Row over Kirk children’s home escalates as CrossReach attempts to circumvent normal planning process
Levengrove Park, the rivers Leven and Clyde, the Renfrewshire Hills and Dumbarton Rock. Picture by Craig Jump
Investigation by Bill Heaney
Kirktonhill is a lovely, quiet, leafy part of Dumbarton overlooking the rolling lawns and tastefully planted flower beds of Levengrove, one of the finest public parks in the UK.
It is situated on the banks of the River Clyde with magnificent views of Dumbarton Rock, the Renfrewshire Hills and a passing pageant of yachts from Sandpoint Marina.
Kirktonhill has a reputation for being the quietest part of the old shipyard town and was traditionally so peaceful that it was chosen by an enclosed order of Carmelite nuns for their secluded convent, the Monastery of the Holy Ghost.
Keil School, an old public school at the heart of the estate, was housed in a large grey stone mansion, overlooking rugby and hockey playing fields, for most of last century.
That part of the estate has finally been abandoned to builders of high quality homes.
Sadly, the main building is slowly crumbling into neglect and decrepitude now that the school’s smartly blazered and kilted pupils have left permanently and will not be returning to their alma mater.
The area has become a prime site for residential development, and a fair number of doctors, lawyers and professional men and women live there.
At least two members of the House of Lords and other politicians and media personalities have chosen to make their homes in the mansions, modern villas and bungalows.
These houses rarely come on to the property market, and some are priced at up to £1 million.
It was no surprise then that eyebrows were raised – the hackles came later – when one vacant property valued at £410,000 was purchased by CrossReach.
CrossReach is the social work arm of the Church of Scotland, which looks after young people who require round the clock supervision.
Such children would formerly have been placed in a remand home, such as nearby Belfield House at West Bridgend, which has long since closed.
When Dunmore in Helenslee Road first fell vacant, neighbours speculated whether the new Moderator of the General Assembly would be moving in.
After all, the Rev Martin Fair had just been elected and at least two previous incumbents of that prestigious office had made their home in the area.
Sir John Cairns had lived in a manse in Dixon Drive before moving to Aberlady and Gullane in East Lothian, and the Right Rev David Steel, father of Lord Steel, the former Liberal Democrat leader, had also lived there with his family.
Sir John Cairns, the Very Rev David Steel and his son, former Liberal Democrat Party leader, Lord Steel.
Gradually, however, with increased comings and goings at the house and signs being erected within it, it became clear that this was not to be a manse for a Moderator, but a children’s home.
Serious concern about this ensued amongst residents, who called meetings to discuss the proposal – and make clear their opposition to the Kirk’s plans for the house.
One woman, when she heard there was a distinct possibility that teenage boys and girls with records of questionable behaviour would be moving in next door to her declared that she would be getting out.
She told her husband that if this happened then she and her teenage daughter would be going to live with her parents on the other side of Dumbarton, a long way from Kirktonhill.
That woman’s fears appear not to be exaggerated in light of a report broadcast on BBC Radio’s File on 4 programme in May of this year: http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/rmhttp/fileon4/12._residential.pdf
Anyone told that such an establishment was about to move into their street would be, most people would say, justifiably alarmed if they were to read the transcript.
BBC reporter Paul Connolly revealed how unscrupulous criminal gangs are turning some residential care homes into recruitment grounds for drugs operations, turning the most vulnerable young people in care into both victim and offender.
Bad behaviour is commonplace. One care home manager told Connolly that one youngster “boiled the kettle, poured it into cups and tried to pour it over my staff team.
“He threw furniture at us. We had thousands of pounds’ worth of damage to the house over a number of months”.
One teenager told the journalist: “At Christmas, when I broke the wall [in the care home]. I started punching it and then I found this metal thing and I started banging it.”
Behaviour within care homes has been described as “challenging” but official reports suggest it often goes beyond that.
One survey revealed that in one local authority there were 42 young people placed 48 times in children’s houses in the six-month period studied.
Offences were commonplace but the figures showed that 57% (n= 24) of these young people did not come to the attention of the police during this time.
However, 9% (n=4) were alleged to have committed one offence, 17% (n=7) with between two and five offences, and 17% (n=7) alleged to have committed between six and 24 offences where the police were involved.
Throughout the six months, there were 71 recorded ‘police incidents’ involving 18 young people (five girls and thirteen boys) aged between 13 and 19 years. These incidents took place within the house itself, in the community or in a location unknown, involved 115 identified allegations/offences and 59 of these led to charges
One teenager said: “It was quite a frequent thing that we’d set off the fire alarm because we’re, you know, immature and we thought it would be funny to do that, to get people out of their beds late at night and stuff like that.
“And, you know, occasionally alcohol was involved with this. We’d maybe have had a drink and just acting a little bit silly.
“But we would set the fire alarm off and, and because of that they would straightaway contact the police and we were given criminal damage charges.”
The prospect of coming and going of police cars outside their homes is one about which the residents of neighbours of care homes are concerned.
In England and Wales, more than 70% of residential care homes are run by private, corporate organisations that must turn a profit to survive.
In Scotland, that number reduces to 40%.
