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More Muir

A ShamblesThere didn't seem to be very many cars parked as we approached Mayfield School last Tuesday evening, but we'd expected a lot of people so we had got there before the rush. It was the 'Public Meeting' organised by Muir Group (this time supported by Fylde Council), and at the seven o'clock start, the room was almost full with all 150 seats taken. As the meeting began a voice from the back shouted "This is no good, there are another hundred people out here trying to get in"

So began the third meeting to protest at plans by Muir Group and Fylde Council who want to turn the former Central Vehicle Maintenance Unit on St David's Road North into a hostel for the transient homeless. (see also Don't Have any Muir).

The first meeting, called by local residents at the Links Hotel had the same problem, around 70 people tried to squeeze into one of the rooms at the pub and they simply couldn't be made to fit.

Then Muir held a 'drop-in' session at Mayfield and was forced to abandon it in the face of hostility and the inability to make themselves heard, so they arranged this public meeting to explain what they plan to do.

This one had microphones and amplifiers.

Fylde's Chief Executive Philip Woodward was chairing the meeting. He was stuck between a rock and a hard place. The public meeting had been called to tell the local community about Muir's plans, but the head teacher said the maximum capacity for the hall (which, in a delicious irony, is set in the License granted by Fylde Council), must not exceed 150. So that meant that not everyone who wanted to could attend.

There were calls to abandon this meeting and re-arrange it somewhere with a bigger capacity. There was also quite a bit of anger from the floor that people could not get in. But Mr Woodward pressed on as best he could.

There were polished, PowerPoint presentations from Clare Platt who explained Fylde's duty to house homeless people. And from Croft Good, who designed the building, and offered to explain the concepts of the design - which was greeted by cries of "Don't bother we don't want this here whatever it looks like." He did say it was "Brownfield low value land" and there was contamination on the site that would have to be cleared.

Next came Helen Hockenhull, Principal Planning Officer. She was the first (and only) person on the platform to respect the audience and say she was there mostly to listen. But she did tell those assembled that the date for objections to the planning application had been extended to the 11th December, and that at present the item was expected to go to the Planning Committee of 9th January 2008 (although it might slip later). We've seem Mrs Hockenhull in action before, and from what we have seen so far, she is a thoroughly professional and capable planning officer.

She made the point that a lot of things that might worry people at the meeting - including loss of property values - couldn't be taken into account when considering whether to approve planning application. She gave the address for objections which you can also find here on Fylde's website. The application number is 07/1124

Next came Paul Andrew, Muir's 'New Business Development Manager'. He gave an earnest and honest presentation about why this was the right place (the site is cheap, available, with good local services, and good transport links). The presentation mostly failed to convince those present (who are used to having spin and deception heaped all over them) and, like Mandy Rice-Davies from the 1060 Profumo affair, the reaction to his presentation was generally "He would say that, wouldn't he"

Then we had Muir's Tony Howley - their "Supporting Housing Initiatives Officer". He just went deeper into the mire. He began by saying the rents would be affordable (50 to 70 per week) and that the rent doesn't cover the cost, so they get grants from the Housing Corporation. One member of the public pointed out that the Housing Corporation got their money from Government who got it from us as taxpayers. He went on to say the people in the hostels would be on benefit, so we were still paying for them again as well.

Mr Howley went deeper in when he suggested that it was not uncommon for people in these hostels to be working and not on benefit.

This brought incredulous gasps, and the inevitable question why, if they are working, should they have the benefits such as subsidised housing that was not available to the working people in the audience who all had to manage to find a home themselves. The perception was that 'working', and 'homeless' were mutually exclusive concepts.

In explaining why, Mr Howley didn't seem able to understand why people might not welcome the opportunity to help the transient homeless, even if it meant they couldn't sell their own houses as easily. (And indeed as some residents said had already happened when buyers had withdrawn once they knew about Muir's proposals).

By this time the audience was getting tetchy. They'd had the positives rammed down their throats for half and hour without being able to express their concerns. They were really in no mood to hear anyone else, but David Gillett - 'Interim Housing Manager' for Fylde Council did his best to assuage concerns that these would be people with some sort of local connection, and he "hoped" that Fylde Council would become the "single referral pathway" (for which we think you can read "it will be the Council who decides who gets accommodation"). He had prepared hypothetical examples of people in different circumstances. and whether they would qualify or not, and how assessments were made and so on. But again the audience were not in a mood to listen, and most of his comments fell on stony ground.

