Foot and mouth took a terrible toll on this community. Throckmorton itself did not have an outbreak. It has suffered instead by its proximity to a government-designated dump for infected carcasses. Near the proposed asylum centre, there is a landfill site, where they buried the carcasses.
Not in my ravaged paradise (Times 26 May)Toyah Wilcox says she is trying to stop asylum seekers but she is no racist - it's for their own good
Last Sunday I joined the people of Throckmorton in a peaceful protest on the site of a disused airbase where the government proposes to site an asylum centre. We did not think this would lead to accusations of nimbyism and racism. I live six miles from Throckmorton in a bustling market town. My parents - my father is in his eighties, my mother in her seventies - live a mile from the airbase in rural peace overlooking the River Avon. I bought them their retirement cottage because I was worried about them living in the city. Some kids stole a car and rammed it into their door, it was the last straw. My parents couldn't leave their house after 6pm so I moved them down here.
I felt compelled to go to the protest not only because the area cannot sustain such a huge influx of people, but also because within yards of the proposed site there lies the terrible environmental legacy of 130,000 foot-and-mouth-infected animal carcasses. The locals had no idea I would be there; it was not a case of rent-a-celebrity. Or, here we go: a celeb takes up another cause. I was there as a local member of the public who shared their concern. I would never leave the area even if they turned the airbase into a prison. Last Sunday nobody said anything that could even be construed as racist. We were all there looking for answers to a multitude of questions. How can a designated conservation area be dug up? Who does a project of this scale work for? Will it improve anyone's quality of life? Are these racist issues? I'd prefer to call them humanitarian.
Throckmorton is a smal - no, tiny - village nestling among acres of apple orchards and onion fields, half a mile from the Avon. It has half a dozen narrow roads and a population of less than 200.
Like my parents' village a mile away, Throckmorton is a community where the elderly are looked after and, if a person can't shop for themselves, for lack of a car or ill health, a neighbour will do it for them. In the fruit-picking season people travel from far afield to be employed as pickers and the population swells. Many fruit-pickers are from other countries and this makes for a lively time. Every language can be heard in the one petrol station and newsagents. But last year everything changed. Foot and mouth took a terrible toll on this community. Throckmorton itself did not have an outbreak. It has suffered instead by its proximity to a government-designated dump for infected carcasses. Near the proposed asylum centre, there is a landfill site, where they buried the carcasses.
Twenty-four hours a day for 12 months lorries carried carcasses there. There are now 130,000 carcasses buried that will take years to break down. Even on a relatively cold day the smell is carried on the breeze. In January this year, the Environment Agency admitted it did not know if the carcasses would have any long-term impact on local health, or if seepage from them could make it into the Avon.
Then in February, just when the traffic to the site thinned out, it was leaked that the government planned to build the asylum centre there. Had anyone told these officials the area sometimes smells so bad you need to cover your nose and mouth?
Planners had always promised villagers the airbase would never be used for "residential use". To build an asylum centre here would dwarf everything for miles. To put 750 asylum seekers here would be disproportionate to the population. It would mean building a new town in the middle of nowhere, with no facilities. Sited on a dangerous B-road between Worcester and Evesham, walking to the shops is not an option.
Everyone I have spoken to believes building the asylum centre here is a bad idea. Nick Hardwick, chief executive of the Refugee Council, argues that this is not a respectful way to treat human beings who are possibly fleeing persecution. But surely the language barrier should be taken into account. These vulnerable people need to be near multicultural communities, where there may not be language difficulties, and where there are basic support services. Ideally they should be in an area where they might, given permission, want to settle. Take into account that people need doctors, dentists, clothes, toiletries, schools and transport. And if they are housed on top of a pile of rotting animals they will very probably need a hospital, too.
There are all these facilities within an eight-mile radius, but even the locals have to wait for medical appointments and for the infrequent buses. Children have to travel eight miles to school. Oh, and there is one other small thing to take into account. In a neighbouring village, Bishampton, there is just one policeman. There is no way the police can cope with the population doubling in size. The older residents are having nightmares about being knocked down in the street or burgled by the asylum seekers. Advocates of the scheme disregard all these concerns by saying that any asylum seeker will not be in the area long enough to register for any of these facilities. I don't believe the people of Throckmorton are against asylum seekers, but they are against the centre. It is the sheer scale of it that troubles them. Why the government has chosen to house so many in such a space rather than make the centres small and personable, so the individual has a face in a community, I do not know. To place these people in the middle of nowhere is to create a community of strangers who cannot contribute. Those who live in Throckmorton itself have to travel to shop and find entertainment.
The past 12 months in the history of this small community must be taken into account. Its people deserve a voice as much as the asylum seekers do. Foot and mouth has caused terrible financial strain and the bullying tactics of government and planners has driven them to the edge. The for-sale boards are going up every day. This means that for many the community is breaking up and people are losing lifelong friends and neighbours.
Circulars from the Home Office tell us how wonderful it will be for the area to host an asylum centre. But they don't tell us why. Throckmorton is one of the first of three centres to be built and there are plans for 15 others. If we do not get it right this time, the consequences could be disastrous for many communities. Labour must also be aware of the consequences of alienating voters. Last Sunday's peaceful protest was a reflection of residents' long-term frustration at feeling ignored. Take heed of our situation. Eventually the whole country will be affected by how the government deals with the need to place asylum seekers. Be aware that if they choose to bury one problem with another, and you dare to voice your opinion, you too may be branded a nimby racist.
See also Articles written at the time of Throckmorton's protests about the government's callous attitude.