Stepping up to support resettlement in Staffs

By John Henderson | 13 December 2022

Staffordshire has a long and proud history of welcoming those who have had no choice but to flee war and persecution, and our residents have always stepped up in their hundreds to help where they can.

In recent years we have taken part in various government schemes to help people from Syria and Afghanistan settle in our county, and since the start of the war in Ukraine earlier this year, we have welcomed more than 800 people to Staffordshire as part of the Government’s Homes for Ukraine Scheme.

This scheme has been quite resource-intensive, especially in its initial stages of implementation. Once matches between sponsor and families were made, we had to quickly put together a process that ensured families were in suitable accommodation and that both sponsor and guest received the funds they were entitled to. Our district and borough councils have played a huge part in this, and it is our partnership working with them that has helped make this scheme a success. Local schools too have been key—we have managed to accommodate all children from Ukrainian families into Staffordshire schools, and they have been welcomed with open arms by the school community. We are now working to ensure that their needs and their longer term arrangements are secured beyond the scheme and helping when sponsorships come to an end or break down, especially as the war in Ukraine continues.

As a county council we realised that resettlement in general is going to be an ongoing area we support over the coming years, and this month the county council’s Cabinet will be discussing proposals to set up a dedicated resettlement team. The team’s responsibility will be to oversee resettlement in the county, deal with the various government schemes, and ensure those coming to our county are welcomed and supported. This is certainly a first for Staffordshire County Council; we have never had a dedicated resettlement team before, and just shows how the issues of immigration and resettlement are becoming more pressing and we have seen this both locally and nationally.

One of the biggest challenges experienced more recently has been asylum dispersal. Staffordshire has not previously been a dispersal area, but on April 13 of this year the Government announced that all regions of England, Scotland and Wales would be expected to take a share of asylum seekers under a new system of ‘full dispersal’. This system posits that local authorities would have a threshold ratio of one asylum seeker for every 200 residents. In Staffordshire, this means - if that threshold was reached -  that more than 4,000 asylum seekers could be settled in the county over the next few years. This would be a significant change in the population here in Staffordshire.

We are already seeing the effects of this policy. Over the past few months we have seen a total of seven hotels stood up for asylum accommodation. Five of these are ‘contingency’ hotels, while another two are ‘spot booked’. We are working with the Home Office and Serco—who are contracted to run these hotels—as much as possible, but this method of dispersing asylum seekers, often with very little to no notice of the intent to use these hotels, is causing a lot of pressure on the system.

The most pressing issue is the unmet health needs of those arriving. We have seen most arrivals presenting with immediate and acute physical and mental health needs, often requiring urgent on-site health assessment and treatment. This is drawing on already stretched local healthcare resources.

There have also been more than 30 Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children (UASC) who have been identified when arriving at hotels, who are now in the care of the county council. Added to this, we have seen residents responding in a variety of ways. Most have been positive, but there are always those with more extreme views. Partnership working with police, health and our district and borough councils has been key to community harmony, but with very little in the way of engagement with local partners in deciding which hotels to use, this leaves us with a limited ability to engage the local community proactively and address any potential tensions.

We must remember that these people are fleeing terrible circumstances. Above all, they deserve to be treated with kindness and compassion. We have made tremendous strides to be able to do this, but we can do so much more. With greater notice and more cooperation between local and central government, we can put the appropriate services in place to help them for however long they stay in our county.

John Henderson is chief executive of Staffordshire CC

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