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Planning Guidance (Children's Homes)

Volume 566: debated on Thursday 11 July 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Swayne.)

Over the past couple of years, there has been 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 Government’s recent initiatives to improve the quality of care in children’s homes and the clampdown on the high number of children placed miles away from home, as well as the improved collection of data on missing children. I am also pleased that the suitability of an area is to be taken into account before a children’s home is allowed to register because that will stop clusters of children’s homes springing up in run-down hot spots where there might be drugs problems or a bail hostel housing released sexual offenders.

A joint parliamentary inquiry by the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults, and the all-party group on looked-after children and care leavers, which I chaired last year, revealed that a significant minority of vulnerable young people living in children’s homes are targeted for sexual exploitation. Recent high-profile court cases, such as the Oxford case, have also highlighted that problem.

I shall focus on planning legislation in my speech because it is the final piece of the jigsaw on children’s homes and tackling child sexual exploitation. I also want to explore how we can marry the Department for Education’s new and admirable proposals to stop children’s homes springing up in the wrong areas with the fact that existing planning laws do not specify that that is a material planning consideration.

The national minimum care standards for children’s homes, on which Ofsted bases its inspections, state that children’s homes should be located in safe areas. The inspection should assess whether 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”.

The Department for Education’s new proposals, which are currently subject to consultation, take that further by including a requirement for the providers of children’s homes to carry out a risk assessment of the area in partnership with the police and the local authority. Registration will be refused or suspended if the area is deemed unsafe. In the light of those new proposals, I argue that we need fresh planning guidance to reflect the fact that a home deemed by the police and Ofsted to be in an unsafe area will not get registration and to state that that needs to be a material consideration at the planning stage.

It is crucial that planning guidance is re-examined; otherwise we will have a crazy situation similar to that recently brought to my attention in Birmingham, where the planning committee is considering a planning application to open a children’s home 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 that it even led to the closure of another children’s home on a nearby road. The concern is that opening a new children’s home in the same area would result in the same risks 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, yet the council officers recommended that permission be granted because there are no planning grounds to refuse consent.

The decision clearly flies in the face of the Department for Education’s new proposals and illustrates my point exactly that the planning guidance from the Government needs changing. Of course, I accept that the planning system is separate from the child protection system, but it is hard for the public to understand how planning permission can be granted for a children’s home when there are 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 that are linked to local and regional planning policy.

I have been aware of planning problems for a number of years. On 1 February 2010, I held an Adjournment debate on planning applications for children’s homes. 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, and 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 34 privately owned children’s homes—one of the highest numbers in the country. There are 241 children living in children’s homes in Stockport, but only 26 of them actually come from Stockport.

Stockport council recently held a scrutiny review of the relationship between its agencies, private children’s homes and the police. The review highlights concerns about current planning regulations and the proliferation of children’s homes in residential areas. It recommends changes to planning policy so that the number of existing homes in an area can be a material consideration at the planning stage of a new application for a children’s home. That arises out of concerns for the implications on local resources of children with complex needs being placed in the area from out of the borough.

When I first raised the matter of planning guidance for children’s homes in 2010, I was primarily concerned that certificates of lawful development were being issued for children’s homes opening in family homes where I felt if would have been more appropriate for planning permission to have been sought as a class C2 use rather than class C3.

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. It 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 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 from class C3 use to class 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. It said that there was a lockable office and other rooms and that this was more akin to institutional, rather than normal family home life. He also said that the residential use of the property by troubled children could bring more disturbance than most family homes. That, among other factors, led him to conclude that there had been a material change of use.

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”, said that the problem of whether a children’s home would fall into category C3 could turn on the definition of a single household. It quoted a North Devon judgment on the definition of a single household. Justice Collins said that 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. The paper concluded:

“A children’s home run on shift patterns could not be considered to fall within Class C3…because clearly, this is not occupation of a dwelling house by a single person or people living together as a family.”

The judge said, however:

“Although it may sound somewhat illogical, it is accepted…that, notwithstanding that this may fall within Class C2, rather than Class C3, nonetheless planning permission may not be required if the change of use was not a material change of use.”

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.

On children’s homes, the present use categories, C3 and C2, create confusion, and as the judge said, it seems illogical that having established that a proposed children’s home is in use class 2, which one would think would require a planning application for a change of use from class 3, it would then have to be established that the change of use was material and therefore needed a planning application. This adds further confusion. I accept that planning is a judicial procedure based on case law, but I think there is a lack of clarity from Parliament. I think the Minister will appreciate that my constituents also find it extremely confusing.

