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Hostel Plan Approved

Hostel Plan ApprovedTrue to expectations and, as we predicted in 'Heeley Road Hostel Plans' - using a process of attrition, and mild intimidation to grind down the opposition on Fylde's Development Control Committee Muir's planning application to dump a hostel for the transient homeless in Heeley Road St Anne's was approved yesterday.

We've provided a long (even for us), and quite detailed story of the meeting in this article - partly because it is an important issue, and partly because it demonstrates how far Fylde is allowing politics and policy to override common sense these days. It will also introduce and explain some of the ramifications of the idea of 'Planning Policy' to those not familiar with the concept.

So, if you have time, pour yourself a cup, then settle down for a read.

The meeting started at 9am with sixteen councillors and about 100 people in the audience. Eight of these had registered to speak for their allotted 3 minutes.

The atmosphere of the audience was strangely silent. A far cry from frisson of the Lytham Quays meeting. There was an air of quiet resignation, as though people knew the decision was going to go against them, but they were there to bear witness to their opposition.

After some initial trouble with whining feedback from the microphones, the Chairman, Councillor Doctor Trevor Fiddler, explained there would be a brief introduction from the Planning Officer, then the three minute 'public sessions', followed by a detailed presentation by planners, and debate by the Committee.

As the meeting wore on, we sensed more and more pressure for the scheme to be approved. As we said in 'Heeley Road Hostel Plans' there was undoubted bias in favour of the application throughout the Planning Officers report, and this theme continued throughout the meeting.

Several times the Chairman interrupted Councillors to remind them that whilst they could come to their own view, the professional officers did not find sufficient grounds to refuse the application (as though somehow the officer's view was more important than those of the elected representatives).

With hindsight, the sense of the meeting was that of trying to grind down opposition and disagreement, rather than to weigh the pros and cons. In this, you have to say the Chairman was very successful. He controlled the meeting masterfully. Intervening where necessary, and keeping the line he wanted the Committee to follow with an iron fist (that was only visible to the most experienced of civic anoraks) inside the velvet glove.

In the public speaking part, the first of the speakers was Peter Buckley. He spoke on behalf of his wife, the Meteoric Cllr Karen Buckley. He said work commitments prevented her from attending, and read out a prepared speech from her, which noted she had been consistent in her view that she supported a change to residential use, but that use must not compromise the safety or security of local residents.

She also reiterated the claim to have been misquoted in the online version of the LSA Express (though we note they haven't actually managed to make that change to their quote of her on their website yet). She also said she is concerned about the police findings, and has challenged Muir to respond. Furthermore she wanted to question the legal authority of the Muir Group to evict, and thought tenancies should be allocated as a licence to occupy rather than a normal tenancy agreement which requires a protracted process, often involving the court system.

Next up was Arnold Sumner. Star of the show, he produced the quote of the day. Representing the views of St Anne's on the Sea Town Council, this normally unassuming builder of consensus began his three minutes with "This is a dreadful application, and we don't want it. The police don't want it and it should be refused."

To be honest, this is one of the few times that the quite new St Anne's Town Council has spoken so strongly and publicly, and we're sure residents will welcome what he said.

He went on to explain this had always been a commercial area and the scheme involved loss of job opportunities. He also said the Planning Officer report was inaccurate in some respects. He concluded by saying St Anne's on the Sea Town Council wants it to stay as a commercial site bringing in more employment, especially in the field of new technology.

Next was Peter Savic, who began by saying that the nuisance from the microphones had been relatively easy to switch off, but the same could not be said for the nuisance that would arise from an approval the Committee would make on this application. He worried about an increase in crime and also increase the fear of crime within the community. He said there were plans for security measures such as floodlighting and alarms and a 24 hour staff presence involving motor vehicles arriving and leaving the building at all hours of the day and night with the potential for this to create a nuisance for neighbours.

