How a Wigan township became a hotbed of fury over second asylum seeker hotel

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In a Wigan town sits a hotel which has sparked huge controversy over the last few months.

The leafy village of Standish was left in complete shock in August after their “posh hotel” was chosen to be the new home for asylum seekers.

Kilhey Court Hotel, situated in the Worthington area of the village, was picked by the Home Office without the knowledge of the local council or the nearby residents – which led to huge protests and outrage.

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Soon there were hundreds gathering in the village’s centre to make their voices heard – and they gathered again a few weeks later outside Wigan Town Hall as councillors debated the hot topic.

Kilhey Court fenced off to the publicKilhey Court fenced off to the public
Kilhey Court fenced off to the public
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Wigan Council, local MP Lisa Nandy and campaigners Gareth Fairhurst and Coun Maureen O’Bern had all publicly declared their objection within days of the government announcement. The hotel swiftly became a political football being kicked between the various local parties, who all agreed it should not be put there, but for different reasons.

The consensus was that the location was simply unsuitable. There were no shops close to the hotel, a very thin footpath outside on what is a busy main road. There was also a lack of things to do in Standish for the migrants.

Just four miles from Wigan town hall, among members of the community of around 13,000 people, concerns about the hotel were not political, but about practicality.

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Graham Gibson, 58Graham Gibson, 58
Graham Gibson, 58

Within weeks of news breaking that Kilhey Court had been chosen by the Home Office, asylum seekers began moving in.

It was the second hotel used for this purpose in Standish – the local Britannia Hotel has quietly been used to house asylum seekers, in a project managed by Serco, for several years.

Over one summer weekend this year, people who were expecting to get married at Kilhey Court, learned it was closing its doors to events, breaks and business travel as contractors Serco took over.

And Standish, a quiet and relatively affluent corner of Wigan, on Greater Manchester’s north-western edge, suddenly found itself into the public eye as a result of the decision to open up the venue to asylum seekers.

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The centre of StandishThe centre of Standish
The centre of Standish

Campaigners descended from other parts of the country – from both right and left – creating, at times, a febrile atmosphere.

Standish has experienced a population boom through housebuilding in recent years. Residents say they have felt the impact through gridlocked roads, lack of dentist and GP spots, and oversubscribed schools.

It was felt that asylum seekers, who are vulnerable, would add to this already mounting pressure on local infrastructure. Worthington, where Kilhey Court sits, is a rural parish of Standish, close to Greater Manchester’s border with West Lancashire.

Speaking this week, Vincent Magee, standing in the centre of Standish, said: “There was no room for another asylum seeker hotel. I’ve nothing against these people but it’s a village and thousands of houses have already gone up and it’s put lots of pressure on facilities.

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Vicent Magee, Standish residentVicent Magee, Standish resident
Vicent Magee, Standish resident

“The area is overwhelmed, we need more schools, doctors and dentists. These people are vulnerable and putting them here was not the right move.

“That is them all over (the government), they just go ahead and do it without telling us. It was a top place (Kilhey Court), we used to go regularly and had dos there, we even hosted a charity ball there raising £10,000 for stillborn babies.”

The decision to house the asylum seekers came without warning, much like the decision to close the very same hotel just two months later. Last month Lisa Nandy, MP for Wigan, announced that the Kilhey Court would be closing via social media.

In a post on social media platform X (formerly Twitter), the shadow cabinet minister for international development said: “After months of repeated representations from myself, the police and Wigan Council it is welcome that the government has finally recognised that Kilhey Court is unsuitable for vulnerable asylum seekers.

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“I have asked the Home Office for clarification that any asylum seekers affected by hotel closures will be rehoused in suitable, supported accommodation and not simply evicted, as has been reported.

“After a difficult time for people in Standish having to put up with media attention, protests and demonstrations. I hope this decision marks the start of a more respectful relationship between the government and our community, where we are involved in decisions that affect us in future.”

It took multiple letters of objections from the council, the Wigan MPs and a petition signed by more than 3,500 people in order to get the government to make their U-turn. The hotel is set to close in March 2024 following the Home Office announcement at the end of October.

This news came just days after immigration minister Robert Jenrick on October 24 announced that asylum seeker hotels in Wigan and Rochdale would be among the first 50 across the country to close. It took a few days before he eventually revealed to Ms Nandy which hotel in Wigan would shut its doors.