The confusion about material change of use could be sorted out 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, visits by therapeutic staff and lockable offices. I understand, however, that the Government are reluctant to introduce new use classes, so my other suggestion would be the issuing of new planning guidance saying what constitutes a children’s home. However, the other issue is about when planning permission for a children’s home should be refused. I hope he agrees that it cannot be right that a children’s home can be recommended for planning permission in an area that is clearly unsuitable for vulnerable young people.

I would like to see planning guidance on when it would be appropriate to refuse 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, which has implications for local resources. As I said, Stockport has one of the highest numbers of private children’s homes in the country. There is concern that the geographic distribution of children’s homes—more than 25% of all such homes are located in the north-west—means that children are being placed many hundreds of miles from their own areas. A change in planning guidance would also help to ensure a better distribution of children’s home to meet children’s needs.

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, in the interests of the welfare of 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 issued for development on green-belt land, where the Government state what they would consider to be an inappropriate development, which is used as a material consideration in planning applications. If it can be done to protect our countryside, it can be done to protect our children.

That 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 Department for Education proposals, which say that children’s homes should not be allowed to open in an unsafe area, it seems unlikely that the children’s home I mentioned would get registration. We therefore have the ludicrous situation where planning permission is recommended for a children’s home near roads that have been closed by the council to stop kerb crawling. New Government planning guidance that spelt out that the safety of an area to vulnerable children is a material factor to be considered would ensure that such a situation does not arise.

I hope the Minister will agree that it is time to clear up the confusion and issue new planning guidance on children’s homes to bring clarity to this unsatisfactory situation. The Government have—quite rightly—given priority to tackling child sexual exploitation and improving protection for children in our care, and I hope the Minister will respond positively to my suggestions, which are aimed at engaging his Department in achieving that admirable objective.

I thank the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) for securing this important debate on planning guidance for children’s homes. As she said, providing safe accommodation for looked-after children must be a priority for all local authorities. Sadly, we are all too well aware of the outcomes for young people who have been let down by the care services. She has been a real champion for children in care, and I know she speaks with authority on these issues.

The hon. Lady raised a number of issues about the provision of children’s homes, some of which I know are based on specific cases. I hope she will understand that as such cases are subject to further consideration and planning decisions, I will not be able to discuss those particular issues, and I apologise in advance that my comments will cover such matters in their generality. I hope to show, however, that her proposed solution to these issues, and particularly the creation of a new class, is not the most appropriate way forward, and I believe that the issues and concerns she raises can be dealt with outside the planning system.

On the location of children’s homes, although we must give priority to the needs of vulnerable children, we must also consider the needs of the community in which they live. Government policy on looked-after children seeks to ensure that all children’s homes are properly run and situated in locations that take into account the safety and protection of the children living there.

The hon. Lady eloquently outlined the planning arrangements, and I hope she will forgive me if I go through them to make things absolutely clear. Use classes orders operate by grouping together land uses that have similar impact into “classes”. The order—this is the specific point—allows changes between certain land uses where the impact would be minimal, without the need for planning permission. Change of use is allowed within the same class, and there are cases, as the hon. Lady rightly says, where movement between classes is permitted. For example, premises currently used as a restaurant, which is class A3, could be converted to a shop—class A1—without seeking planning permission. That is because the impact of a shop on the surrounding area is likely to be the same or less than that of a restaurant.

The hon. Lady suggested the creation of a new use class category for children’s homes. The use classes order is intended to be deregulatory, however, allowing changes of use with minimal impact on land use and amenity. That removes the time and expense of making planning applications, and allows local authorities to concentrate their planning resources where they are most needed.

Under the use classes order, children’s homes—depending on their particular type—can either be in an ordinary family home, which as the hon. Lady rightly says is classed as C3, or in a dedicated residential institution, classed as C2. It is for local planning authorities to decide on a case-by-case basis into which class a particular use falls. I would expect most children’s homes to fall into the C2 category, which is the same class as other residential institutions such as nursing homes or training centres. Some smaller children’s homes could fall into family house class C3, which provides for small groups of people living together as a single household, including cases where there is an element of care.

When a change of use happens, the local planning authority must consider whether a material change has occurred that would require planning permission. It is an important principle that the test for planning permission being required is whether a material change of use occurs.