What no-one in authority - or at Muir - has understood yet, is that the objections to this scheme are 'in principle' objections. No matter how many assurances are given, no matter how pretty the buildings can be made to look, the community has decided it doesn't want it.

If it gets thrust upon them, the probability is, as one speaker put it later, there will be a separation and closing of ranks of the host community and an isolation of the tenants. A DIY ghetto situation, and a recipe for trouble.

Muir's Geoff Barker (Their Supported Housing Manager) enjoyed a combative session trying to explain how things were managed on other sites.

By now, the first hour had gone, and there was one hour left for questions, but just before this, the door-people had relented against the continuing pressure of those who had stayed waiting outside in the dark and cold of a winter night, and let them in.

About 50 or so of the claimed 100 that had been outside at the start of the meeting came in to join the questions.

One lady said it wasn't just a St David's Road problem; it affected the whole of St Anne's.

Another asked why this was coming to St Anne's when we already had places like Pierpoint House, Holly Lodge and the troublesome Children's home on St Alban's Road.

There was talk of whether people released from prison could choose to be housed here. This drew the response "not unless they have a local connection and otherwise qualify".

Another asked about the numbers of homeless people (which were confusing from the presentations), and she thought the hostel would provide over-capacity.

There were several Councillors at the meeting.

The Commissar was at the back, as silent as the Angel of Death. We also saw Councillors Karen Buckley, Angela Jacques, Christine Ackeroyd and Saint Barbara Pagett listening in the audience.

None of these made a comment.

This isn't unusual. The system at Fylde now threatens any Councillor who speaks up on behalf of their residents with not being able to take part in debates or votes on it at a later stage. This is a quite disgraceful state of affairs, intended in our view, to emasculate and silence the people we elect to represent us.

Councillor Henshaw braved the possible future criticism to ask Planning Officer Helen Hockenhull whether the proposed development conflicted with the planning policy regarding employment (See end of article for update). She seemed to admit that it did, and also indicated there was some potential conflict with the Council's statutory responsibility to minimise crime and disorder, but said this was always a difficult area to determine.

In essence this highlighted the conflict between the need to house 'difficult' people and the need to reduce crime.

What she was really saying was that IF the concerns of residents were founded, and the scheme imported people whose presence increased the crime for the area (as had happened with the children's home in St Alban's Road which became a one home crimewave all on its own), this would be against the Council's responsibility not to do so under its statutory crime prevention measures, and that could be a material reason toward refusing the application. Note there is a big IF in the middle of that paragraph. 

A lady asked if all the people at the meeting (now around 200) would put up their hands if they were opposed to the scheme. All except one hand went up.

Councillors, especially local ward councillors will have noticed this number. It unnerves the more experienced, who know that for every one of the people putting their hand up at the meeting, there are hundreds more who share their view but haven't actually turned up,....... and views translate into votes.

Another chap said they had only heard half the reason why the scheme was being proposed, adding that it was part of a package of sites being sold to fund the development of a 5million new office block next to the Town Hall, and in order to get permission to put market value housing on the other sites, the Council had to have an element of Social Housing as part of its overall package, and this was it. He went on to argue for the continuing use of bed and breakfast as accommodation for the transient homeless.

The number of homeless people presenting themselves for accommodation in Fylde can't be controlled, either by Muir or by the Council; it's a demand-led, uncontrollable situation, because the Council has a responsibility to house them. So it's best to use B&B because

  • Specially built property is bound to have times when it is empty, and others when there is a waiting list, because demand is going to fluctuate. Blackpool has more bedspaces than in the whole of Portugal, so in this area, B&B can be used very effectively to meet a fluctuating demand

  • The existence of a dedicated facility could actually act as a magnet - it could attract an influx of migrant homeless to the area, to the detriment of local services.

  • Using B&B to accommodate transient residents actually helps to support local businesses.

  • It disperses transient families over a wider geographic area rather than creating the "skid row" reputation that a dedicated facility would bring - both to tenants themselves, and to the area in which it is located.

  • It would also mean that each separate B&B owner has concerns for the welfare and behaviour of their tenants - so more people would exist to guide the families, rather than just having one person managing 11 units.

  • Accommodation for transient homeless people is, by definition, a short term problem. It's not an alternative lifestyle choice that needs to be accommodated, so it is a bad idea to create dedicated provision when an existing bank of B&B provision is readily available.

