Secure Unit Development (Sheffield)

– in the House of Commons at 11:45 am on 20th December 1994.

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Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam 11:45 am, 20th December 1994

I am grateful for the opportunity to register, on behalf of my constituents, a major concern—the proposed secure unit development in the green belt in Limb lane, Dore. The debate links three Government Departments— the Department of Health, the Department of the Environment and the Home Office— which all have a part to play in the debate.

The secure unit development in the green belt in Limb lane, Dore, is based on Sheffield city council's proposal to build an eight-place secure unit with an open four-bed unit. Sheffield city council, the planning authority for such matters, runs the existing unit, and it will run the new unit. It has given itself planning permission for the development despite much local opposition which, as far as I can tell, has been ignored totally.

The city council has advertised the development as a "departure", and the Secretary of State for the Environment will have to decide whether to call in the application for his determination. The city council had a choice of many sites for the proposed development, and, while neither I nor the residents of Sheffield are opposed to secure units, I believe that the site the council has proposed is flawed in several key areas: siting; environment; safety; and, above all, cost.

Sheffield city council conducted a search for the site, but it seems odd that its search was limited to only five sites. One of the sites—Thornseat lodge near Strines—is located within the Peak national park. The council maintains that the existing building is unsuitable for conversion, and it advised that Peak park planners have told the council that planning consent will not be recommended for a new building in that rural location, which is also in the green belt. Sheffield council also advised that the site has very poor transport access. I will return to that subject later.

For some reason, which is not exactly clear, other sites do exist in Sheffield, but they have not been studied for the development. The scheme will serve the whole county of South Yorkshire, which comprises Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield. It is an area of more than 385,000 acres, with a population of 1.3 million and, using the 1971 census, 485,000 households.

Anyone would think that such an area would require a centrally located site, yet the site in Limb lane in Dore, Sheffield, is in the extreme south-west of the county, and it is nearer to Derbyshire and Greater Manchester than many parts of South Yorkshire. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health, in his letter to me of 10 November, advised that the only secure facilities currently available in Yorkshire and Humbershire are at Eastmoor, Leeds, and Sutton Place in Hull. He said that there was a sound case in principle for providing an additional eight-place unit in the region, and that that, ideally, should be located in South Yorkshire.

More suitable sites have been suggested in South Yorkshire, and those would not involve the time, money and inconvenience to staff, the police, the courts and visiting relatives. Surely it would be better for the county and the surrounding areas to locate the site further north or east within the county. There appear to be many more suitable sites and locations in that area. In February and March 1993, I was as vociferous in my objection to the siting of a unit in the Crookes area of Sheffield.

On the environmental aspects, the proposed site is 6.5 acres within the green belt for the city of Sheffield. That green belt or lung has been laid down, defended and jealously guarded by a succession of local councils for many years. It is located within a few hundred yards of the Peak park boundary and open moorland, and it backs on to the Ecclesall woods area.

Several years ago, the Government turned down flat an application to remove a farm from the green belt in the Dore area. Recently, a report about another proposal in the green belt in the Sheffield Telegraph stated: The site is not surrounded by residential development, indeed, Newfield Lane forms a very clear boundary between the urban development of Dore Village and the open land beyond, says the report. That proposal was refused planning permission.

I do not understand the difference between land in one part of Dore that is not in council ownership, which was refused planning permission, and the Limb lane site, which is in council ownership, and was granted planning permission. Both pieces of land should have been refused permission. If the council had been consistent, both would have been refused.

Several months ago, King Edward hospital in Rivelin valley, which is not in my constituency, was refused planning permission by the city council. The reason given was that the hospital was in the green belt. Again, I supported the refusal of that application, and it seems consistent that, if an individual applies to erect a structure on land in the green belt, it should be refused by the council.

As the Limb lane site is 6 acres plus, and the proposals for the secure unit cover approximately 2 acres, one must ask, what about the rest of the site? If the development is granted planning permission so easily, what is to stop the rest of the site being developed now or in the future?

On the safety aspects of the proposed project, under the present open accommodation system at Limb lane, there have for many years been nightly car thefts, burglaries, and ram-raiding of village shops and houses in the area because of inmates running loose at night. That is not hearsay. I refer to a recent article on page 8 of the Sheffield edition of The Star on 14 December 1994—the day after I led a delegation to the Minister. I forwarded a copy of the article to the Minister as it highlights the present situation. It covers several incidents, and I shall refer to just one part of it.

