Some asylum-seeking families here housed in ‘slum-like’ conditions - Colr.

A housing group has been told by a Derry Councillor that some people who have sought asylum here are living in ‘slum-like’ conditions.

A deputation from Mears Group, one of three companies selected as part of the UK’s £4bn asylum and support services contracts, with a 10-year contract to provide accommodation for asylum seekers, spoke at the Council’s Governance and Strategic Planning Committee..

SDLP Councillor Lillian Seenoi-Barr spoke about the substandard accommodation some families are living in, describing them as ‘slum-like’.

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Addressing the virtual chamber, Ray Blundell, Contract Delivery Director for Mears, said high standards set out in contracts meant that Mears returned around 150 properties in the north that were not meeting standards.

SDLP Councillor Lilian Seenoi-Barr. Photo: George Sweeney / Derry Journal. DER2126GS – 178

He added: “Due to the rising number of people presenting locally there is a need to look to other areas in Northern Ireland for dispersed accommodation outside of Belfast.

“This has led to a big increase of service users being housed in hotels which is far from appropriate and ideal.”

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Following the presentation, Colr. Seenoi-Barr said: “What we are told and the reality on the ground are two different things.”

Referring to an article from November 2021 when the SDLP elected representative raised serious concerns about the asylum housing situation, the Foyleside councillor added:

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“This was a family of seven with three children under 12-years living in slum-like conditions where water was leaking into the property’s electric leaving them feeling very unsafe.”

She said Mears was the housing body in this instance. 

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“The councillor did however welcome the move to integrate asylum seekers in other towns including Derry but said some of the reports of asylum accommodation locally were ‘shocking’.

UUP Alderman Ryan McCready was also critical: “These are huge contracts and the longer they have them and the more remedial work they have to do to properties it eats into their profit margins considerably. I haven’t seen anything presented to give me reassurances that they are going to do anything differently.”

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Mr Blundell responded: “The contractual arrangement with the Home Office is robust with regards to the standard of accommodation provided to service users.

“I will defend the reputation of Mears... Dispersal accommodation has to meet certain standards set out by the Home Office and service users have the right to raise complaints and request maintenance works.”

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He continued: “The numbers we have dealt with and the numbers entering the asylum system over recent years have been unprecedented and hotels have been the least worst option. We are in a position where we would like to be out of hotels but that’s not going to happen overnight. I just want to be clear that we have never failed to house someone.”

Sinn Fein Councillor John McGowan told the Mears representative that as a party they won’t be allowing a housing group to put asylum seekers or anybody into poor housing stock in this city. 

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He added:

“We will work very closely with the Housing Executive who are ultimately responsible for ensuring HMOs are checked and meet the highest standards.... the last thing we want is vulnerable people being housed in homes that are substandard.”

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Gillian Anderson

Local Democracy Reporter