He went on to say the building would attract a stigma and thus prove unpopular with respectable homeless people who may prefer to be accommodated in conventional housing or bed and breakfast. He said all sorts of people might end up being housed there, and the planning report itself showed there was already adequate provision for the homeless in the area. He concluded that this plan would reduce business activity thus reduce the diversity of the area.

The next speaker gave what he claimed to be nine proper planning reasons to refuse the application if the DC Committee was minded to do so. These included Employment policy, General development policy CF1, Residential Care Policy CF5, preference for shared equity housing instead of a hostel. He said it could be held contrary to Housing Policy HL1 because it did not support any of the groups specifically listed there. He also claimed the 2001 housing need survey was out of date and misinterpreted anyway, so Policy HL1 was not met. Turning to the Joint Structure Plan, he said there is an over supply of B&B and private landlords in the area, so this hostel was not 'essential' as defined in Policy 12 of the Joint Structure Plan, and that alone was grounds for refusal if the Committee wanted to do so.

Finally he concluded that the plan did nothing to reduce either actual or perceived fear of crime and disorder, and councillors could decide there was sufficient information to justify a refusal on those grounds. He went on to illustrate the story of a lady who had telephoned her harrowing experience of living near to one of these types of units, and concluded that approval today would affect much more than just the immediate neighbours, and result in a lot of angry people.

Next came an elderly lady called Lilian who asked "How can you go on with these plans when you know residents are opposed to them and they will cause trouble". She said it was a ridiculous idea and should be turned down. Homes in the area had gone down 15% already, and people need to feel safe. She begged Councillors to go against the application.

Next came Mr Lee (or perhaps Lea). He said he was sorry there were not more people there, but if the meeting was held a long way from where people live, and at a time when mums were still dealing with getting children to school, and most folk were at work, so it was only to be expected that larger numbers couldn't attend. He said people in the area had enough trouble with youths at the moment and they didn't need any more sources of trouble. He went on to say this scheme would make things worse, and it would take months to shift troublemakers.

He lost a few potential friends on the Committee when he continued "I could understand it if this was Labour Council, but this is a Conservative one, and it should be looking after us"   He went on "I have voted Conservative all my life, but I'll be blowed if I will again"

Finally Tony Howley spoke in favour of the scheme on behalf of Muir. He said the main concern was crime and disorder and he wanted to dispel the myths of the previous speakers. He said he did not recognise the descriptions he had heard, and they would not give tenancies to people who were dangerous, although they could not exclude offenders. He said the Police statistics in the report were not reliable and described them as "very dangerous statistics to use." We thought this to be a disgraceful slur on independent and respected police officers. He said their existing schemes didn't have those sorts of problems.

That concluded the public presentation part of the meeting.

Next came Planning officer Helen Hockenhull. As we have said before, our view here is confused. We know her to be a capable officer, able to produce a balanced report.

But not this time.

Initially you feel sorry for an officer who might have been subject to so much political pressure that they have produced an unbalanced and biased report, but that has to be set against what should be their independence in the face of such pressure. We find it difficult to come to a view as to what has really happened here.

However, she set off undaunted, describing the scheme, noting there would be a training room, and a computer room, and a playroom and a communal lounge for residents. She also said they hoped to keep the brick perimeter walls, but would put steel railings on top of them to discourage people from sitting on them and thus increase security.

The David Gillett of the Housing Department spoke to provide evidence of need. He said Fylde had no 'street homeless' (we think this means people sleeping rough, and is what most folk would understand as being 'homeless') but we did have people who presented themselves as homeless.

This stirs up some very muddy water about what exactly is "homeless"

Fylde uses two definitions.

First is what they call their 'Aspirational Definition' (we presume that, if he had known about this, Mr Lee from the earlier public speaking bit might also have had something to say about a Conservative controlled council encouraging people to aspire to be homeless, but there we are.)

Anyway, Fylde's 'Aspirational Definition' of homelessness says "A person is homeless when they do not have a decent affordable home of their choice in which they feel safe and secure."