A 13-year-old charged with car theft was allegedly seen with another youth trying to break into a second car in Dore, 45 minutes after being returned to the Limb lane home by police officers. One police officer is quoted in the article as saying: We will continue doing our bit but there is little satisfaction when you know that 30 minutes after dropping someone at Limb Lane they might be at it again. As I said, Limb lane is in the green belt on a narrow country lane near to open moorland and on the extreme boundaries of Sheffield. That is not a suitable site.

Last Thursday evening, I arrived home to discover a motor car with its door half open, parked in the middle of the road and obstructing the driveway to my home. A neighbour who was examining the car advised me that two youths had just got out of it and run off. She had been alerted by the loud noise that the car was making. It was no wonder. The car was a mess. It had obviously been rolled over, its roof was slightly caved in, it was bashed in on the side, and the two offside wheels were running on the rim. My immediate thoughts were obvious to everyone as I telephoned South Yorkshire police.

The cost of the scheme, which will be met by the Government, is about £1.6 million. It will attract 100 per cent. funding from the Department of Health, which will also pay the design fees.

On 13 December, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State who will reply to the debate met a deputation regarding the secure unit. It was led by Councillor Bobbie Fleming, Val Malthouse and Margaret Lloyd. They explained to the Minister in my presence, and in no uncertain manner, their concerns, and pointed out that, if the council was unable to control the existing site, they had no confidence that a better site, wherever situated, would be run any better. Those points having been made direct to the Minister—I am grateful to my hon. Friend for meeting the delegation—there are, however, many unanswered questions, which I hope to cover in this debate.

Around the time of the public meeting chaired by Councillor Bobbie Fleming and attended by 200 to 250 people at King Ecgbert school in Dore on 19 October 1994, the Sheffield family and community services department circulated a leaflet on secure accommodation in Sheffield. The front of the leaflet states that it provides answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about the proposal to establish a secure accommodation unit in Sheffield.

Alas, the leaflet poses more questions, than ever before. The questions and answers include: Is this the same project as the one that was planned at Crookes? No. The Crookes proposal was to move the existing remand service from Limb Lane to Lydgate Lane.Why Dore? A condition of the funding is that the secure unit must be built on local authority owned land. We conducted a survey of all Council land available including land at Bradfield, Low Edges, East End and Norfolk Park. The only site feasible was at Limb Lane.What will happen to the boys currently at Limb lane? We will continue to have a small remand provision at Limb lane.What does 'secure' really mean? The buildings' external perimeter and all the internal areas are locked.Will there be a security fence? No. The external wall of the building provides the security boundary.Will it have security lights? The external lighting will be normal street lighting on the drive". Sheffield is one of those places that is not renowned for having its street lights on. Much of its street lighting is defective. The council always says that it is short of Government funding, but, as every hon. Member knows, the council decides the priorities of its funding.

The answer on security lighting continues: The entrances to the building will have security lighting similar to domestic floodlights. The questions and answers continue, but I do not propose to spend any more time on them.

In February 1993, another public meeting was held in the Crookes area, and a correspondent said: I was able to present strong evidence arising from the situation at Limb Lane to counter the rather vague arguments being presented by Social Services. Those are not my words, but those of a resident in the Crookes area.

In the notes taken at the meeting on 19 October and circulated on 6 December, the councillor stated that consideration had been given to locating the unit in the Don Valley/M1 corridor, but no suitable land in the council's possession had been identified there. Much of the area had been designated suitable for industrial development, and for planning purposes it is controlled by Sheffield development corporation. That seems to be an ideal spot for the location of such a project.

A report to the Sheffield family community services programme committee, dated 6 July, confirms that financial support to local authorities for purchasing remand places is under serious consideration, and 100 per cent. finance is available to local authorities.

In his letter, for which I am most grateful, the Minister advised me that, while the local authority has a statutory responsibility on the preferred site for a secure unit, which is a matter for a local decision, none the less some consideration should be given to the location being in the interests of residents and the community—or is it merely a matter of the Department issuing the cheque?

