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Key Lessons

Key LessonsFylde's planners have just made a proper, old fashioned, decision to throw out an application to convert a building that most people would think is a small house in St Albans Road, into a school. The plan was submitted by a company called Keys Childcare Ltd. who also run "The Coppice" - which is next door to the proposed school.

"The Coppice" is a residential home for children with problems resulting in their abnormal behaviour, and it may be argued that the proposed school would cater for children who are unsuitable to be educated in mainstream schools.

The people of St Albans Road have cause to be grateful to Councillors who rejected this plan. For years, local residents have been subjected to nuisance and crime from residents of "The Coppice" which specialises in meeting the needs of young people who, as they put it, are experiencing or displaying:

  • Physical, sexual or emotional abuse
  • Low self esteem or superficial self-harm
  • Disruptive behaviour or minor offending
  • Attachment difficulties and absconding
  • Poor life skills/poor independent living skills
  • Supported lodging requirements

The disaster that has been the Coppice illustrates one of the worst examples of the unsound privatisation of public services that should not have been so enthusiastically embraced by Government.

In the guise of care within the community, the Government foolishly created a business opportunity into which profit hungry companies leapt to take advantage of a system not much short of a license to print money. They set up, not just in St Anne's but in several places, residential homes into which they could import troubled young people from elsewhere, and to be paid handsomely by the State (which means us) to do so .

Facilities like these fail to exercise sufficient control over their "residents" (actually they are treated more like hotel guests) and thus fail to prevent them from disfiguring and blighting the lives not only local youngsters who become attracted to such rebellious and dangerous individuals, but they also degrade the lives of adults in the vicinity. Even the adults are not able to adequately influence those in charge of the home to ensure they effect proper control of the children in their charge.

In short, companies can aggressively import problems without having regard for the social consequences to the community into which they dump their profit centres.

The logic they often employ is the rabid liberalism which believes that if you put a rotten apple into the middle of a barrel of good apples, the good ones will cure the bad one of its rot.

Yeah, right.

There is a background story to tell at this point.

It's mostly about finance so you have to keep awake to follow it, but it will show you how business is profiting from misery.

The Coppice in St Anne's used to be run by Nationwide Childcare who had an address of 32-34 St Albans Road.

In May 2007 Nationwide Childcare was acquired (bought out) by a company called Keys Bettercare

Keys Bettercare is itself a hybrid name.

Keys markets itself using the website keys-attachment.co.uk This domain is registered to Marc Murphy, a UK Individual with the address of 39 Cranmore Park, Belfast, BT67 9LR

Keys claim to be part of the Bettercare Group, and the keys-attachment website gives their contact details as being "Bettercare Keys Ltd", Hurstwood Court New Hall, Hey Road, Rawtenstall Rossendale, Lancashire BB4 6HR

Bettercare itself is a company based in Belfast, and was formed in 1993. It uses the domain name bettercare.co.uk which is registered to Bettercare Ltd, at an address of 39 Cranmore Park, Belfast, Belfast, BT67 9LR - (the same as Marc Murphy)

Bettercare itself used to be owned by 3i, which was a world leader in private equity and venture capital.

They first invested 6m in BetterCare in 1996, at which point the company operated three elderly care homes.

But in May 2005, after just nine years, 3i sold BetterCare to the Four Seasons Group in a deal valued at 116m.

So 3i made a seven-fold return on its investment in the company.

Four Seasons Health Care, (who bought BetterCare from 3i) was itself founded in Scotland in 1987, and is now the UK's largest owner and operator of care homes.

It is also a major provider of specialised services for adults and adolescents with mental health needs. It uses the domain fshc.co.uk which is registered to Four Seasons Health Care, Trading as "Four Seasons Health Care."

It is a UK Limited Company, (No: 3863850), and gives its address as being Emerson Court, Alderley Road, Wilmslow, Cheshire, SK9 1NX

Limited companies sometimes use the same name as a "Trading as" name in order not to disclose the fact that they have a limited liability.

What you see here is not an altruistic, caring, socially concerned organisation like the health service. What you see is the result of venture capital, using hard nosed business methods driven by the bottom line.

So the Coppice, a small domestic sized property in St Anne's is ultimately owned by a multi-million pound business, possibly the largest care home provider in the UK, which itself is hiding its limited liability behind a name that sounds like its real name.

However, despite its size, it seems reluctant to use it's huge financial reserves to consult with local residents when its subsidiary Keys planned to acquire and convert the property next door to the Coppice into a "school".

The first the local community knew about it was when half a dozen neighbours had last-minute leaflets pushed through their letterboxes telling them a meeting was being held at a few hours notice to discuss the plan.

The local community mobilised quickly and managed to get a few people to attend the meeting. Keys were left in no doubt there would be local opposition to their plan, and people began to organise meetings. One of the stalwarts in this was PACT Chairman Bob Plant. He spoke with so many people he probably needs a mortgage for his phone bill.

counterbalance was able to attend one or two of the meetings organised by the local community and heard first hand some of the experiences. It made your heart bleed for those affected. We were also pleased to be able to help a bit behind the scenes.

Not that we were needed really. There were many, very capable and able people, all working toward the same goal.

When the agenda for the planning application was submitted, the officer's report set out the arguments for and against.

Helen Hockenhull had produced a first class report. ( It can be seen on FBC's website at page 41 of the D C Committee Agenda).

The recommendation was to refuse the application.

Whilst it was considered that the principle of a school in the urban area of St Anne's was acceptable, there were problems specific to the application site. Principally these were: insufficient on site car parking; concern over aggravated present parking difficulties on St Albans Road; and insufficient space for the pupils of the school, particularly for their recreational needs.

