The number of people seeking asylum in the UK who require accommodation has increased in recent years. Accommodation providers contracted by the Home Office have been booking hotels while they look for longer-term options to house people.

Recent court cases have looked at whether housing asylum seekers in hotels requires planning permission from the local authority. This Insight discusses when planning permission is needed and the result of these cases.

Why are asylum seekers housed in hotels?

The Home Office has a statutory duty to provide accommodation for asylum seekers who do not have the means to obtain it themselves and/or cannot meet their essential living needs. It has contracts with private sector providers to source accommodation on its behalf.

Typically, someone seeking asylum in the UK would first stay in hostel-style ‘initial accommodation’ for a few weeks, before moving into longer-term self-catered accommodation such as shared flats or houses (known as ‘dispersal accommodation’).

The number of asylum seekers requiring accommodation has increased in recent years. Reasons include the growing number of people claiming asylum and the increasing time taken to process applications.

Initial accommodation options are currently at maximum capacity and providers are struggling to procure more longer-term options.

The average stay in short-term sites has also increased, from three weeks to around six months. As a contingency measure, accommodation providers have been block-booking hotels to house asylum seekers.

When is planning permission required?

Planning permission from the local planning authority (LPA) is usually required to “materially” change the use of a building or land. A material change of use occurs when the use of a building or land is varied between “use classes” set out in the Use Classes Order 1987. Hotels fall into use class C1.

Planning permission is also usually needed to change from a use class to an independent (“sui generis”) classification or vice versa. Sui generis uses are not defined in legislation. An example is a hostel.

Accommodation for people seeking asylum is not listed as a use class in the 1987 Order.

The Order also only provides a guide to the types of building or land use which may fall into a class. Whether a material change of use has occurred (and planning permission is required) is for the LPA to determine in the first instance, or the courts in case of a dispute.

What happens if planning permission is required?

If planning permission is required, the LPA will decide the application in line with its local plan, unless “material considerations” indicate otherwise. It will also consider the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework. The LPA will hold a public consultation where local residents can express their views on the application.

What if planning permission is not obtained?

Failure to obtain planning permission where it is required is considered a breach in planning control. It can result in enforcement action by the LPA, the most serious of which is a court injunction.

The Government advises LPAs to “act proportionately” in responding to breaches in planning control.

Is housing asylum seekers in hotels a change of use?

In recent months, some LPAs have sought injunctions against accommodation providers to stop hotels being used to house asylum seekers. They argued this constituted a material change of use of a hotel to a hostel (which would require planning permission). In each case, a judge decided whether to continue the injunctions to trial, where a final decision would be made.

In November 2022, the High Court declined to continue injunctions sought by Ipswich Borough Council and East Riding of Yorkshire Council.

The judge found there were arguments pointing towards and against hostel use, concluding: “the distinction between a hotel and hostel … is [a] fine [one]”. Whether a change of use from hotel to hostel is material, he added, depends on the planning consequences. In these cases, the consequences were “very limited”: the alleged change of use would not alter the buildings, cause environmental damage, or impact the character of the area.

The High Court has also declined to extend interim injunctions by Fenland District Council and Stoke-on-Trent City Council. It has declined North Northamptonshire Council’s application for an injunction.

However, in January 2023, the High Court decided to continue an injunction preventing the use of a seafront hotel in Great Yarmouth to house asylum seekers.

Great Yarmouth’s local plan includes a policy to protect the seafront because of its importance to the town’s tourism economy. The local plan defines uses that are not permitted on the seafront, including hostels.

The judge also considered the impact of an injunction on asylum seekers and whether the LPA had used other enforcement powers prior to seeking an injunction. Great Yarmouth had issued an enforcement notice in 2006 prohibiting the use of the building as a hostel. The judge noted this was still in force but had not deterred the provider. This supported the use of more serious powers, in this case an injunction.

Further reading

About the author: Felicia Rankl is a researcher at the House of Commons Library specialising in planning policy.

Photo by Cozine on Adobe Stock

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