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Don't Have Any Muir?

Don't Have Any Muir?There is anger in St Annes. It's the sort of anger that moves people and makes changes. The sort that takes them out of their houses and to protest meetings. Like the one on Wednesday night at the Links Hotel. Seventy or eighty people crammed into the snooker room to begin the process to stop the development by the Muir Group who have entered a planning application to provide a hostel for homeless people on the site of the old Council vehicle maintenance unit on the corner of St David's Road North and Heely Road, across from the former Fairways Garage.

The meeting was chaotic, with no-one able to hear or have their say because the room wasn't big enough. However, the message did get out that there would be a meeting held by Muir Group on the Friday at Mayfield School, where they would explain what was being planned.

By all accounts, that was a very heated meting, and Muir's representatives were visibly shocked at the anger, and the strength of views opposing their plans.

We heard people saying it should be owner occupied houses, or at least shared equity, where the people commit to a stake in settled society, not hostels for transients. We heard quotes such as "We moved here to get away from the problems caused by transient, unstable families, and we won't have our children exposed to that sort of thing"

Now, this may or may not be a real risk, but the fear is real, and based largely on Commissar Coombes' previous failure to deal properly with problems that he allowed to develop from children's homes and absentee landlords, together with his failure to implement proper controls on 'houses in multiple occupation'.

Belatedly, he is now starting to tackle these matters, but it is too little, too reluctantly, and far too late.

Now Muir Group finds itself uncomfortably being tarred with problems brought about by the Commissar's former failures.

So why have Muir submitted their planning application?

Well, their business is what is known as a 'Registered Social Landlord'.

When Government decided that Councils should no longer provide and let housing, Fylde sold off all its housing at something like 10% of its real value to New Fylde Housing, who set themselves up as a Registered Social Landlord. This is a sort of halfway stage between a Council and a business. The Government's idea was to bring more businesslike techniques into providing and maintaining 'council houses'. We always thought this was a disastrous concept.

Like New Fylde Housing, Muir's role in life is to provide housing for people who generally can't afford to do it themselves. They do this in different ways. They sell houses outright, or with shared equity schemes, or rental, or hostels. In St Annes they are planning a hostel.

So why have they picked St Anne's

The answer is probably because of Fylde Council.

For some years now the Council has wanted to spend money on a new Town Hall and offices, but a change in the Government's planning laws stopped them in their tracks.

Then in January last (in The Great January Sale) we warned things had started to hot up again. The Commissar and his Politburo Cabinet were again eyeing up sites that could be sold off to raise the cash to pay for the new Town Hall

In the last few months they have had the various sites valued (including the St David's Road Depot site). It has now decided to put them on the market.

HOWEVER,

Surprisingly, for once, it isn't the money for the St David's Road site that's important here. It's the nature of the accommodation being provided by Muir.

For the Commissar to maximise his income, he has to be able to convert all the floors above the ground floor in the Town Hall into luxury flats and sell them, together with other areas of market value housing he plans to develop.

But to do this, the current planning rules say he has to provide some offsetting, cheaper accommodation as part of the scheme, or pay a financial penalty (which would mean the Council couldn't afford the scheme).

So getting the site on St David's road site developed for social housing is crucial to his plan to waste 7 million, (yes, that's right, seven million pounds, on the new Town Hall), when he has the nerve to tell us there isn't enough money to finish the dangerous road from Cypress Point to the motorway, and not enough to provide proper sea defences for the residents of Lytham and St Anne's.

What a monument to his "modernisation madness" the new Town Hall is going to be.

But if the St David's Road Depot site doesn't provide the social housing, the Town Hall scheme can't continue as planned.

So Fylde needed to find a 'partner' to develop the social housing aspect - and preferably a partner that would give them some cash for the site as well.

In stepped the Muir Group. And the rest, as they say, is history - at least it's history in the making.

There are all sorts of financial side streets leading from this story. For example, the land has been valued - but what has it been valued as? Is it the relatively low value that applies to redundant industrial land, or will it be the value (which could be 10 times as much) after planning permission has been granted?

Is there to be any payment to the Council at all?

Has Muir Group been given the land at a peppercorn price so they will provide the social housing? Have the rates paid by our parents and forefathers to buy the land in the first place been squandered by letting Muir have it too cheaply?

A friend of ours asked Fylde Council these questions under the Freedom of Information Act, but was been refused sight of the valuations on the grounds of commercial confidentiality.