(On that basis, even counterbalance would be classed as homeless, as we aspire to, but do not own our own, decent, affordable, castle)

But Fylde also use the statutory guidance definition of homeless, which is "Someone is statutorily homeless if they do not have accommodation that they have a legal right to occupy, which is accessible and physically available to them (and their household) and which it would be reasonable for them to continue to live in. It would not be reasonable for someone to continue to live in their home, for example, if that was likely to lead to violence against them (or a member of their family)."

Note the "likely to lead to" bit that gives a quite wide interpretation in the national guidelines, and by adding their own 'aspirational definition' into the mix, Fylde can justify almost anyone being designated homeless if they want to.

However, we digress from the meeting.

Mr Gillett went on to say last year there were 116 cases presented, of which 84 were accepted as being valid homelessness.

At present they used 14 accommodation units from New Fylde Housing, and the others in flats and B&B's. He said it was difficult to provide proper and adequate support when people are dispersed throughout the area.

Presently, 44% were from the St Anne's area. He also said the new arrangements would give savings in B&B costs. (although there was no mention about how much it would cost in payments to Muir or the managing agent).

He went on to say he hoped Fylde would undertake the homelessness assessment, but Muir might sub-contract the management of the scheme to someone. He said they wanted to sit down with Muir to talk about FBC being a 'single pathway' to deal with homeless referrals.

He was asked to guarantee that only local families would be housed in the hostel, and the answer, whilst given evasively was, in effect, 'No'

Mr Gillett also went on to say they had one dedicated member of staff to help prevent people from becoming homeless. (We thought we could see a saving of £20,000 or more here if the Commissar hadn't withdrawn the grant from Citizen's Advice Bureau and forced its closure See CAB)

Asked about timetabling he said it takes on average 4 weeks from someone presenting themselves as being homeless to being assessed, and 25 to 30 weeks from being assessed as homeless to their being found a permanent home.

At this point, Coun Howard Henshaw nailed the flaw in this scheme. he asked - Is it right that when someone presents as homeless, you are obliged to house them whilst you conduct the assessment, so you cannot know whether the person has a criminal record or background can you. The answer was, eventually, 'No.' The reluctance of officers to give a straight answer to such questions is a very worrying sign for our democracy.

Mr Gillett also confirmed the budget estimate for B&B's was currently £90,000 a year. We say that's about 58p a week on the Council tax if it all came from Fylde rates, (which it doesn't, because 60% of Fylde's spending comes from Government grants).

Cllr Kevin Eastham asked a question about policy CF5 which essentially is to do with the 'need' for the hostel in Planning policy terms. (We'll explain this later).

By now it was clear that the principal players involved in this decision were all very much in favour of approval, and members of the public, anticipating the result to come, and failing to grasp the technicalities of planning policy, started to drift away, disenchanted.

Cllr Eastham also said he was concerned that allowing the proposed use might open the door to other future uses that were more problematic.

Experienced and veteran of many planning debates, Councillor George Caldwell asked if there had been discussions with private landlords about meeting homeless need. The answer was 'No.'

Undaunted by a rebuke from the Chairman for appearing to be pursuing an irrelevant direction (Cllr Caldwell is not one to be rebuked by anyone when he is representing his constituents), he pursued the issue with "Why not?", adding that whilst he was a Committee member, he was also representing the perspective of his electorate. Clearly he was attempting to show that the 'need', condition in some of the Planning Policies could not be satisfied if there was already dequate provision in the commercial sector.

The answer came from Mr Gillett that the 'on-site support' for homeless tenants is difficult to provide when private business offering accommodation, because of the problems of supporting people on dispersed sites, as they are as for people in B&B's. (Caldwell saw this for the tosh it was, but his voice was one of very few)

Cllr Heather Speak asked what facilities were in place to have people removed if that became necessary. Mr Gillett said he couldn't answer that, as Fylde would not be the managing agent for the scheme. Muir or someone else would actually manage it.

