Over the last couple of years we have seen an increase in public awareness and understanding of the myriad problems facing children and young people who live in children’s homes.
I welcome the recent government initiatives aimed at improving the quality of care in children’s homes and the clampdown on the high numbers of children placed miles away from home, as well as improved collection of data on missing children.
I am also pleased that the suitability of an area is now to be taken into account before a children’s home is allowed to register, as this will stop clusters of children’s homes springing up in rundown “hot spots” where there might be a drugs problem or a bail hostel housing released sex offenders.
A Parliamentary inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults, which I chaired last year, revealed that a significant minority of vulnerable young people, living children’s homes, are being targeted for sexual exploitation. Recent high profile court cases, including the recent Oxford case, highlighted this.
Tonight I want to focus on planning legislation, which I consider to be the “final piece of the jigsaw” in relation to children’s homes and tackling child sexual exploitation.
I also want to explore how we can marry together the new and admirable proposals from the Department of Education to stop children’s homes springing up in the wrong areas with the fact that the current planning laws do not specify that this is a material planning consideration.
The National Minimum Care Standards for Children’s Homes – on which Ofsted bases inspections – says that children’s homes should be located in safe areas.
“The home’s location and design promotes children’s health, safety and wellbeing and avoids factors such as excessive isolation and areas that present significant risks to children”.
And now new proposals from the Department for Education – which are currently being consulted upon – take this further, and include a requirement for children’s homes providers to carry out a risk assessment of the area in partnership with the police and the local authority. Registration will be refused or suspended where the area is deemed unsafe.
I want to argue that in light of these new proposals we need fresh planning guidance to reflect the fact that a home deemed to be in an unsafe area by police and Ofsted will not get registration and states that this needs to be a material consideration at the planning stage.
It is crucially important that planning guidance is re-examined, otherwise we will have the crazy situation, recently brought to my attention in Birmingham, where a children’s home has been proposed by the St Christopher’s Fellowship for seven young people.
The planning application has been recommended for grant despite the fact that it is in an area renowned for prostitution, drug dealing and serious crime –a red light area.
I find this staggering. The papers for the planning committee reveal that there has been a history of young girls in this area being groomed for prostitution and this even lead to the closure of another children’s home in a nearby road. The concern is that opening a new children’s home in the same area would result in the same risks again of vulnerable children in care being targeted by sexual predators.
There have been an enormous number of objections, including from the police and the cabinet member for Families and Children and yet the council recommended permission be granted because “there are no planning grounds to refuse consent.”
This decision clearly “flies it the face” of the new Department of Education proposals and illustrates my point exactly that the planning guidance from Government must be changed.
I do, of course, accept that the planning system is separate from the child protection system; however it is hard for the public to understand how you can have a situation where planning permission could be granted for a children’s home when there are clearly so many objections on child protection grounds.
I also understand that planning authorities have a lot of discretion and are able to turn down planning applications on any grounds that they think are appropriate and are linked to local and regional planning policy.
I have been aware of planning problems for a number of years and on February 1st 2010, I held a previous adjournment debate entitled “Children’s Homes (Planning Applications)”.
In the debate, I raised concerns about certificates of lawful development being issued to children’s homes providers without homes having to seek planning permission.
When I first worked as a social worker in Stockport in the 1980s, small family-type care homes provided a family environment for quite young children. The carers were often a resident couple. Now younger children are placed with foster families and the young people placed in children’s homes are older with difficult and challenging behaviour. They often come into care with multiple problems and complex needs.
Stockport has 31 privately owned children’s homes – one of the highest in the country. There are 241 children living in children’s homes in Stockport and yet only 26 of those children actually come from Stockport.
Stockport Council recently held a scrutiny review of the relationship between council’s agencies, private children’s homes and the police.
The review highlighted concerns regarding current planning regulations and the proliferation of Children’s homes in residential areas. It recommends changes to local planning policy so that the numbers of existing homes in an area can be a consideration at the planning stage of a new application for a children’s home. This arises out of concerns for the implications on local resources of children with complex needs being placed in local areas.
The current rules relating to when a change of use for a building does and does not require planning permission are set out in The Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987.
Use Class 3 is a dwelling House occupied by a single person or people living together as a family. This can also include not more than six residents living together as a single household (including a household where care is provided for residents.)
Use Class 2 is for residential institutions and applies when there are more than six occupants, or when the occupants are not considered to be living together as a single household.
