More than 300 objections were put forward in response to the application from Serco, which manages asylum seeker accommodation on behalf of the Home Office.
And there were strong feelings expressed by members of the public as Stafford Borough Council’s planning committee considered the proposals on Wednesday.
Dozens of people packed into a neighbouring room to hear the proceedings, including a number holding up signs saying “Say no to Serco”.
The meeting was briefly paused due to disruption from the public seating area, which included boos, hisses and comments referring to child sex crimes in Telford while a supporter of the application was speaking. A council officer warned that police could be called if there disruption continued.
Up to 481 asylum seekers could have been housed at the former Staffordshire University halls of residence at Weston Road. The proposals earmarked 171 bedrooms for initial accommodation for urgent stays of between three and four weeks’ average, while a further 310 dispersed accommodation bedrooms were intended for single adults for extended periods of months or years.
But residents living near the site feared for the safety of local children as there are three schools nearby. There were also concerns that crime could rise in the area and the facility would put extra strain on local services such as health centres.
Councillor Frances Beatty, who called the application in for consideration, said the concentration of asylum seeker accommodation proposed was “far too dense” for a town of Stafford’s size. She told the committee: “There is no lack of empathy but parents are understandably anxious the way of life of their children will be affected, walking to school or at play.
“There is no indication the local NHS services will have the capacity and specialisms to meet the needs of this population. Our GP surgeries are at full stretch – and there is a national shortage of GPs.”
Resident Steven Spennewyn said that the proposal went against human rights. He added: “I don’t think you have the right to treat your residents in this way – go and speak to residents about how worried they are.
“They don’t want to cope with 400 single males who will be able to wander around unhindered. There is a suggestion to build a wall to protect them from local residents and I find that really insulting.”
But Lisa Dysch, who spoke in support of the application, said on-site healthcare would be provided in the initial accommodation section. She added that there would be staff on site 24 hours a day.
“It cannot be denied more facilities like the one we are proposing are required”, she said. “We recognise this is the first time asylum seekers will be accommodated within the borough and understand this has resulted in questions and fears.”
The application was recommended for approval by council planning officers ahead of Wednesday’s meeting. Committee members were told there had been no objections raised by statutory consultees, although police recommended installation of perimeter fencing.
The committee went against the recommendation however and voted to refuse permission for the change of use for reasons including fear of crime and the effect on community cohesion. Seven members voted against the proposal, with two voting in favour and one abstention.
Councillor Carolyn Trowbridge, who proposed the application be refused, said: “I think putting asylum seekers into what is essentially a prison with smaller bedrooms – and definitely less facilities and care than a prison – is disgraceful and Serco should be ashamed for even suggesting this. It would only take one person living in this prison-like complex to kick off to cause huge issues for people already vulnerable.”
Councillor Jill Hood said: “I cannot support this application. I believe it would be inhumane.”
Councillor Marnie Phillips said: “There will be inadequate support services which is only going to be to the detriment of the community. We need to make sure everyone in our community is looked after and I don’t feel this application does that.”