So he maintained this dedicated unit for homeless people is the wrong approach.

He concluded by saying what we need here are low cost homes for young couples to buy, and get themselves started on the housing ladder, not to create our own version of 'Skid Row' in St Anne's.

The meeting closed about 9pm with no one really satisfied.

We saw the Commissar go up and talk to the Chief Executive at the end of the meeting, and we wondered if - pragmatic as ever - he might adjust the nature of the scheme to something like a shared equity scheme so as to reduce local opposition and smooth the passage of his office block.

But then after the meeting a reader who had also been there told us they overheard him say something like 'they'll have to organise themselves better than that if they want to stop this scheme.' Whether that was an accurate report or not, we don't know.

Of course, in all probability, the planning application will be granted. There are a couple of reasons it might not, but even if Fylde BC were to support its residents and refuse the application, the chances are the Government would grant the application if Muir were to appeal.

So whilst everyone must send their objection before 7 November, they shouldn't be too downhearted if the permission is granted.

If Muir gets permission, they can't do anything with it until they own the land.

For example, we could apply for, and be granted, planning permission to put a factory on the site, but if we don't own the land it's a waste of time.

No. The key question here is whether Fylde Council should sell the land to Muir, and this is the weak point in the Council's armour.

Here, local councillors won't be able to hide behind the "Well its planning and the regulations about what you can say are very strict" or the "well we're not allowed to vote on it" excuse.

The formal decision whether to sell this land (and thus whether to sell it for this sort of use or not) will be made by Conservative Councillor John Coombes and the people he picked in his Conservative dominated Politburo Cabinet.

That said, the real decision will be taken beforehand by the Conservative Group that meets behind closed doors.

This is why the Ward and other Councillors need to be pressured by local people, and that pressure needs to be strong and maintained.

If enough of them are fearful about being re-elected, or if they have genuine sympathy for their electorate's wishes, they will try to convince their other Conservative colleagues not to vote for the sale of the land for this purpose.

We would have liked to have known how much Fylde Council and Muir are working together on this, and what the extent of the relationship is between Muir and the Council.

It seems quite possible, given the Council's support for Muir at the meeting, and the expectation that they will be acting as the "Single Pathway Referral" that Muir and Fylde Council could be in some sort of partnership or joint venture to provide this accommodation.

Now just think about this for a moment.

When its the same Council that needs this housing as a turnkey solution to get their 5 million modernisation 'statement' office block, and when they stand to make millions of pounds from asset stripping the town by selling off important public sites, how likely is it that this same council isn't going to be influenced by the moneybags rolling round in their eyes when they are deciding whether to grant a planning permission or not?

This has happened before of course. Half a million pounds of sweetener for a land sale, and the Commissar sold of part of Ashton Gardens for a block of flats, despite proper planning reasons why he should not have done so.

It is behaviour that stank then, and it stinks now.

Dated:  30 November 2007

Councillor Henshaw believes we misheard what he said, and he didn't mention employment. He has sent a copy of what he actually said. We are happy to reproduce it here and apologise if we heard it incorrectly at the meeting. He says: " I believe this application is contrary to policy CF1 of the Fylde Borough Council local plan which clearly states - "the development must be appropriately LOCATED , having regard to adjacent and nearby land uses and would not prejudice RESIDENTIAL AMENITIES"

Follow up enquiries about the use of the proposed hostel show that they will be used not only for tenants approved by the vetting process, but also for people waiting to be vetted. This could blow a hole in the arguments that only selected people will be housed there.

We understand that the Saint Annes on the Sea Town Council - who are a statutory planning consultee, and whose view the Borough Council is obliged to consider when determining planning applications -  has voted against approving the hostel scheme. We applaud their decision. It may not change anything in the result, (Fylde can choose to ignore this view as it can choose to ignore others) but it does ensure the Borough Councillors consider the matter, and it has given a formal and proper voice to the concerns of local residents.

UPDATE 4      (23 December 2007)
We have heard that the meeting to consider this application is to be held at Lowther Pavilion, on 16 January, at 9:30am. This will disappoint those who are working and hoped for an evening meeting

UPDATE 5          (23 December 2007)
We understand that over 600 objections have been made to the plan. 175 are individual objections, and there are two petitions, with a combined total of 428 signatures.


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