Revealed: Home Office ‘wasted’ £1.5m on doomed Linton-on-Ouse asylum centre

Pic: Alamy

Campaigners outside Linton-on-Ouse Village Hall, North Yorkshire, where members of the parish council are meeting to discuss a Home Office proposed asylum seeker centre at a nearby former RAF base. Picture date: Thursday May 19, 2022.
Ministers slammed for pouring taxpayers' cash into a project campaigners say was flawed from the outset

Reports Aaron Walawalkar, Liberty Investigates journalist, and Mark Townsend, Home Affairs Editor at the Observer. Edited by Eleanor Rose, Liberty Investigates editor


The Home Office paid Serco at least £1.5m to turn a “substandard” former military base into an asylum seeker reception centre that was never used, new documents reveal.

MPs and councillors accused ministers of “wasting” taxpayer money and said the figure, disclosed to the Observer and Liberty Investigates following a year-long information battle, could be just a portion of the true amount spent.

The government announced its ill-fated scheme to accommodate up to 1,500 asylum seekers in RAF Linton-on-Ouse, in North Yorkshire, in April last year.

It was scrapped less than four months later, in August, after staunch local opposition to the plans and threats of a legal action from Hambleton District Council.

Reporters asked the Home Office on 25 April 2022 how much it had spent on the scheme.

The department finally issued a substantive response on 27 April this year, following an intervention by the Information Commissioner, confirming that it had paid £1,490,812.

All of this money went to Serco for services “largely comprising staff costs (including recruitment, training and salaries), mobilisation, project management, ground maintenance, inventory, telephony and vehicles,” it said.

"The Home Office failed to communicate, failed to engage, and they just railroaded this thing through”

Marc Goddard, chairman of Linton-on-Ouse parish council

Marc Goddard, Linton-on-Ouse parish council chairman, who campaigned against the plans, said the “wasted” cash was “another terrible consequence of what a shambles the whole government and the Home Office, in particular, are”.

“It was quite obvious to anybody that knew our village that it was simply the wrong place for that sort of establishment,” he said. “But of course, the Home Office failed to communicate, failed to engage, and they just railroaded this thing through.”

Serco began posting adverts for jobs at the centre in May 2022 and officials told Kevin Hollinrake, Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton, that it would open at the end of that month.

Among concerns held by campaigners was that the rural village of 760 people lacked adequate infrastructure to triple in size, and that the site may become a target for far-right groups.

Members of the white nationalist group Patriotic Alternative reportedly held rallies in Linton in the weeks after the announcement.

Goddard added that the base was handed over by the Ministry of Defence in a “state of disrepair”. He added that the figure of £1.5 million disclosed in the FOI response to reporters did not appear to include refurbishments that were taking place when he toured the site with Home Office officials, raising the prospect the total wasted sum could in fact be higher.

The disclosure also does not appear to include any payout that may have been agreed for early termination of the Home Office’s two-year contract with Serco, which would have seen it earn £32.8m.

The Home Office said it does comment on commercial matters with partners. Serco also declined to comment.

Job advert for a role at Linton-on-Ouse, posted in May 2022

Alison Thewliss MP, chair of the all-party parliamentary group for immigration detention, said: “Rather than investing vast sums of money into these substandard, harmful facilities, the money should be spent on offering a more compassionate and effective system of support for asylum seekers.

“This means providing dignified and suitable accommodation, ensuring access to essential services such as healthcare, legal support, and language assistance, and creating a welcoming environment that fosters integration.”

Large-scale military sites like Linton are known to be “re-traumatising” for asylum seekers, especially those who have experienced torture and abuse, Thewliss said.

Nicola David, a member of the Linton on Ouse Action group, said: “The Home Office could have invested that sum into recruiting asylum decision-makers to clear the backlog of cases, which is the entire reason for the need for contingency accommodation.

“It is not just asylum seekers who deserve better; the British taxpayer deserves greater transparency and cost-efficiency.”

The latest figures show the number of people awaiting decisions on asylum claims stands at more than 170,000. Asylum seekers are generally barred from working while awaiting decisions on their claims and the government has a duty to house them during this time.

It is not the first time the Home Office has U-turned after spending money on controversial asylum seeker accommodation plans, paying £3m to a construction firm for a “prison-like” camp in Yarl’s Wood which was never used.

The department dropped the plans on 9 February 2021, the day before it was due to be taken to court by lawyers who said it failed to do basic paperwork such as obtaining planning permission or conducting impact assessments.

Plans for a pre-fab camp at Yarl's Wood provided to the Home Office by Wernick Hire and obtained by Environmental Information Request.
Plans for a camp at Yarl's Wood, which was also ultimately abandoned (Pic: Home Office, by FOI)

The Linton spending revelations come as a senior planning judge is due next month to consider whether to grant legal challenges from a council and a local resident against two similar Home Office schemes planned at other former military sites.

One scheme will see up to 2,000 people housed in RAF Scampton, in Lincolnshire, and the other will see 1,700 people housed in Wethersfield Airfield, in Essex.

There are also plans to accommodate 1,200 asylum seekers at Bexhill’s former Northeye prison, as well as 500 on a barge in Portland Port, Dorset.

In efforts to prevent such schemes being thwarted, the government is planning to introduce legislation which would allow it to bypass normal planning permission.

The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, currently making its way through the House of Lords, would grant housing secretary Michael Gove the power to make decisions on the use of government-owned land instead of local authorities.

The Bill will introduce a new process making consultations with local communities optional, instead of mandatory as they currently are, and removing council’s veto power of major developments.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The government is committed to ending the expensive use of hotels for asylum seekers which is why we continue to source new alternative sites and vessels, which are cheaper and more manageable for communities.

“The asylum system currently costs more than £3bn a year so taxpayers rightly expect the government to find alternative solutions.

“We are also taking immediate action to clear the asylum backlog by doubling the number of asylum caseworkers to 2,500 and streamlining interviews and paperwork.”

A version of this article was published in partnership with the Observer.