Saint Barbara Pagett asked if they could impose a period of time to assess the performance of the chosen managing agent and require control to fall to Fylde Council in the event a managing service was judged unsatisfactory. The answer was "Not as part of a Planning Agreement, but it may be possible to discuss it in a separate contract with Muir"

Cllr Linda Nulty asked for some statistics. The reply from Mr Gillett stated that 44% of presentations came from St Anne's, 56% from other parts of the Borough, (It wasn't clear whether this was before or after the homelessness assessment). He also said that last year there had been 90 families (21 with 3 or more children) and 62 single people.

At this point the Chairman declared the time for questions over, and called a 5 minute recess.

When the meeting reconvened, Planning Officer Helen Hockenhull presented the application in more detail. Much of the time she echoed the report, trying to reduce the possible arguments for refusal. Chief amongst these was a disgraceful attempt to rubbish the information provided by the Police. There were references to "lies, damn lies and statistics". For us, her credibility vanished irretrievably at this point.

She concluded that in her opinion there would not be enough crime or anti-social behaviour to justify refusal.

Even if this was right (note that it was only her opinion, and she is a planner, not a sociologist, psychologist, or policeman), this completely fails to address the FEAR of crime and anti-social behaviour, and the FEAR of crime is, itself a material planning consideration.

This approach was the hallmark of the meeting really.

Evasion, half truths, innuendo and psychological intimidation were used to portray this awful scheme in the best possible light, and to minimise the risk of a refusal.

After her main presentation, the debate commenced.

By now we were three hours into the item, and it was getting on for 1:00 pm.

First off, the Chairman invited Cllr Richard Fulford-Brown to speak. He parroted out the official line and displayed what we thought to be uncharacteristic concern about the need to help poor people to have proper temporary homes before proposing the officers recommendation to approve the application.

Coun Pat Fieldhouse (another of the Commissar's chosen ones) said this was a much needed scheme for vulnerable people in the Borough. It wasn't satisfactory to put them in B&B and she urged support for the scheme.

Next came Councillor Howard Henshaw. He said this was the first issue to unite the whole of St Leonard's Ward, and he had received no letters of support for it. He said there had been more objections than people who had voted in the election, and repeated the assertion that the fear of crime was in itself a material consideration.

He also said there was plenty of evidence of fear of crime from local people and more especially, the police. He said there were no assurances that places would not be allocated to criminals. He also said the local YMCA had expressed surprise to him that they had not been contacted about operating the scheme.

Councillor Henshaw went on to propose refusal of Muir's planning application based on non compliance with Policy CF1 and HL2.

At this point, with the threat of refusal in the air, the Chairman indulged in mild intimidation along the lines of ..... well you can think that, but it's clearly not the opinion of the officers that these are valid arguments to refuse it.

Procedural anoraks will have spotted there now existed an impossible situation.

A proposition to approve had been made. But it had not been seconded, so it was not a valid proposition.

Now a counter proposition, which completely negated the first, had been tabled.

Saint Barbara Pagett partly added to the confusion by seconding Coun Henshaw's proposal. But this made it the first valid proposition and it should have become the subject of debate and amendment, and the Chairman should have ruled out of order discussion on anything other than the amendment.

But this being Fylde, they tend not to follow their own rules of debate, and we carried on as though nothing had happened.

Next came the well intentioned but, we think, misguided, Councillor Linda Nulty who said no matter how many 'Affordable Houses' were built in Fylde, it wouldn't solve the homeless problem. She said no properties were directly overlooked and none would suffer any direct impact from the site. There were a few gasps from the (remaining) audience at this point. She went on to say if there were problems, it was the police's duty to sort them out and they would just have to get on with it.

Undaunted, she continued by saying that like arguments for Youth Shelters (where youths assemble in one place), - the police will have all the people together in one place in this scheme. (more gasps) and she had no hesitation in seconding the proposition to approve the application, adding that she understood this might make her unpopular.

She got that last bit right at least.

Councillor Heather Speak came back and said she wanted a robust procedure in place to remove anyone that might cause trouble. She also said she had heard a curfew spoken of, and asked for more details and why we might need it.

