25 Oct 2014

Update on Hightown's proposed homeless hostel at St Claire's

Hightown Praetorianand Churches Housing Association is proposing to turn its building at St Claire’s in Church Crescent in to a short stay homeless hostel. This is an update I have written for residents of the local area, following my meeting with the Chief Executive of Hightown this week.

On 23 October I had an hour-long one-to-one meeting with David Bogle, the Chief Executive of Hightown Praetorian and Churches Housing Association. This update includes what he told me about Hightown’s proposal for St Claire’s, along with some other information I have gathered this week, and what my plans are for next steps.  

David Bogle’s view in summary

Mr Bogle told me he was always happy to talk with councillors, but in fact I found some of his answers quite evasive. I pinned him down where I could, and he is following up some questions. In general, he didn't seem to me to have much appreciation for the residents’ views that I put to him - he couldn’t see what the problem was. For a man in his position, I found this surprising. The consultation to date has only been around what the building will look like, not its operation. He didn’t see the need to consult on wider issues, or with anyone other than the few immediate residential neighbours to St Claire’s. He also thinks residents are "wrong" to see this as a new facility. He repeatedly argued along the lines of "where else are these [homeless] people supposed to go?" I challenged him repeatedly that such a question was not the point, and tried to make him see there are reasonable concerns over appropriate use and density, and questions to be answered about the process so far and how the facility would be run.

How the proposal came about

St Claire’s has been empty since April. In line with normal practice, Hightown asked St Albans Council what they would like them to do. This discussion involved Cllr Ellis (the councillor in St Albans who is the Cabinet member responsible for housing policy and a certain level of decision-making) and Karen Dragovic (the officer at St Albans Council who is Head of Housing, responsible for the general running of the service).

The Council has a duty to house homeless people in certain situations. The problem of homelessness in the district has risen sharply in the last couple of years. In the 6 months to September 2014 there were 938 enquiries and 76 formal applications. The Council is buying properties to help with demand, but is currently having to put people in BandBs. So Cllr Ellis and Ms Dragovic asked Hightown to bring forward a proposal for a homeless hostel at St Claire’s. I have asked the Council’s Head of Legal, Mike Lovelady, to investigate the reports that some kind of more formal approval has been agreed.

Cllr Ellis’ possible conflict of interest

Councillor Ellis is the Council's nominee on Hightown'sBoard. This is an upaid position, but he has still registered it as a pecuniary interest. The rules are that in this position, Cllr Ellis shouldn’t take or improperly influence Council decisions affecting Hightown’s wellbeing or financial position. At the moment, as Hightown already owns and operate St Claire’s, the only formal decision-making process on the horizon is a planning decision. These decisions are taken by the planning department, or sometimes by councillors on a planning committee. However, as I mentioned above, I have asked the Head of Legal to investigate whether Cllr Ellis has in fact already been involved in, or has influenced, some kind of decision.

Who the residents of St Claire’s would be

St Albans Council applies certain filters to people that they put forward to be housed in hostels. Hightown also carries out a risk assessment on each applicant. There are certain categories of resident that Hightown would not house at St Claire’s, though Mr Bogle was not able to be specific about what those categories were. He mentioned issues such as drug and alcohol abuse, and violent criminality. He is going to come back to me on what those categories are, and how they are measured.

As most people know, people become homeless for all kinds of reasons including sickness, debt, unemployment, family breakdown, leaving care, and being evicted from a rented home when it is sold. So we could expect a wide range of people to be housed at St Claire’s.

Previously, St Claire's had up to 10 residents. Under the proposal, there would be up to 18. Mr Bogle said that they needed to make room for as many people as possible, in order for the hostel to be finanacially viable for Hightown, to cover staff costs etc. If Hightown submits a planning application, I will ask the Council to investigate precisely what the number of residents actually needs to be for a viable operation - it may be that this number is less than 18.

Parking, smoking and staffing

There are several off-street parking spaces behind St Claire’s. Mr Bogle thinks that these spaces would be enough for staff and residents. He didn’t know if residents would be able to apply for on-street permits to park in the controlled parking zone. Normally, residents of multiple-occupied households with off-street parking such as this would be able to apply for a total of two permits for the whole building. In the case of a short stay hostel, it might be difficult in practice for residents to organise such permits between them. I think the off-street parking is sufficient, and on-street parking is already very crowded. So I will argue that any planning permission should include a condition that no on-street parking permits be made available to staff or residents.

Smoking would not be allowed inside St Claire’s. Mr Bogle said in his experience homeless people were no more likely to smoke than anyone else. Some of their properties provide an outside shelter for smoking, but he didn’t know if there were plans for this at St Claire’s. I have asked him to find out what is planned. If there is no shelter planned I will argue for this to be added as a condition of any planning permission, especially as the property is so close to children’s facilities.

There would be staff on site 24 hours a day. At night, there would be someone to act as concierge, but they would also enforce the house rules, for example on noise and alcohol. Mr Bogle wasn’t able to give me details of the day-time staffing. He is going to get back to me about that.

Regulation and complaints procedures

As a business, Hightown is regulated by the Homes andCommunities Agency. At an operational level, its properties are checked by the Council’s Environmental Health department. The department checks on things like cleanliness and how many people are housed there. All the normal regulations that apply to any household also apply to hostels, so the Council could investigate and take action on noise etc. As the hostel would be short stay, any resident could presumably be moved on relatively quickly, if necessary.

Mr Bogle said that complaints either by hostel residents or by neighbours normally start by going through Hightown’s own complaintsprocedure. If the complaint can’t be resolved, the individual can then ask their councillors or MP for help. If the issue is not covered by environmental health or other legislation, it will be a matter of negotiating a resolution with Hightown.

