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Planning Laws Can Be Used as Instruments of Social Policy

Planning laws are about the character and appearance of the built environment but can also be instruments of social policy. In one case which proves that point, a local authority deployed its planning powers to stop a local hotel opening its doors to a large number of asylum seekers.

The council received a tip-off that up to 100 would-be refugees were to move into the hotel. It informed the hotel's operators that planning permission was required for a change of use from that of a hotel to that of a hostel. When it did not receive a satisfactory response, the council issued a temporary stop notice in order to block what it viewed as a threatened breach of planning control.

The operators argued that asylum seekers are no different from any other hotel guests and that no planning permission was required. However, the council responded that there was already an overly high concentration of hostels in the area. It expressed concern that such a large influx of institutionalised and vulnerable people would disturb the area's social cohesiveness and foster fear of crime and anti-social behaviour.

In rejecting the operators' judicial review challenge to the notice, the High Court noted that asylum seekers are commonly housed in hostels where strangers sharing rooms is not uncommon. This would not be tolerated by ordinary hotel guests, however. The use of so many rooms at the hotel as permanent homes for people who had no link to the area, as well as the modest daily rate of £35 for bed and breakfast, also indicated that the plan was to use the hotel as a hostel.

Observing that judicial review is a remedy of last resort, the Court also found that the operators' case was misconceived. Rather than challenging the notice, they could have sought planning consent or a certificate recognising that housing asylum seekers in the hotel was lawful. They could also have sought compensation for any damage to their business under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004.

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