Page last updated at 05:44 GMT, Thursday, 23 July 2009 06:44 UK

Anatomy of an asylum housing row

Last month Prime Minister Gordon Brown told MPs he wants English councils to give greater priority to local people on waiting lists for social housing but on many estates residents believe it is immigrants who get priority. The Report's Phil Kemp visited Birmingham where a row broke out over housing asylum seekers.

When the people of the Bromford Bridge Estate in Birmingham took to the streets earlier this year urging their council to demolish two empty tower blocks they said the flats were an eyesore and attracted anti social behaviour.

Protest at tower blocks
Protesters said the flats attracted anti-social behaviour

But their anger was also fuelled by a rumour that the council was about to refurbish and upgrade Bayley and Stoneycroft Towers to house 300 asylum seekers.

Local residents on the estate in the Hodge Hill area of the city, told The Report this was a common belief.

One woman said: "I went to the council and they told me myself, that asylum seekers are before everybody else.....that's what they told me, they're moving asylum seekers in they told me."

A man added: "The rumour went round that people who've come over from other countries, that they was going to put them in these's just common knowledge."

Marie Phipps organised the demonstration in March because of her concern over the effect of the derelict tower blocks on the local community.

She said she had no objection to asylum seekers living in the tower blocks.

But she added: "What you've got to understand is, if they're going to be brought up to modern living standards, new fitted kitchens, double glazed windows [but] all the people in Birmingham that are living in high rise are being told they can't afford to do them up for's not fair."

Since 2005 Birmingham City Council has spent an estimated £1m moving tenants from the towers to prepare for demolition but earlier this year the council confirmed it had made a u-turn saying it would consider refurbishing the tower blocks.

Waiting list

A month before the protest march John Lines, the council's cabinet member for housing, told a meeting that the blocks might be retained and refurbished as the council had a lengthening queue for housing applications - including 300 families seeking asylum.

Mr Lines added: "This authority is sympathetic to the welfare needs of these families who were waiting in limbo for many years whilst their immigration status was sorted out by the government's blanket amnesty means that we have to house these families somewhere.

"Many of them have been living here for five years or more. We also have 800 families in temporary accommodation and approximately 30,000 on our housing waiting list."

Mr Lines, a Conservative, would not be interviewed by the BBC.

Liberal Democrat Councillor Gwyn Neilly, whose party shares power with the Conservatives, said she had no idea why residents think that asylum seekers were going to be housed in tower blocks.

"Who has actually told them the blocks are for asylum seekers? Who have they got this from?," she said.

One of the two tower blocks which had been earmarked for demolition
The council is looking to bring the flats back into use

When shown Mr Lines' comments in council minutes she responded, "All I can say to this is the 300 have been added to the over increasing burden of housing on our waiting list but they will not get preferential treatment."

So what is the real status of the families at the centre of the dispute?

The Home Office said the correct figure was 224 asylum seekers, not 300.

Political row

They have been granted leave to remain in the UK, so they will not be housed together and can join the council's waiting list like any other applicants for social housing.

Birmingham City Council said in a statement: "At no point has there ever been any suggestion that the flats would only be used to house asylum seekers. Currently, we are looking to bring the towers back into use to house families.

"Our original plan was to demolish the towers, but due to the recession- which brought Birmingham's housing waiting list figure to its current 35,000- we were forced to change our plans so we could urgently house tenants. Currently, we are looking to bring the towers back into use to house families.

"Before we can house families, we need to refurbish the blocks and we are lobbying government to allow us to keep all our resources for investment so we can achieve this."

The Report has found out about the fate of 100 of the families. Sixty-five are in private rented accommodation, five are in social housing and the outcome is not clear for the rest as they are classed as homeless. Homeless cases would normally be given a high priority on housing waiting lists.

At the root of the dispute may be a row over immigration, rather than accommodation.

Some see Councillor Lines' original statement as a sideswipe at local Labour MP Liam Byrne, who was also then immigration minister.

Mr Lines said the families had been given the right to stay in Birmingham "because of Mr Byrne's department's incompetence. Mr Byrne of course is the MP for the area."

A month later Mr Byrne joined the residents in their demo stating, "Councillor Lines is trying to blame 300 asylum seeker families 'forced' on them by the government to turn the towers back into social housing".

In a statement to The Report, he added that his contributions to the debate have been to try to explain that asylum seekers are not responsible for the council U-turn on the future of the tower blocks.

Find out more from The Report on BBC Radio 4, Thursday 23 July at 2000 BST. You can also listen via the BBC iPlayer after broadcast or download the podcast.

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