Mr Gillett replied to say it wasn't a curfew exactly, and he wouldn't like to use that sort of language, but he hoped the unit's management would seek to have agreements with tenants to respect, and not to disturb each other, especially if there were families with children living there.

That was cold comfort for those listening.

Councillor Peter Hardy, performed a feat of mental ju-jitsu by beginning with arguments against the scheme using Policy arguments centred on EMP2, CF1 and CF5, before going on to say but he'd changed his mind anyway, and would now vote for the scheme.

Readers might like to consider this Policy aspect.

It might help understand how the application of arcane Policy without common sense (or even without consideration of the effects of that policy on their electorate) now rules much of what the Council does, and why they have lost both the plot, and the confidence of their electorate.

Planning Policies are the 'rules' that Fylde adopts (in advance) to constrain its decision making on planning matters. The Policies are supposed to be the 'Planning Bible.' The definitive answer of what you can and can't do. But most of them can be read to have more than one meaning if you choose to do so. This give the power and control of their interpretation to officers (who wrote them in the first place).

We'll take Fylde's Planning Policy referenced CF5 as an example here. (CF is Fylde's shorthand for 'Community Facilities'). It says:

"The development of residential care facilities will be permitted provided that:-

  1. The development will not have any detrimental effect on the amenities of neighbouring properties;
  2. The development in conjunction with other similar uses does not alter or adversely affect the character of the area;
  3. The development is acceptable in terms of its scale, design and appearance and effect on the street scene;
  4. Adequate private garden space is available;
  5. A satisfactory standard of landscaping can be achieved;
  6. Satisfactory access and parking requirements can be met;
  7. The provision of parking facilities would not unduly affect the residential character of the area by involving the significant loss of garden areas or trees of townscape value."

Several speakers referred to this policy, and the change of character that the hostel for transient homeless people would bring about.

When Cllr Hardy mentioned it, the Chairman invited Planning supremo Mark Evans to explain why he thought it would not alter the character of the area.

To do this, Mr Evans showed photographs of the unsightly, and currently vacant, garage and vehicle repair buildings. He also had photos of the surrounding residential property, and the rabbit-hutch hostel proposed by Muir.

He drew the conclusion that the proposal would not change the character of the area because the Hostel was simply a modern interpretation of the design of existing houses in the area. (and by implication, it would also be an improvement on the look of the present garaging).

This sort of one-sided explanation was typical of the arguments used by officers and those supporting the scheme.

It was a nonsense of course. It entirely confused character with appearance, it omitted to deal with the issue of detrimental effect on neighbouring properties, and ignored the fact that the use which historically characterises the site is commercial/light industry, (and residential use is a change from that character).

Had they wanted to refuse it, he would have gone thorough this policy line by line and explained how the application did not fit the approved policy.

But of course, as counterbalance had predicted, it looked as though the plan was always to get it approved, so he chose to "emphasise the positives and eliminate the negatives"

Then to hammer the point home, the Chairman said in effect - Thank you Mark. Well, there you have the professional opinion of your own officers that it will not damage residential amenity or adversely affect the character of the area enough to justify refusal.

In this case the Chairman also said he thought that by adding Policy CF5 into the reasons for refusal (in case anyone was tempted to try to do so) he thought it would dilute the strength of the arguments against the scheme, (implying that those opposing it would do better to leave it out anyway).

This is a travesty of what it should be of course.

It implies an officer's view is somehow more valid than that of our elected representatives. This is absolute poppycock. The officer's job is to present the facts and both sides of the argument. It is for each Councillor to form their own view as to their own interpretation of the arguments, and not to have the Chairman influence, or as in this case, mildly intimidate them, into a particular direction.

In reality, this is a game of political power involving large sums of money, being played out by senior politicians using the lives and wellbeing of local residents who are simply unfortunate pawns in the process.

At this point it was clear to seasoned observers that the Chairman's comments had swayed the waverers. The resident's case was lost and the vote would be in favour of approval.

