Penally’s county councillor has expressed his dismay that Pembrokeshire County Council have not pursued a legal course of action to challenge the Home Office’s decision to repurpose the village’s Military of Defence camp as an accommodation centre for asylum seekers.

Clr. Jon Preston has stated it would be an ‘injustice to the constituents of Penally and Pembrokeshire’ if the local authority did not invest some time and expense in obtaining a legal opinion on the issue, as he holds the belief that the Home Office has not provided evidence to support its execution of its ‘emergency powers’.

171 asylum seekers are currently staying at the MoD camp in the village of Penally, but the Home Office’s decision to use the site in the small coastal village continues to be questioned, with politicians and local residents raising their views with UK Government ministers in recent weeks, with little result, adding to the frustration felt by the community.

During an online ‘community engagement meeting’ last month, director of borders, immigration and citizenship system at the Home Office Deborah Chittenden personally apologised for the lack of initial engagement, which was due to the urgent need of the situation due to a “blockage of the system” caused by the Covid-19 lockdown.

Ms Chittenden assured the meeting, that it was a temporary agreement with the MoD for up to 12 months, and once the lockdown backlog was dealt with the site would not be needed. However, the planning process in which the site has been obtained by the Home Office, continues to be questioned by stakeholders in Pembrokeshire.

Clr. Preston continues to question the process, stating that he does not believe that the Home Office has provided evidence to support its execution of its ‘emergency powers’, stating that he is currently party to an application for a judicial review of the Home Office’s decision to accommodate asylum seekers at Penally training unit.

“To date the Home Office has conceded that there is a requirement for a material change of use in this planning matter - therefore, planning consent is required with six-month emergency permitted development rights,” stated Clr. Preston last month.

“Due to there being a change of use, an assessment of the proposal against planning policy would be required, with an exception for any permitted development rights that may apply once the change of use occurs.”

Clr. Preston wrote to PCC’s head of planning and suggested that a Planning Contravention Notice be considered for serving on the developer and Secretary of State seeking answers to questions to justify the state of emergency.

“The Home Office claim this action is key to resolving coronavirus social distancing guidelines, however the accommodation may not adequately support effective social distancing - if an emergency situation is declared then the change of use at the site should show robust evidence of resolving that emergency,” he continued.

“If these actions are not challenged then there is a possibility that the Home Office may not even pursue local authority approval. Therefore it remains imperative that a planning application is submitted.

“Then if the emergency designation is accepted, I understand that PCC could issue an enforcement notice if consent is not in place after six months.

“The Welsh Government should be actively challenging this affront to democracy by standing up to this autocratic action by Westminster.”

Further to this, in correspondence sent to Dr. Steven Jones, Pembrokeshire County Council’s Director of Development, this month, Clr. Preston has questioned why the authority has chosen not to pursue a legal challenge on the matter, after Dr. Jones stated that following consultation with colleagues in the legal division, officers do not consider there to be a legal basis for reviewing the planning position.

“Further to your enquiry about the efficacy of a legal challenge regarding the powers used by the Home Office to support their Notification letter and permitted development right for Emergency Crown Development, having consulted with colleagues in the Legal division, officers do not consider there is a legal basis for reviewing the planning position,” stated Dr. Jones in his response to Clr. Preston on the matter.

“The Corporate Planning Manager has been in touch with the Home Office’s planning consultants to advise them of the process for submitting a planning application (in Wales), and in particular the need to undertake a pre-application consultation exercise if the application meets the ‘major development’ threshold.

“The linked issue of suitability is one that the Welsh Government has made strong representations to the Home Office about, more recently with Deputy Minster Jane Hutt stating that the decision was “incompatible with the Welsh Government’s approach to inclusive and cohesive communities” and the First Minister Mark Drakeford expressing concerns about the “grave deficiencies in the standard of accommodation” and calling on the Home Office to close the site.

“Officers are in contact with Welsh Government regarding suitability and note concerns (about other asylum sites) recently raised by the Chief Inspector of Prisons,” added PCC’s Director of Development.

Clr. Preston has hit back at the authority’s stance though, stating that if there is any doubt then PCC has a duty to seek the opinion of a specialist in this particular area of law if not at least to put closure on the matter.

“As the elected member for the Penally ward I can only express my disappointment that the local authority has no intention of seeking an expert opinion on this matter,” said Clr. Preston.

“It is widely agreed that the military training camp at Penally is not fit for the purpose of housing asylum seekers, not least for the fact that the military installation at Penally is transit accommodation and is not suitably equipped to accommodate such numbers for weeks on end, particularly through the winter months.

“Despite this, the Secretary of State for Wales, the Welsh Government and the Local Authority have failed to take any meaningful action in challenging this decision.

“In the meantime the media continues to report on the poor conditions in the camp while the authorities appear powerless to act!

“I must now take it that the official position of Pembrokeshire Count Council is that it is satisfied that the ‘emergency powers’ used by the Home Office genuinely apply in this case?

“It is my understanding that if emergency powers are used there must be a burden of proof that an emergency exists.

“If the emergency in this case is due to Covid-19 then the burden of proof would first need to state the emergency situation facing the asylum seekers and that the repurpose of the camp provided safety from the dangers presented by that emergency.

“My argument remains that the accommodation at the camp does not provide any more safety from Covid than the asylum seekers would have been afforded if they had been accommodated within a designated dispersal area.

“There is also now evidence that the safety of the service users has been compromised on more than one occasion and that social distancing is ‘impossible’.

“If it is a cost saving exercise then we are dealing with a totally different situation altogether.

“It is my firm opinion that this decision should be scrutinised by a lawyer who specialises in this particular area of the law. I am not aware of, nor am I expecting any governing body to step in and seek confirmation that the this process has been implemented within the perimeters of current legislation.

“Having carried out my own research and taken independent advice I am of the opinion that this situation warrants the full scrutiny of planning enforcement.

“In terms of the retrospective planning application I understand that this should be submitted as soon as possible following the local authority’s notification of the change of use (within 21 days) failing this a stop notice may be issued. By my own reconning this period has already lapsed.

“I believe crown sites are no longer exempt from planning regulations or the licencing of a multi occupancy facility, and I would argue that the powers that the Home Office have referred to in their explanation at the community engagement event may not fit the criteria for such action and I would like evidence of the burden of proof to support their actions in by-passing Welsh Government and the Local Authority under this schedule.

“I understand this can be obtained upon the issue of a Planning Contravention notice.

“To this end I am currently party to an application for a judicial review of the Home Office decision to accommodate asylum seekers at Penally training unit,” added Clr. Preston.