'No need' for Preston homeless refuge opening in anti-social behaviour hotspot

A homeless refuge is set to open in a Preston neighbourhood at the centre of concerns about anti-social behaviour and drug abuse – in spite of the city council saying it is not needed.

Saturday, 2nd October 2021, 2:04 am
Updated Monday, 4th October 2021, 2:12 am

A vacant property in Plungington will be converted into a shelter for vulnerable adults without a roof over their head – or those who are at risk of ending up in that situation

Preston City Council’s planning committee gave the go-ahead to the proposal, for a house on Villiers Street, in the face of concern from some of its own members and a request from the authority’s leader for the decision to be deferred to allow time for further discussions over the nine-bedroom development.

However, council planning officers said that there was no legitimate reason to delay or refuse the application for the conversion of a dwelling that previously provided student accommodation – and which would function in a largely similar way under the new plans.

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The property on Villiers Street in Plungington that will soon provide accommodation for the homeless

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The operator of the planned facility told a meeting of the committee that it would be “well-managed” and offer support and shelter to people who find themselves in “survival mode”, often not knowing where their next meal is coming from or where they will be sleeping at night. The ultimate aim is to give them the confidence and skills to move into a place of their own.

Not-for-profit community interest company Lotus Sanctuary said that it will have two full-time staff on site during weekday office hours, while the premises will be “actively monitored” by “sophisticated” CCTV at all other times, using a system that generates alerts if it detects shouting on the premises.

Chris Roberts, acquisitions and investments manager for the Wolverhampton-based firm, told councillors that it carefully selects its residents and would not accept anyone whose “needs are too great…and would not fit into our service model”. He added that drugs and alcohol would be “strictly forbidden” in the property.

However, committee member David Borrow warned: “Although the residents themselves have been carefully chosen, they are, by their nature, vulnerable – and therefore other influencers within the local area can actually…take advantage of them.

“That vulnerability does leave them open, unless they’re managed very carefully, to having relationships with [individuals] who will bring drugs and alcohol into the premises,” Cllr Borrow said.

Plungington’s once-thriving community of UCLan students has largely swapped the area for on-campus accommodation – and many of the vacant properties left behind have been turned into multi-occupancy homes for people with complex needs.

Reported increases in anti-social behaviour and drug misuse in the area culminated last year in a series of police raids and warrant executions, which saw more than 40 people arrested and the seizure – in Plungington and surrounding areas – of £1.25m in class A and class B drugs, as well as £100,000 in cash.

Sixty-five people objected to the Villiers Street application – citing concerns about its potential to worsen crime and social issues in the area, as well as to create noise and disturbance for existing residents.

Meanwhile, committee member Jennifer Mein said that she had “a lot of misgivings” about the proposal – and questioned the need for it.

“We have got quite a large amount of accommodation available to house homeless people,” she said.

Mr. Roberts said that the city council had been “receptive” to the Lotus plans and, in response to a separate point raised by Cllr Borrow, added that the company would work with charities and the local authority in seeking to accommodate people from Preston – and not bring them in from further afield.

Council leader Matthew Brown and social justice cabinet colleague Nweeda Khan – two of three councillors representing Plungington ward on the authority – had contacted the committee requesting that it put its decision on hold pending further discussions between them and those behind the plans.

However, the committee heard that the applicant, Grolar Development Limited, had offered back on 13th September to stage such a meeting in the hope that it could be arranged before Thursday’s committee.

Members were told that the company was not prepared to extend the 1st October deadline for the authority to determine the application – meaning councillors had to come to a decision on the day.

However, during an adjournment while the matter was considered, Cllr Mein spoke to the city council’s housing officers – and subsequently presented the committee with a very different picture to the one that had been painted before the break.

She said that the housing team’s response was “not receptive”.

“The response was: this is not needed, it isn’t wanted and it will actually end up costing Preston City Council money [due to an issue regarding housing benefit payments].

“My information is that [the housing department] clearly advised that these services are not needed in Preston and that we have sufficient services. Therefore, the next problem is where [Lotus will] get their residents from – and my great fear is that they will not be Preston residents,”. Cllr Mein said.

Mr. Roberts said that he was under the impression that the company had received a receptive response, but that he did not “work on that side of the business in terms of the day-to-day”.

He added: “The majority of the time…these services are well-received [by councils] because we are helping vulnerable people…and breaking the cycle of temporary housing.”

Responding to the exchange, Cllr Borrow said that, having earlier been confident that the property would be well-run, he now had “absolutely no faith whatsoever in any of the promises made…before committee today” – and proposed the deferral being sought by Cllrs Brown and Khan.

He also raised the issue of the potential financial impact on the authority, because the company behind the plans was not a housing association, or linked to one – meaning the city council would be unable to claim full reimbursement of the cost of any placements.

However, senior legal officer Ian Blinkho warned the committee that he did not believe the concerns being raised were “material planning considerations”.

Head of development management Natalie Beardsworth said that it was not a straightforward issue like trying to persuade an applicant to change the design of a proposed house-build.

“If we were to defer, I don’t know what you expect the case officer to discuss with the applicant – because I don’t know what planning concern you are trying to overcome,” she added.

Faced with the prospect of the authority being taken to an appeal for not determining the application in time – and not having a planning reason for failing to do so – Cllr Borrow reluctantly withdrew his proposal for deferral.

The application was subsequently passed, with seven members voting in favour and three – including Cllrs Borrow and Mein – abstaining.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

In a statement after the meeting, Chris Roberts said that Lotus Sanctuary had helped more than 1,000 people since it was formed – and pledged to engage with the local community about its Plungington development.

He added: “We’re pleased planning has been granted for our new project in Preston. Our aim is to help those within the area that are struggling or without a home [and get] them in a safe space with a new, empowering support system. We will work closely with the local council to deliver support to those who need it most.

“We’re excited to get started, but we understand people may have questions or reservations, so we will be proactively working with the authorities and local community, carrying out door-knocking and introductions to Lotus Sanctuary so they understand who we are.

“It is our responsibility to provide the highest level of care for our residents, part of this involves maintaining their property to the highest standards. This provides a springboard for the most vulnerable, to give them the support they need to bounce back.”

The Post understands that Lotus will now begin to identify vulnerable people to be housed at the Plungington property, whose residents will either be all male or all female.

The committee meeting had heard that the building will not be used to provde shelter for women fleeing domestic abuse – the only instance in which Lotus says it does open its accommodation to people from outside the local area.

Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown – speaking generally about the issues raised by the application – said that local authorities need to be better empowered when considering such proposals in areas like Plungington, which had gone from being a “relatively quiet area” to one beset with issues.

He also said that he would like to see Preston introduce a “selective licensing scheme”.

“In areas where anti-social behaviour has increased and is [at its] worst, [people] would have to come to the council to apply for a licence to become a landlord – and that would be based on certain [criteria].

“It would mean managing the property to a certain standard and making sure that the tenants have rights – but crucially, if there is anti-social behaviour [caused by] people associated with those properties, [the landlords] would have to deal with it or else they wouldn’t get a licence or we would take that licence off them,” said Cllr Brown, who stressed that any such scheme in the city would have to be shown to be cost effective.

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