Afghan refugees could be 'priced out' of living in Central Bedfordshire says councillor as local authority looks for accommodation for families

Lack of accommodation "points a finger at our poor performance in building social housing"

Wednesday, 15th September 2021, 12:08 pm
Updated Wednesday, 15th September 2021, 12:10 pm

Afghan refugees could be priced out of living in Central Bedfordshire and left to relocate to abandoned properties in "the wilds of the north", a meeting heard.

Two different schemes aim to relocate Afghans arriving in this country, following the upheaval in their homeland, according to Charlotte Gurney, of Central Bedfordshire Council's housing team.

The initial settlement process for those "working with the British Army quite often in dangerous combat situations" began in April, she told CBC's social care, health and housing overview and scrutiny committee.

Afgan refugees wait to be processed after arriving on an evacuation flight from Afghanistan, at Heathrow Airport

"It was a calm, measured, organised scheme to relocate 5,000 individuals," she explained.

"CBC has been working with the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence since early June around settling individuals under that programme, and has housed two households.

"There were 2,000 individuals between April and August 15. Then a further 15,000 were flown in from August 15 to 31 because of the unrest."

A second resettlement scheme is anticipated to take 20,000 people over a five-year period, although it has yet to be finalised.

The government has a contract with Novotel, said Ms Gurney. "There are 74 hotels in the contract, with 54 in complete use at the end of August.

"We reached out to Luton and Milton Keynes, but it was mainly health care that was needed.

"The next move is into bridging accommodation, which is hotels arranged by the government where the households are assessed for their long-term needs.

"As a local authority, we're actively looking for accommodation. It's around mobility, whether they've family in the area, their employment needs and education, such as if school places are available."

There are about 100 households ready to be settled each week nationally, over a range of one-bed to seven-bedroom needs.

"Within this area, we haven't taken larger bedroom sizes because you have to think about the long-term affordability," added Ms Gurney.

"While there's government funding currently, they probably can't afford that larger bedroom size as they move forward.

"It's probably not practical in the south-east of England. They might need to look for other places for those larger families where it would be affordable.

"We've a meeting with the government on October 14 when we'll be given more information on the scheme.

"The people we're working with currently are English speaking, generally quite well educated and likely to go into employment soon after coming over here.

"The situation will be very different with the second scheme and that might be harder for us to resist."

Conservative Heath and Reach councillor Mark Versallion, who chairs the committee, said: "Thousands of people were caught off guard because things collapsed so rapidly.

"It's about what we feel is appropriate for us to volunteer to help with. I've been surprised by the negativity and positivity of people in our communities.

"Some of the uglier side of human nature unfortunately has come out. But the vast majority of people are much more thoughtful, sensitive and intelligent."

Conservative Ampthill councillor Paul Duckett said: "The reality for me is we've not got any houses to help.

"We haven't sufficient here for Central Bedfordshire people to live in, let alone anyone else. How can we possibly help?" he asked.

"Can we knock up seven-bed or eight-bedroom homes for people or will we just send them up to the wilds of the north where they've got big abandoned properties, costing not alot of money?

"Normally when you're doing that it's creating ghettos for people," he warned. "It points a finger at our poor performance in building social housing over the last 40 to 50 years as a society."

Ms Gurney replied: "I'm not going to deny we're in a national housing crisis. We're looking for properties on the private rental market. They're generally homes which have been readvertised."