Similar hostel in St Albans

Hightown operate a number of smaller properties nearby, including in Upton Avenue and Britton Avenue. Mr Bogle said that Martin House in Upper Lattimore Road is a similar hostel to the proposed one, and is run by Hightown.

Martin House is different in some ways to the proposed facility: most Martin House residents stay for the maximum allowed of two years, where St Claire’s is intended as short stay. And all Martin House residents are men over 25.

In other ways, Martin House is similar. It has 20 spaces, and 24-hour staff cover. It accepts referrals from prison in some circumstances, though never sex offenders, arsonists, ‘Schedule 1 offenders’ (meaning offenders who have injured or abused children), or those with a recent conviction for violence. It seems likely that similar conditions would apply at St Claire’s, though the details of that are to be confirmed. St Albans Council has a policy of not housing people who it judges to pose a risk to others.

I visited Upper Lattimore Road on 25 October and spoke to neighbours at four properties that are near Martin House, most of whom are families. One of them has lived there with his family since before the hostel opened. None of them considered Martin House to cause a particular nuisance or noise disturbance, and none of them have ever complained. Indeed, some expressed sympathy with the residents, and support for the management. They reported occasional visits from ambulances, though whether that was for illness or injury they couldn’t say, and very rare visits by police. Martin House residents are sometimes seen drinking on the street, and cannabis can sometimes be smelt from outside. Neighbours said the personality of the on-site hostel manager was an important factor in successfully enforcing the house rules, such as around drinking in the rooms.

I have found one report online of a serious incident at Martin House - a knife injury in 2011, which took place inside Martin House during an argument between two residents. This incident was just before I became a councillor, but since then I have not heard of any complaints or been contacted about the hostel by neighbours in the area.

Overall, I felt some reassurance from my conversations with these neighbours.

Consultation, public meeting and planning timetable

As I mentioned above, it’s clear that Hightown don’t consider they have a duty to consult beyond the narrow subject of physical changes to the building. However, Mr Bogle realises that he is now by default in a wider consultation period, with the various emails he’s received and meetings he’s had.

He is prepared to have more consultation time before submitting the planning application. He said that the application would not be going in before the week beginning 3 November. Whenever the application is made, I will call it in to committee. That will mean residents will have a lot more time to submit their comments on the application, and for questions to be answered.

Mr Bogle doesn’t see the value of a public meeting, but hasn’t ruled it out. His biggest worry is that it would get angry and be uncontrolled. He was clearly taken aback by the atmosphere at the earlier meeting. I said I'd be looking for a meeting that was properly chaired, ideally in the Council chamber. But I also said that if residents felt angry and wanted to express that within reason, that was fair enough by me. I know that Cllr White is organising a meeting between Hightown and the Aboyne Residents Association.

Hightown is putting together an information sheet to answer some of the questions they’ve received. However, Mr Bogle couldn’t say when or how they were planning to distribute this sheet to residents, or how widely, other than by replying to emails they’ve received. I have asked him to say when this information sheet is going to appear, and how they will distribute it.

Next steps

I have indicated in italics above where there are particular matters that I am going to follow up. I’ll get back to residents once I have more information on these.

Once Hightown have issued their information sheet, I will try to facilitate a public meeting, to give residents a chance to ask more questions and air their views. As I said above, if Hightown does submit a planning application, as we expect, then I will call it in to committee. That means the decision will be with councillors, not council officers. Councillors are, or are supposed to be, keenly interested in residents’ views. As a result, it would still be well worth having a public meeting, and continuing the debate, even after Hightown submits the application.

Finally, there are still many questions to be answered, including whether a near doubling of resident numbers at St Claire's is appropriate either for the property or for the local area. There is also no doubt that the process so far has been highly unsatisfactory. However, I hope that residents feel a little reassured on certain issues, by some of the information in this update. At the same time, I am clear that residents have been badly served by the Council and Hightown, primarily in the lack of information and consultation. I will continue to press for both of these to improve, for your voice to be heard, and for your views to be taken seriously.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your update Simon. I am a resident of Worley Road and have a young daughter - and as such am very concerned about this application going ahead. I appreciate your help.

Anonymous said...

What a shame we can not all be more welcoming of the homeless. Shame on the Green Party for not sticking up for the most vulnerable in society

Simon Grover said...

"What a shame..."
- The Green Party has more policies to support vulnerable people than any other party, and here in St Albans I am very keen that our community should provide all the support that homeless people need. As a local councillor, I also need to listen to the views of local people, and help when they have concerns. With this proposal there has been a distinct lack of information and consultation for local residents. I am trying to provide information, and encourage the authorities to improve the consultation process.

Unknown said...

Thank you for going to this trouble.

I find the vagueness of the responses you received quite astonishing. I am recently retired from Social Work in Hertfordshire and as such I have considerable experience of hostels and homelessness. Homelessness has many causes. Not only drugs alcohol or antisocial behavour, but redundancy, rape, domestic violence can all make people homeless and vulnerable.

Point: Hightown Praetorian is a quality provider. They will be responding to measured need. e.g. Profiles of the different homeless groups who need a service. They would have ascertained this in conjunction with the housing department.

Question: Is this a hostel for those unable to manage tenancies, who need support and training in areas like budgeting and daily living skills? Or perhaps emergency housing for those accepted for re-housing, but who have to wait for a suitable social housing property to become available. The latter group are potentially wholly different and generally require lighter staffing.

We do need to respond to the needs of our vulnerable community members, but some honesty and openness from the Housing Association would might go a long way to reassuring residents.