However, fees charged by care home companies are based on how difficult a young person is anticipated to be.
The worse the children behave, the greater the fee for looking after them.
CrossReach have been promising for months to go through the conventional planning process with West Dunbartonshire Council for Kirktonhill.
However, they have decided to abandon that approach and apply for a ‘Certificate of Lawful Use’, notice of which appeared on West Dunbartonshire Council’s planning website just last week.
This followed CrossReach having had two planning applications rejected with two different local authorities – Stirling and East Dunbartonshire – although a certificate of lawful use was granted on appeal.
This certificate allows applicants for planning permission to circumvent the usual process and does not require community consultation.
If granted one, a similar certificate would give CrossReach permission to turn the Kirktonhill property into a children’s home, whether the community likes it or not.
James Sheils, a resident of Helenslee Road, said: “Basically, CrossReach are ignoring our planning system, and are now trying to force [their application] through with a ‘certificate of lawful use’, which does not require community consultation.
“They were obviously aware of these other cases when they were dealing with us earlier and with WDC. They have been extremely underhand. So much for community trust and involvement.”
He revealed that the house in question is owned by an individual /businessman, and is being let to CrossReach on a 10-year lease “which is a nice little earner for them, particularly when this is local authority funded.”
Mr Sheils, who is acting with and on behalf of a group of residents, has been in regular contact with WDC planning director Pamela Clifford.
Karen Conaghan (SNP), Jackie Baillie (Labour) and David McBride (Labour).
He told the Council: “It is now very obvious that CrossReach had no intention of following your earlier instruction(s) to submit a planning application; and that they were biding their time to await the decision from the Scottish Ministers on the appeals in Stirlingshire and East Dunbartonshire.
“This illustrates the covert nature of their intention with Helenslee Road, and proves that they cannot be trusted.
“It appears now that the terminology has been changed in the application to ‘non-residential’ care home as opposed to ‘residential’ care home.”
Mr Sheils said that the Helenslee Road house was very different from the Strathblane property which was given the green light on appeal.
He added: “Like most of CrossReach’s residential care homes, [it is] semi-rural and very much a stand-alone property with large grounds, and a fair distance to neighbouring properties, some of which is farmland.
“Helenslee Road is within the Conservation Area here; we would expect to see that CrossReach’s forthcoming application would be rejected.
“The two properties are wholly different to one another and we do not feel that, although significant, the recent appeal win can be applied to Helenslee Road as a ‘similar property’.
“We cannot compare apples with pears.”
Mr Sheils summed up the residents’ position.
He said: “Given all of the above, and nearly a year of uncertainty and anxiety for the local residents, we are even more determined to resist this application as the reality is that nothing has changed in terms of the property at Helenslee Road.
“We realise precedents can be set. However, precedents can be challenged, overcome and new precedents created.
“We intend to obtain a legal opinion on this matter and respectfully request that you refrain from determining the issue until it has been fully explored in detail with the benefit of that legal opinion.
“Furthermore, and without knowing the future outcome, we request that CrossReach remain under the current enforcement notice should they try to move into the property (particularly children) until the full process has run its course.
“If CrossReach were to be granted a certificate in the same manner as the Stirling case then we would appeal to the Scottish Ministers … and if this failed … we would be carrying on to the Appeal Court to continue the appeal.”
West Dunbartonshire Council planning boss Pamela Clifford confirmed that the certificate of proposed lawful use was refused by Stirling Council – but granted on appeal by the Planning and Environmental Appeals Division.
She said: “This was only issued on 16 October 2019. I assume this is why they [CropssReach] are now going to apply for a Certificate for Lawful Use, which is different from an application for planning permission.
“The merits of the proposed use are not required to be considered, only determination if planning permission is required or not.
“No neighbour notification is required. We are presently considering the implications of this decision for the Helenslee situation. I hope this explains the current situation.”
Mr Sheils said: “Obviously, we still have this hanging over us, and we would really like it brought to a conclusion.
“The timeline which we have already endured is now approaching five months which is causing genuine strain and concern to the residents.”
CrossReach, a £51 million company with around 2,000 employees, told to The Dumbarton Democrat, via the Church of Scotland press office, that CrossReach’s work includes “providing care and education services to children with additional needs”.
They added: “Over the past 10 years, in line with changing needs and expectations, we have been moving children into small houses within communities, where they can attend school and enjoy the same types of activities as other children.
The new CrossReach campus for ‘challenging’ young people at Erskine.
“We recently opened a new school campus in Erskine and as part of this programme of change, we have rented a house on Helenslee Road in Dumbarton with the aim of moving up to four children into it, who will be carefully looked after by highly skilled staff.
“CrossReach has been in dialogue with the West Dunbartonshire Council over the past few months and has submitted a planning application for a Certificate of Lawful Use which will be considered by the planning authority in due course.”
Earlier this year, at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, it was announced that a Growth Fund of between £20 million to £25 million, has been proposed to fund new work with children, young people and young adults.
They also decided to consider whether CrossReach, the operating name of the Kirk’s Social Care Council, should become a more arms-length, self-sustaining organisation.