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For the people of Standish, this decision to open and close this hotel within a matter of months without their input was not good enough. Talking to residents in the village’s centre, the Local Democracy Reporting Service found no one who believed the Kilhey Court project was a good idea.

“I know we have to house them, but it’s not big enough here, it’s the wrong place,” Graham Gibson said. “I went to Chorley one day and went past and they’re all in gangs and hanging about with nothing to do.

“They were just walking from the hotel and up to the post office. It’s so dangerous on those roads with such small pavements.

“Everyone hopes the hotel will go back to how it was, it was a waste of a nice building. I hope they can find somewhere safe that works for the asylum seekers, then I’ll be happy.

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“The decision just happened suddenly and they just took it over. They (the government) jump in with both feet and put them wherever just to get shut of them.”

Kath added: “It was ridiculous. The Britannia is around the corner from me and it is a wreck now.

“I know they have to go somewhere, but it’s too rural here. It shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

“I was shocked when it was announced. It used to be such a lovely place.

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“I hope they will turn it back to what it was, but we don’t know. Why they did it in the first place is the question.”

“I feel sorry for them, they’re young lads. You see them walking up and down, they’ve nothing to do.”

The lack of communication between the Home Office and the local council and MPs was slated by the council as well. They felt ‘sidestepped’ in the whole process.

Coun Dane Anderton, cabinet member for police, crime and civil contingencies at Wigan Council, said following the announcement: “We welcome this news and thank all those who showed patience and persistence in ensuring our concerns were heard, and to all those who have supported our efforts to raise these concerns through the correct channels.

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“Wigan Borough has a strong track record of supporting non-UK and UK residents who are vulnerable and in need and we remain committed to supporting any individuals in a way that is as responsible and safe as possible. After we were notified of the Home Office decision to use a second hotel in our borough, we wrote to them on a number of occasions expressing our serious concerns that Kilhey Court was completely unsuitable and that they reconsider their decision.

“We are pleased that our concerns have now been heard and acted upon. However, we are yet again extremely disappointed that we have been consistently sidestepped by the Home Office in their decisions, and we insist that the national government and the Home Office communicate more effectively with local authorities to ensure that residents and communities can be kept better informed.

“This is a short-term solution for a long-term issue and we’d urge the government to properly address the issue to provide stability to asylum seekers and to remove the financial pressures from local authorities and taxpayers who are left to pick up the bill for these poor decisions.”

Although the decision is now made and the politicians and campaigners have got their wish, for locals there is a question of what is the future of their prized community asset. One 82-year-old told the LDRS that Kilhey Court has been standing since she was a little girl, and there are question marks over whether it will go back to its old function.

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She, and many others in the community hope that owners Macdonald Hotels will return it to its former glory.

“The thing is it was one of the nicest hotels we had and it was THE place to have your wedding,” the lifelong Standish resident said. “It was a shock.

“Maybe like a lot of places it wasn’t doing too well. It may have been a financial decision.

“It came as a shock to everyone. We don’t know if it will return to what it was.

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“There is so much history there and it is ingrained in the community. I’ve known it since it was built.

“People who had arranged to have their weddings there had to change venues last minute as a result of this decision. It had a waiting list of around 12-14 months.

“Standish has gone as I knew it, my husband and his friends used to play football on that main road next to Aldi – now it is just filled with traffic. They had to move for a car or two every 10 minutes or so back then.”

Kilhey Court was a four star hotel complete with a pool, spa and landscaped gardens before being transformed into a home for asylum seekers. Currently there is no word as to what will happen to it once it closes its doors to asylum seekers in March.

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In a release sent out by the Home Office, Mr Jenrick said: “Taxpayers cannot be expected to foot the eye-watering bill for the use of hotels to accommodate individuals making illegal, dangerous and wholly unnecessary small boat crossings.

“Our strategy to stop the boats is making progress. With small boat arrivals down more than 20 per cent compared with last year, we can now start to restore these hotels to their rightful use for local communities.

“We remain absolutely determined, through the implementation of the Illegal Migration Act and our Rwanda partnership, to dismantle the smuggling gangs’ business models and stop the boats entirely.”

A Macdonald Hotels & Resorts spokesperson said: “The company is now assessing the reopening of Kilhey Court Hotel and Spa, and an update will be shared in due course.”