In short, this was to be a school with no parking space on the road outside for parents or institutions to wait for or drop off the children before and after school, and 8 spaces squeezed like sardines in a  tin, next to, and tight in front of, each other in half the back yard, and the other half of the back yard performing the function of what older readers would call "the playground."

The officer's report catalogued the opposition.

St Anne's Town Council said it objected on the basis of nuisance, crime and disorder requirements, traffic problems and the fact that vulnerable children would become even more vulnerable if located in the most deprived ward in Fylde.

The Highway Authority reminded Fylde Council to take account of the highway problems the proposal would cause.

The Local Strategic Partnership (not one of counterbalance's favourite organisations) expressed concern about fear of crime, adequacy of play space, and parking problems.

Central Ward PACT (Police and Community Together) Team submitted a devastating critique of the plan citing further loss of residential amenity, highway safety, cumulative impact, and lack of amenity open space for pupils.

The police themselves, in an unusually strong move expressed concern about the proposal. They noted that over the last 12 months local officers had attended 134 incidents at The Coppice to deal with varying matters from the residents going missing to arresting residents for burglary and assault. There were 33 arrests of residents of the home. Whilst the police accepted that the school was a new venture, the owners are the same as those who own the children's home and it is likely that the residents of the home could also attend the school.

The Project Team Manager for the regeneration of Central Ward said the proposal would have an adverse impact on youth nuisance, traffic. parking, and road safety. They also had concerns about the lack of amenity space for the children to play and exercise.

Lytham St Anne's Ladies Forum objected because there were existing problems of youth nuisance and noise in the area which will only get worse.

The Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnership objected to the proposal, noting the adjacent children's home has become a magnet for vulnerable children from other areas and this increased the perception of crime and disorder in the area. They also said there was no parking to the front of the property and pupils would stand in the street waiting for transport and the safety of the children could be compromised.

In addition to these views, there were 63 individual letters of objection.

We thought the officer recommendation to refuse might have been a bit more comprehensive, but nevertheless it was a clear and logical conclusion to a well ordered and constructed report.

Then the Planning Committee debate opened (these day's it's actually called the Development Control Committee because Government doesn't like Councils to plan things any more). After having the report introduced by the officer, four members of the public spoke for 3 minutes each.

The first said she lived very close to the existing children's home, and feared for her own small children based on the inadequate control the company was presently exercising over their residents after incidences of stone throwing and other problems directed at her family and property.

The second showed some photographs of what life had been like since the Home opened. One of the existing home's residents had stolen a car and driven it straight through the yard wall of her neighbour's house before burying it halfway through her kitchen. Photos of the external kitchen wall jacked up with planks and acro props after the car had been removed were especially vivid. She spoke movingly of drugs, crime, and disorder being the wrong environment into which to bring vulnerable children.

The third did a first class job of putting a very human perspective on the sort of problems that would arise, and the fourth showed photographs of the parking problems in front and at the rear of the proposed school and home.

Then the Councillors heard a full exposition of the arguments from the Planning Officer, before opening the debate.

It was a real pleasure to see Fylde's Councillors resorting to their proper mode.

Councillor John Bennet was the first to speak. He said he had no hesitation in moving the recommendation to refuse.

Cllr Aitken said he had experience of special needs teaching, and quite apart from his first priority to safeguard residents, this plan had no adequate space for children to play. He thought the school should be sited where it had plenty of space and he hoped the application would be refused.

Cllr Henshaw said This is a non-starter. We've already wasted too much time on it.

Saint Barbara Pagett agreed. She has local experience with parking, and is an ex- educationalist. She would support refusal.

Cllr Linda Nulty said she would like to see officers reject such applications before they even got as far as the Committee.

Cllr Duckworth said they have one of these schools in their village, and there will be problems.

Cllr Eastham wanted to be sure their reasons were solid because in effect they were going against Government policy.

Cllr Hardy said he had worked with young people for over 30 years. This proposal was in the wrong area, there was nowhere to play and it was not suitable. He was happy to second it.

Vice Chairman Cllr Janine Owen noted no one had spoken in support of the plan, and no-one from Keys had attended the meeting and made themselves known. She wholeheartedly agreed with the other speakers.

Veteran Cllr George Caldwell said the plan was contrary to their planning policies and he would support refusal. Furthermore, the Council should look at this sort of thing in their planning policy meetings.

Summing up, Chairman Cllr Trevor Fiddler said that concern about highways, layout and lack of amenity were all sound planning reasons for refusal, and it was very rare to get a report where every consultee had objected. He then said he would like to add a statement about the use being inappropriate in respect of an increase in the perception of fear of crime.

A short break followed whilst the amendment was written out to be added to the resolution, during which time Cllr Eastham asked officers to ensure that if the Council refused the application and an appeal were to be lodged, they should oppose it being held by written representations and seek a public inquiry into the matter.

The amended resolution was put and approved without dissent.

It was a real pleasure to see the Council doing its job properly. We congratulate all those involved.

We mused afterwards whether the omission of the 'fear of crime' rationale from the officer's original recommendation was intentional. It is a statutory obligation for Councils to take account of this in all their work, and an officer as capable as Helen Hockenhull or Mark Evans would be unlikely to miss it. If they made a strategic decision not to include it in order to leave room for Councillors to add it and thus bind themselves more tightly to the decision they made, it was a stroke of pure genius. If it was a matter of judgement to leave it out because the reasons for refusal were sufficient without it, then the members are to be commended for adding it in.

As one of the affected members of the public said some weeks ago. It's perfectly possible that if Keys can't get their existing children into local schools because they are so disruptive, and they are unable to provide education for them in St Alban's Road, it must be possible that the existing residential home might move to somewhere more suitable too.

You will hear much of the town heave a sigh of relief if that happens.

Dated:  2 October 2007


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