This blog post was written by Bill MacKeith for Unlocking Detention. Bill is a founding member of the Campaign to Close Campsfield.
This month marks the 22nd anniversary of the opening of Campsfield detention centre, an occasion that will marked on 28th November by something like the 248th demonstration calling for closure of a place where over the years over 30,000 people have been imprisoned. This might be depressing, were it not for a great victory this year, when a wide coalition saw off the government’s plan to more than double the size of the immigration detention centre 6 miles north of Oxford.
A planning application for new building to increase the number of beds from 274 to 580 was submitted to Cherwell District Council in late 2014.
A local and national coalition was swiftly assembled. The local Stop Campsfield Expansion group was set up by the Campaign to Close Campsfield and Oxford’s Asylum Welcome and a joint statement signed by 21 local organisations. At a national level, opposition was expressed through the Detention Forum and its members, who lodged objections to the plan, and launched a call for a halt to the increase in immigration detention.
At public meeting organised by Close Campsfield in Kidlington, which neighbours Campsfield, all four local parliamentary candidates present, including the sitting Conservative MP Nicola Blackwood, stated their opposition to the application on human rights grounds.
Street stalls, door to door leafleting of thousands of houses, and lobbies of councillors helped crystallise local opposition. Local and student press coverage was substantial.
Oxford University Amnesty International group was already organising a letter calling for the closure of Campsfield; this was amended to include opposition to the expansion, and the letter, signed by 69 heads of college and senior academics, was launched by Helena Kennedy QC in November.
By the time the application was coming up to be considered by Cherwell Planning Committee, all three local parish councils had come out against, and over 65 objections from individuals and local and national organisations had been lodged on the council’s website.
Stop Campsfield Expansion obtained bro bono advice from law firms Day Lewis and Landmark Chambers. A decisive stage was reached at the planning committee meeting on 19 February. Planning and legal officers advised approval of the application, but councillors received a letter from Landmark Chambers arguing that the advice was flawed and open to challenge: the government had failed to prove overriding special need to build for more detention places in the Green Belt. The councillors decided to send questions to the government and to seek further legal advice. Two weeks later, on 12 March, government agents CGMS Consultants wrote to the Council withdrawing the application.
Coming in a year which has seen the publication of a powerful parliamentary report on Immigration Detention, the first full debate in parliament on the subject, the biggest ever protests by detainees, the biggest ever demonstrations against detention called by Movement For Justice and Women For Refugee Women, the outlawing of the fast track asylum process, and the closure of Haslar and Dover detention centres, the Stop Campsfield Expansion victory is worth celebrating.