Never let it be said that judges are only interested in the law and have little regard to events in the real world. In a case concerning the accommodation of asylum seekers in private hotels, the High Court took full account of the unprecedented flood of migrants risking their lives by crossing the Channel in small boats.
Two local authorities argued that the block booking by government contractors of two hotels for the accommodation of asylum seekers would, in effect, transform them into hostels. They asserted that that would amount to a material change of use and, in the absence of planning permission, a flagrant breach of planning control.
The councils obtained temporary injunctions that prevented the use of the hotels, or any other similar establishments in their areas, being used for accommodating asylum seekers without planning consent. At a further hearing, they sought an extension of those orders pending a full trial of their claims.
Ruling on the matter, the Court acknowledged that the councils had raised a triable issue as to whether the use of the hotels solely for asylum seekers would represent a material change of use. It was not disputed that awarding the councils damages would not be an adequate remedy were breaches of planning control established.
In discharging the temporary injunctions, however, the Court did not accept that the actions of the government, its contractors or hotel operators were flagrant. They strongly contested the councils’ case and had advanced a respectable argument that the intended use of the hotels to accommodate asylum seekers would involve no material change of use for which planning consent was required.
The Court recognised the unprecedented pressure on the Home Office arising from the unrelenting surge of tens of thousands of migrants making their way across the Channel. Faced with the widely publicised overcrowding of reception facilities, measures were afoot to temporarily accommodate thousands of asylum seekers at numerous hotels up and down the country. Without such arrangements, there was a real risk of some of them becoming homeless. If the injunctions were maintained, the reality was that the Home Office would have to look for accommodation elsewhere.
Neither council, the Court ruled, had succeeded in showing that the alleged change of use of the hotels would cause substantial harm in planning terms. Their use as asylum seeker accommodation was intended to be temporary and, if that turned out not to be the case, there were other weapons in the councils’ planning enforcement armoury that could be brought to bear. Overall, the factors in favour of discharging the injunctions clearly outweighed those in favour of continuing them.