The Stockport scrutiny report pointed to the confusion as to what constitutes a change of use and whether that change of use to a children’s home is a material change in use of the building and therefore requires a planning application.
The issue of when planning permission is required for a children’s home is still a matter to be determined depending on the circumstances of each individual case, which will turn on whether a “material change of use has occurred “.
To get further clarification I looked at Planning Inspectorate appeals since April 2008 relating to children’s homes. There are appeal cases where it has been successfully argued that a change of use from a dwelling house to a children’s home is not material and therefore planning permission is not required. On the other hand there are cases where the opposite has been found and therefore the issue of what is a material consideration is crucial.
When I first raised this matter in 2010 many children’s homes had opened in Stockport and other parts of the country under Class 3 using the argument that it was a household where care was provided. Often the case turned on the definition of a single household. I expressed concerns in that debate that certificates of lawful consent were being issued to children’s homes in cases where I felt if would have been more appropriate for planning permission to have been sought under C2.
In 2010 an appeal was made to the planning inspectorate because of a failure to secure a certificate of lawful use for a children’s home in Stockport. The Planning Inspector refused the appeal and concluded that the residents could not be said to be living together as a single household. He said that there was a lockable office and other rooms and that this was more akin to institutional, rather than normal family home life.
Following the Inspector’s decision, Stockport council then said that the use of premises as a children’s home will, in most cases, fall within Class 2 and require planning permission for change.
Since then a paper issued by the planning services department at Leeds City Council in December 2012 entitled “Guidance note – planning permission for children’s homes C2 or C3” summarised the problem of whether a children’s home would fall in category C3 or not can turn on the definition of a “single household”.
It quoted a North Devon judgement in relation to the definition of single household.
Justice Collins said it was unrealistic to expect children to look after themselves in a single household. It clarified that carers who provided 24 hour care but were not resident could not be regarded as living together in a household.
It concluded – and I quote – :
“A children’s home run on shift patterns could not be considered to fall within Class 3 because clearly this is not occupation of a dwelling house by a single person or people living together as a family.”
However the judgement then goes on to say that even if a children’s home is classed C2 rather than C3 that planning permission would only be required if there had been a MATERIAL change of use from a dwelling house.
The courts have held that whether a change of use is material or not is a matter of fact and degree for the local planning authority to determine having considered the individual facts of the case.
So in fact we have come full circle to the central issue of material consideration.
The way forward
I think the minister will appreciate that this is extremely confusing. And I hope he agrees with me that it cannot be right to have a situation like we have in Birmingham where a children’s home is recommended for planning permission in an area that is clearly unsuitable for vulnerable young people.
I think it could be sorted out very simply by having a different use category for children’s homes, spelling out how a children’s home is defined, including for example, rotating shift workers, a local office and visits by therapeutic workers and lockable offices and other rooms.
This would help clarify the current C2/C3 use issues. But of course accompanying this would also need to be planning guidance about when it would be inappropriate to grant permission for a children’s home.
However, I understand that the government is reluctant to introduce new use categories, so my other suggestion would be the issuing of new planning guidance saying what constitutes a children’s home and when it would be inappropriate to give planning permission, for example when there are concerns about the safety of children because of activities in the area, such as prostitution or drugs or where there is already a proliferation of children’s homes in the area which has implications for local resources.
This guidance would be extremely useful because, as the minister knows, government planning guidance is regarded as a material consideration in planning decisions. It is right that, in the interest of the welfare of the young people in children’s homes, as well as the wider community, that the suitability of the location be considered.
In effect I am calling for the kind of planning guidance that has been issued in relation to development on green belt land where the Government states what it would consider to be an inappropriate development and this is used as a material consideration in planning applications.
If it can be done to protect our countryside it can also be done to protect vulnerable young children.
It would also mean that the Department for Education and the Department for Communities and Local Government would be singing from the same hymn sheet.
Under the new D of E proposals, which say that children’s homes should not be allowed to open in unsafe areas, it seems unlikely that the children’s home I talked about in Birmingham would get registered.
So we have the ludicrous situation where planning permission for a children’s home is recommended for permission in a Birmingham street, which is near to other roads that have been closed by the council to stop kerb crawling.
New government planning guidance which spelt out that the safety of an area to vulnerable children is a material factor to be considered would ensure that this situation in Birmingham would not arise.
I hope the minister will agree with me that it is time to clear up the confusion and issue new planning guidance in relation to children’s homes to bring clarity to this unsatisfactory situation.