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 council’s 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.