The hon. Lady has drawn attention to the need to consider carefully the location of a home for looked-after children in relation to the needs of those children and young people, and the host community. I absolutely agree that such considerations should be carefully applied, but I do not accept that such consideration can take place only in the context of a planning application, because planning is concerned primarily with the use of land and the effect on amenity of an alteration or change to the use of land. Planning is not intended to deal with problems such as antisocial behaviour by occupants or the location of a home in respect of other children’s homes.

The national planning policy framework clearly sets out that local authorities should work with public health leads and health organisations to understand and take account of the health status and needs of the local population, including expected future changes. It sets out the Government’s key priorities for the planning system, but we have given local authorities the freedom and flexibilities to make decisions locally about how best to meet their development needs. Therefore, we do not believe it would be right to set out specific planning guidance on this issue.

However, I agree with the hon. Lady that we must do more to ensure that all looked-after children in children’s homes are given the best possible support. In particular, they must be kept safe from exploitation and abuse. We have seen in the recent court cases involving children in Rochdale and Oxford that we have not always been able to do that. She mentioned the recent changes announced by the Government to improve the quality of children’s homes. I thank her for all the work she has done, through the all-party group and the Department for Education’s expert working group, which have greatly influenced the proposals.

The proposed reforms announced last month by the children’s Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson)—will lead to a much sharper focus on the quality of children’s homes and stricter measures to hold local authorities and care homes to account for their decisions, which is the critical point. We are therefore introducing rules so that Ofsted will allow new homes to be opened only in safe areas where they are run by competent providers. We will also ensure that homes already open in less safe areas demonstrate that they can protect children; otherwise, Ofsted will close them. As the hon. Lady said, the Department for Education is seeking views on various changes to the regulatory framework, including requiring the registered manager of a children’s home to complete an annual risk assessment of the area where the home is located. That work would require liaison with the local police and the local authority children’s services responsible for safeguarding.

The Department is also consulting on a parallel change to the Care Standards Act 2000 (Registration) (England) Regulations 2010—known as the registration regulations 2010—to require the potential provider of a children’s home to complete a risk assessment of the area in which they plan to operate and a list of safeguards regarding how they will mitigate any identified risks. That would include the sort of issues raised by the hon. Lady about prostitution, drug dealing and serious crime. The potential provider would be required to liaise with the police and the local authority about any concerns that might impact on the welfare of children, relating to the area where it is proposed to open a children’s home.

There will be a further requirement that the risk assessment and a list of safeguards are forwarded to Ofsted, so that it can consider whether the home has carried out an appropriate risk assessment and put in place adequate standards and safeguards. If Ofsted considers that a children’s home has not complied with those duties, registration could be refused or suspended. I hope that will reassure the hon. Lady that we are putting in place the necessary measures to ensure that the location of children’s homes and the safety of children will become a much more important consideration in the registration of homes than it has been in the past. We also want to reduce the risk of exploitation and harm by reducing the number of children placed a long way from their home—a point she rightly raised—and by addressing the quality of support provided in all homes.

Our changes will therefore include strengthening the current regulatory framework in respect of local authorities placing very vulnerable children at significant distance from their home. We know that such children are more likely to go missing from care and be at risk of exploitation. Proposals include a requirement for a senior local authority official to sign off all placements that are at a significant distance from the child’s home. They also require the placing authority to consult with the area authority prior to placement to ensure that it can meet the full range of the child’s needs.

The proposals set out that all homes should have an environment and culture to support positive behaviour that all staff understand and implement; and that homes should meet children’s emotional and behavioural needs as set out in their care plan. Such support can prevent vulnerable children from being exploited or getting involved in crime. We are consulting on plans so that children’s homes work much more closely with police and local authorities to prevent children going missing. We are strengthening the rules so that local authorities take decisive action where children are at risk of going missing, especially when they are placed away from home.

In conclusion, we fully agree with the hon. Lady’s aims, but do not believe that changing planning law is the best way to achieve them. The changes we are introducing to the statutory framework for children’s homes will, we believe, achieve the required outcomes that she is seeking. My Department receives numerous requests to change use classes orders. Some want to make it easier to change use, while others want to see greater restrictions. I think that we probably have the balance right at the moment, but I give the hon. Lady the assurance that we will continue to keep under review the use classes order in general, and we will continue to keep under review the issue of planning guidance, particularly in relation to the point she raised.

I end by saying a huge thank you to the hon. Lady for securing the debate and for the work she has done to help influence significantly important changes in Government policy. She should be congratulated and thanked.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.