Cllr Kevin Eastham mounted a challenge using arguments about loss of industrial land in the area, but was interrupted and hammered back down again by the Chairman who (sensing victory within his grasp) again used the planning officer to prove that although the site has been used for commercial or industrial purposed since it was converted from its original sand dunes, the local plan did not allocate it as commercial or industrial land, so as far as they were concerned, it wasn't.

Yes, dear reader, this is the madness that is modern planning.

Then the political 'bother boys' waded in to bayonet the fatally wounded opposition. Cllr John Bennett (who seems to have lost all the common sense he started to take the Commissar's shilling) said they could only look at planning reasons, and they should approve it.

Heavyweight Pollitburo member, and true to his name Albert Pounder pounded the point home by reinforcing the 'lies, dam lies, and statistics' argument to rubbish what the police had said. He also said that on his reading of Policy CF5, you could actually come to the conclusion that the Policy was in favour of the scheme. (neatly illustrating our point about being able to read and use them to justify whichever arguments you want to make).

After this travesty of truth, and the wholly unwarranted and, in our view, wholly unreasonable, slur on our police, he also had the nerve to criticise a local resident on the radio earlier that morning for using "emotive language"

Lytham's Cllr Bill Thompson (a very experienced former, and we would say first class, chairman of the planning Committee) argued the application WAS for a change of use, and to approve it, they needed to be convinced there was no future commercial need. He said this was a proper justification to refuse the application. Again, like Kevin Eastham, he was slapped down by the Chairman who argued, (black being white), it was not a change of use.

The Vice Chairman, Warton's Coun Janine Owen (having had the decency not to use her position as Vice Chairman to influence the debate up to now) sensed it was winding up and said she supported the scheme. She understood the fears of local people, but homeless people needed homes, and this was close to local schools and amenities which was a good thing.

We rarely find ourselves in agreement with Cllr Owen, but she is at least forthright and honest in expressing her views. In effect this time it was.... Yeah, well. Tough

Councillor Caldwell asked for a recorded vote (where the record of the meeting would show which councillors voted which way).

There was an immediate attempt to refuse this request from some councillors, who called for a vote on whether there should be a recorded vote or not.

That came out 7:7 and, to his credit (probably sensing he had won the day anyway) the Chairman used his casting vote in favour of the request, so we can bring you the result in 'glorious technicolour'

We've added the location where each councillor lives to show that only three of the sixteen committee members were from St Anne's.

There is a Government requirement to have committees reflect the political balance (makeup) of the council, (there have to be so many Conservatives, so many Independents, so many Ratepayers, and so on, in proportion to the seats that the parties hold overall), but there is no requirement to have them balanced according to the places people represent.

If that were the case, there would have to have been around six or seven Councillors from St Anne's, and that might have made a difference to the result.

But alas, politics, rather than sense, now rules.

The vote was

For approving the application - Councillors:
Trevor Fiddler (Freckleton) [Chairman]
Janine Owen (Warton) [Vice Chairman]
Ben Aitken (Ansdell)
Michael Cornah (Lytham)
Richard Fulford Brown (Lytham)
Peter Hardy (Kirkham)
Barbara Douglas (Warton)
Albert Pounder (Staining)
John Bennett (Kirkham)
Linda Nulty (Wesham)
Heather Speak (Treales)

Against approving the application- Councillors:
Bill Thompson (Lytham)
Barbara Pagett (St Anne's)
George Caldwell (St Anne's)
Howard Henshaw (St Anne's)

Kevin Eastham (Lytham)

As we've said before, we don't think the argument is over with the granting of planning permission. There will need to be a decision to sell this council-owned land to Muir, and that will be purely political. It will probably be taken behind closed doors by the Conservative group, then rehearsed through a Politburo Cabinet meeting, before being voted through by the Conservative Leader's handpicked acolytes to give it the veil of legitimacy.

So only the Conservative Councillors can stop it now.

We'll bring you more as the story unfolds.

Dated:  18 January 2008


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