Maybe they simply daren't let the truth be known.

Also, you have to question the impartiality of planning decisions when Councillors making them have moneybags rolling round in their eyes like a one armed bandit because they are going to get the income from the proceeds of granting the planning permission.

When land sales, planning permissions, and multi-million pound income is at risk, it wouldn't be the first time we have seen strange decisions that ignore their own planning rules, and improper editing of 'draft' minutes - as decisions that were never ever even put to the Committee are added-in after the minutes are first published.

To some extent, you might feel sorry for Muir Group in this. They have been getting on with their business - as far as can be seen up to now - quite sensibly. They have something like 3,000 general needs rental housing units and 1,000 'supported' units.

Last year (excluding income from sale of shared ownership properties); Muir Group had a turnover of 16.3 million, and made a profit after tax of 1.7 million, (up from 1.1 million the previous year).

The most profitable part of their business is their housing accommodation. This generated a 27% return for them, whilst the Supported Housing (as currently proposed at St Anne's) only returned 6%.

Nevertheless, they seem to be operating satisfactorily and growing steadily.

Then Fylde Council invites them to put a few supported units in St Anne's, and they walk into a maelstrom.

If you think about it, it's actually the Council's fault, not Muirs.

Why?, you may ask.

Well, firstly, if the Commissar wasn't pursuing the ridiculous plan to build a new Town Hall, he wouldn't need to sell the depot land for social housing in the first place. We would have greenhouses in Ashton Gardens instead of a new depot being planned there.

Secondly, when he's just said he's going to transfer at least 200 of his 350 staff onto Wyre's payroll next year, why on earth does he need a new town hall anyway? It's madness.

Thirdly, because he singularly failed to take any robust action to close the troublesome children's homes in St Anne's Road East and St Alban's Road, he subjected many residents to years of terrible problems with crime and nuisance. He allowed the mega-businesses running these homes to import problem children from all over the country.

The operating company exercised no discipline or proper control over the delinquents in their charge, despite being paid sums reported to be in excess of a thousand pounds per child per week.

The result is that the stories of crime and damage caused by these imported delinquents are legendary throughout the town. Even the police complain about the work these homes generated in arrests.

Because the Commissar failed to act soon enough, there is now a deep well of anger and distrust about any social accommodation in the town.

Fourthly, Commissar Coombes refused to adopt proper controls on houses in multiple occupation for several years, despite campaigns by the local community to do so.

As with the children's homes, this failure has created opportunities for absentee landlord companies to import problem families on housing and Council Tax benefit from as far afield as Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester, in order to profit from them, at the expense of the trouble that this transient population causes for established local residents and their children.

Equally, he has allowed St Anne's to have more than its fair share of 'rehabilitation' facilities. There is a danger that the more this happens, the more transient residents are accommodated, the more the character of the area begins to change, and it ceases to display the very characteristics that makes it the attractive place that it is known to be.

So now, the chickens are coming home to roost.

Even if the Muir Group is not like the other problem-dumping mega-businesses we have seen take root in our town (which, as yet, is unproved either way), it is a dead cert to be rejected by local people because of the Commissar's 'previous' form that allowed - or even encouraged - businesses to dump their problems in St Anne's and take their profit out of the town.

But it's unlikely that a campaign could stop the planning application being granted (unless, of course, Muir could become persuaded to withdraw, or to change the scheme to an owner-occupied one), and even if they were to withdraw, chances are the Commissar will find someone else.

And even if FBC were to refuse planning permission (which is most unlikely), the scheme would probably get permission on appeal to Government anyway.

As will become clear, the main attack point shouldn't be the planning application, there the rules of what are, and are not, admissible as objections to a planning application will confuse all but the most intrepid.

No, the weak point in this chain is the relationship between the scheme and the gross waste that is to be the new Town Hall.

There are several independent local opposition groups developing. They are not yet organised or co-ordinated, but all oppose one or more of the various asset-stripping measures the Commissar has in mind.

We have a story on one of these almost ready to bring you.

These local focus groups could well be joined by the wider civic community when they realise what is going on in the Council's name, and how much damage is being done to the character of the town.

When people wake up to what this dreadful Pollitburo Cabinet is doing in the name of the Council, the real anger will start.

Far from peaking, this issue is only just beginning.

Dated: 10 November 2007 


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