Port in a storm

By Carralyn Parkes | 08 November 2023

I am councillor Carralyn Parkes. I was elected as an Underhill Ward Labour councillor on Portland Town Council in 2019 and am currently mayor of Portland. Portland has been much in the news of late regarding the Bibby Stockholm asylum seeker accommodation barge.

Dorset Council first alerted Portland Town Council to the Home Office and Portland Port’s intention to bring floating accommodation for asylum-seekers in the port on 27 March 2023. The information they could offer us was limited as Dorset Council had not been involved in the discussion to bring this accommodation to Portland.

My initial reaction of disbelief rapidly progressed to shock and horror when the enormity of the Home Office’s plans became clearer in the ensuing days. Their confirmatory press release on 5 April 2023 stated that 500 male asylum-seekers would be housed on the Bibby Stockholm, the barge being contracted for a period of 18 months.

I say shock and horror because I believe housing vulnerable people on a barge is inhumane; human beings belong in communities, where they can be taken care of properly. In my opinion, the Bibby Stockholm is a policy gimmick that will not address the issues related to asylum backlogs and small boat crossings. Proper investment in decision-makers in the asylum and immigration system and creating a safe route in Calais for people to apply to come here seem to me to be sensible ways of addressing these issues and I would have preferred the millions spent on the barge to have been put to this use.

What emerged in subsequent weeks was that the Home Office and Portland Port had held four months’ worth of secret, behind closed doors discussions, excluding statutory bodies, stakeholders, the community where the barge was to be placed and the asylum-seekers themselves.

This meant questions relating to overcrowding, Portland’s weak infrastructure and just how unsuitable both the barge and Portland is as a place to accommodate a large group of potentially traumatised people with complex needs could not be properly explored, nor could members of our community express their views. In my opinion, there is an expectation from the Home Office that they decide, and it is up to statutory bodies to make these imposed decisions work, regardless of how impractical.

My belief was if the Home Office had applied for planning permission, the Bibby Stockholm was such a flawed proposition that planning permission would be denied. I had asked questions regarding planning informally in April and then formally through our planning and highways advisory committee on 24 May 2023. Dorset Council stated that as the barge was below the mean water mark, that it had no jurisdiction.

Dorset Council further declined to take any legal action against the Home Office but has consistently stated it opposes housing asylum-seekers in this way.

Portland Town Council has no statutory responsibilities for the asylum-seekers on the barge, nor does it have the money to fund a legal challenge.

I felt someone had to make a challenge, so found myself in the unusual situation as a newly-elected mayor, of having to disassociate myself from my position and take legal action against the home secretary as a private individual, funding the claim through a CrowdJustice appeal. The action was taken against the home secretary as instigator of the barge. Dorset Council was included as an interested party, and although it maintained no responsibility for the barge, it recognised there were grey areas in law and welcomed the clarity a claim would bring.

At the Royal Court of Justice on 11 October 2023, the judge decided the home secretary had acted like a developer, and that if a developer had broken planning law, it was up to the local authority to enforce it. The judge intimated we should be making a claim against the council for enforcement.

It is with absolute reluctance that I am making this claim against Dorset Council for judicial review for not enforcing planning law on the Bibby Stockholm. I view it as victims of the home secretary’s actions as are Portland Town Council, the statutory bodies, our community, and the asylum-seekers themselves. However, the council’s persistent refusal to enforce planning law has forced my hand, such is my strength of feeling against housing individuals in such unsuitable accommodation in a wholly inappropriate location.

My hope is a judgement in our favour will help other local authorities faced with similar predicaments. Most important of all, I want to stop the accommodation of vulnerable people on the Bibby Stockholm and to consign it to the dustbin of history.

Carralyn Parkes is mayor of Portland Town Council. She is bringing her legal claim in a personal capacity

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