spread them around the area but if we hear on Monday that the experience of the other areas having groups makes them more self-supporting, more independent and less dependent on other services then obviously we will look at that as well.

What we have said is that we are not going to use any of our existing social housing, so no Thanet resident will be disadvantaged by the incoming groups from outside. In doing that we are probably going to have to rent or maybe buy specifically in order to house these families accordingly.

There’s pros and cons of both. I’m sure if we rent from the private sector, again we’re back into that whole issue of whether it’s a good idea to put more government money into them, and if we buy specifically I’m sure we’ll be told that’s really unfair, we don’t do it for local residents. But if we do buy of course that means we will have more social housing stock in due course when these families move on.

Lots of pros and cons on how you weigh it up and deal with it but very clear that whatever we do will not disadvantage those on the current housing waiting list.

Have you seen a difference in the public’s willingness to take refugees since the Paris attacks?

WELLS: I personally haven’t noticed any particular difference. One of the things that actually occurred during this whole thing as it hit the news and headlines, is that people were ringing up and saying “I’ve got a spare room, I can offer accommodation for somebody here.”

Having talked to the government about the sort of vulnerable families that are coming, these are probably gonna be victims of torture who have had extreme trauma in their lives, it’s probably not the best way for them to be accommodated. It would be better for them to be accommodated as a self supporting family somewhere.

So we did see a huge willingness to offer spare rooms and offer support to individual incoming Syrian refugees. But none have arrived here yet and I hadn’t noticed any drop off in that from the Paris bombings. People still seem to be interested. We’ll just have to have a look and see what it is the government offer in our direction in the end before we decide how we will form their accommodation.

The average household family in the UK usually consists of two adults and two or three children; however in other parts of the world the average household family can be much larger, so do you have any idea how big these families are going to be?

At this stage no we don’t. I think the first families are likely to arrive in Ashford before Christmas which will give us an idea of the size and number that we’re actually talking about. I have to say as a father of 12 children I think it would be pretty ironic if I was knocking larger families.

But certainly you’re right in this sense that if you have eight families of four and they need services that’s one thing, but eight families of 10, that puts a different impact on the services they may use. We will have to monitor that and see what comes through the system. If they are coming from refugee camps I would be surprised if they were hugely extended families.

Final question, do you have a rough date as to when we can expect families to start arriving?

At this point [December 2015], some time in 2016. As I said, the very early ones are coming in soon to Ashford and some arrived in Northern Ireland just yesterday. They’re expected to come in increasing numbers through 2016. One of the nice things about being in the second or third wave of this is that we can look at other people’s experience and anything that’s gone wrong for them, and make sure we get it right.


mc-Donnell hands uo

People in Thanet could produce a local plan to revive their own area, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell told a packed audience in Ramsgate on Tuesday 19 January.

Mr McDonnell, a close ally of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, said: “We believe that local people have the knowledge and the know how to turn their areas round. So we’re saying to them, put together your plan, show us where you want to go and we will work with you to help you get there.”

He told the audience that areas like Thanet, one of the poorest parts of south east England, would have a special priority for the next Labour government.

The key, he said, would be investment in infrastructure and education, bringing well paid jobs based on new technologies. “A new Labour government will pick on areas to pilot new ideas for reviving a local economy – and Thanet would be exactly the sort of area to do this.”

Mr McDonnell was speaking at a meeting of the newly formed Momentum Thanet group, set up to campaign for the ideas and policies on which Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was elected.

Momentum organiser Jackie Walker, who lives in Broadstairs, said: “It was a tremendously successful meeting. Hundreds more came than we were expecting and there was standing room only.”

She added: “The great reception John received shows the huge enthusiasm there is in this area for the new Labour opposition. Jeremy has had some bad publicity in recent months, but our meeting shows public support for him is high and getting higher.”

Momentum Thanet is planning more events for the future. Email for details.

Margate’s Royal School For The Deaf: What’s Happening?


Words and Pictures by Emily D M Robinson

CAP Meeting

HOPE FOR THE FUTURE? A meeting to restart the creative adult project which was shut down when the trust running the Royal School for the Deaf in Margate went into administration.

Last year, on Friday 11 December, the John Townsend trust announced to the staff of The Royal School for the Deaf in Margate that they were going into administration.

This closed the school with immediate effect, putting 300 out of its 500 staff members out of work.

More importantly, this left children and young adults – many with very complex learning and hearing difficulties – without the care and support they had received from this institution.

The closure meant the loss of the school in Margate, the Westgate College and many other educational services staff provided for the students.

Subsequent weeks brought the gradual closure of the school’s residential services.

55 deaf children were catered for at the Margate school, while Westgate provided services to young adults aged between 19 and 23.

Despite over 11,000 people signing an online petition in an effort to save the school, the closure has proceeded.

But people’s passion for the welfare of the school’s students has brought signs of hope for the future.

One ex-member of staff, Katherine Shonk, worked as a children’s resident support worker and was also assistant admin for the creative adults project (CAP).

She says: “I absolutely loved working at the school, everyone was so lovely and friendly! The children and adults from the school are absolutely amazing, and were always putting a smile upon my face!”

At the time of this interview, Katherine was still unemployed. But along with her CAP colleague Lucy Holley, and many other people who have connections with the school, she plans to re-start the programme.

The project aims to hugely improve the life skills of its students, and to incorporate a former gardening project that also took place at the school.

“For some children, adults and staff the school was their family,” says Katherine, “So it’s absolutely heart wrenching that the school has closed down and left some with very little!”

Katherine and Lucy have been putting together regular meetings to kick-start the project again.

I attended one of these meetings, and rather than being met with a sombre atmosphere, there was a jovial feeling to the proceedings.

The meeting, which took place in the Old Custom House in Ramsgate, covered everything from funding to potential locations.

It was attended by 33 people, including CAP members, former students and their parents, personal tutors and many more service workers and users.

“I’m gobsmacked by how many people have come today, it’s a really positive sign,” said Lucy.

On the schools closure, Lucy says: “We feel like the service users were abandoned, we were crying for them, not for ourselves – not one single tear was shed for ourselves.”

Taliah Urooj, who also worked in admin for the creative adults project, says: “I loved working at the school. The team I worked with were amazing, the adults we worked with were incredible!”

While these people are now working as volunteers trying to revive the project, Jonathan Hunt, who worked for the enterprise side of the school, is still currently employed – but with notice of redundancy to leave on January 31.

Jonathan says: “We have been a bit luckier than those at the school who were made redundant just before Christmas. We had all been aware for a few months that the school was struggling but no one knew about the financial problems… We were not aware that possibly millions were involved.”