Talk of jail angers villagers

RICHARD BATSON Villagers living near RAF Coltishall are angry that the old airbase has been flagged up as a possible jail, as an under-fire government tries to solve its prison over-crowding crisis.

RICHARD BATSON

Villagers living near RAF Coltishall are angry that the old airbase has been flagged up as a possible jail, as an under-fire government tries to solve its prison over-crowding crisis.

And MPs have attacked the Home Office for its incompetence in handling the issue, which has added to the agony of its neighbours already living with the prospect of an asylum centre on the complex.

As reported in yesterday's EDP, home secretary John Reid said talks were under way to buy two prison ships and an RAF camp “in the north of England” - later reported to be Coltishall.

The Home Office initially only confirmed it was in negotiations with the Ministry of Defence over a number of sites, and could not name them.

But last night North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said the office of a junior minister had confirmed Coltishall was on a list of possibles.

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The news came as locals held their breath over whether the camp, which shut its doors in November, will be wanted as an asylum removal centre, holding people awaiting deportation. The possibility of a jail, either as well or instead, has poured further fuel on the local flames.

There would be “uproar” if the former Battle of Britain base were to be used as a jail, said acting chairman of Scottow parish council Trevor Bunting last night.

“People are already against the asylum centre and are not amused about the jail idea, because we were told it was unlikely to be used for a prison. We don't like the idea of a jail on the doorstep, or the way it has been handled,” he added.

Mid Norfolk MP Keith Simpson conceded that Coltishall might not be high on the agenda of the embattled home secretary, who is under siege over a range of national issues, but the continuing lack of clarity was de-stabilising and unfair to the local community, and that a prison would “open a can of worms.”

He aimed to raise the issue with the minister early Monday morning.

Mr Lamb has written to the home secretary accusing him of causing “anxiety and anger”. The move seemed to ring true, especially when linked with the delay in a decision over the asylum centre on the base.

The government mishandling of the issue did not encourage local people to be positive about any Home Office proposals, but he urged that they were looked at on their merits rather than judged by the incompetence of how they were arrived at.

Alan Mallett, Broadland district councillor for Coltishall, said: “The idea of a prison is as bad, if not worse, than the previous idea to have a camp for illegal immigrants.

“At least the people being put in a camp for immigrants would not generally hold a prison record. There would be considerable concerns over safety.”

Coltishall parish council chairman John Harding said the task force looking into the future of the site had been told early on that the site was investigated for a possible prison use, but that buildings were unsuitable and road connections not good enough.

And Buxton parish council chairman Rosemary Roth felt people would not be shocked if a prison was suggested, as local folk thought that was what might happen after any asylum centre.

“People won't be surprised, but they are not overjoyed. And the way the Home Office is first dithering then doing a knee jerk reaction is piling on the agony,” she added.