If it is as I illustrated—only time limits what I can say about breakouts from the existing remand home—is there no mechanism whereby the police can take effective action? If it was a club, they would close it down. Is there no way in which the Home Office and/or the Department of Health can check the efficiency of such premises and how they are run, and take action? If so, how, and—above all—when? Surely South Yorkshire police have more to do than spend time returning people to a home, who are then back on the streets within minutes doing similar actions, or even worse.

More suitable sites are available in Sheffield and South Yorkshire which are not in the green belt. While I welcome the concept of a secure accommodation unit, it should be sited in the area near the main road network so that it is accessible to visitors and offenders. Why does the site have to be located in the green belt? Why does it have to be where it is, as it is inconvenient for South Yorkshire and more convenient for Derbyshire?

If Peak park planning would have turned down Thornseat lodge because it would not be recommended for new building in a rural location and has poor transport access, why has Sheffield given planning permission for Limb lane? When developers have been correctly turned down for development in the green belt, why has the Limb lane site been granted planning permission by the council?

I have several more questions for the Minister to answer. How does the Department know that the site is the best one for South Yorkshire or for Humberside? Does the Department talk to residents? What account is taken of their feelings? Does the Department consider questions of accessibility? If so, what are they, and for whose benefit? What responsibility does the Minister or the Department have to ensure that this is the best use of taxpayers' money? Does the Department monitor how the money is spent if the scheme is working? If the Department does that, how is it done?

What consideration is taken to ensure that the site is the best one for the whole of the county, and not just Sheffield? Has my hon. Friend considered the use or otherwise of such a development in the green belt? What checks are taken to ensure that the city council has carried out a full and proper consideration of every alternative site? Have other sites within the county even been considered? Does the Department listen only to the city council, accept its word and then merely issue a cheque?

Finally, why—when the Government are increasing the size of the green belt—do councils such as Sheffield help in some instances to preserve it, yet when it suits them grant themselves planning permission? It appears to me to be inconsistent, and an inconsistency that requires explanation. I look forward—as do my constituents—to hearing what my hon. Friend the Minister has to say on the points which I have made during this short debate.

Photo of Mr John Bowis Mr John Bowis , Battersea 12:02 pm, 20th December 1994

I am pleased to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Sir I. Patnick), who described with his usual, but perhaps new-found—after his periods as a Trappist Member of the House—eloquence the concerns and fears of his constituents about the management and operation of the existing open children's home in Limb lane in Dore in his constituency, and about Sheffield city council's proposals to locate a children's secure unit on the same site.

I was grateful to meet my hon. Friend and a number of his constituents last week to hear their concerns at first hand, and perhaps that answers one of my hon. Friend's questions. We certainly welcomed the opportunity to hear direct from my hon. Friend's constituents, and to listen to the points which they had to make. They had disturbing stories to relate about the nuisance caused by residents of the existing open children's home at Dore, and I do not underestimate the genuineness of their concerns. I listened then, and I have listened carefully to what my hon. Friend has had to say today.

My hon. Friend made a number of references to planning matters, and I know that he will understand when I say that I will refer the points to my right hon.

Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. If the planning application goes to appeal, I am sure that the location of the proposed project within the green belt will be one of the factors which my right hon. Friend would wish to take into account in reaching any decision which he is required to make.

While I may not be able to intervene in the way in which my hon. Friend and his constituents might wish, we do take seriously the concerns which have been expressed, and we shall look carefully to see whether their fears for the proposed secure unit are well founded.

As my hon. Friend has explained, Sheffield city council's proposal is to provide an eight-place secure unit in the grounds of the existing children's home at Dore on the outskirts of the city. I understand that the council selected the site as offering the best potential—as it saw it—for a secure development after a careful appraisal of a number of possible locations, to which my hon. Friend has referred and which are owned by the council in and around Sheffield.

My hon. Friend referred to the question of the council owning the land. That is quite true, because the money paid by the Department covers buildings and the refurbishment of those buildings for its potential proposed use, but not purchase of land. That is why there would be the limitation that is perceived by the city council.

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

What would happen if a site was rented or leased by the council? Would that be a way forward? Does a site have to be wholly owned by the council before any grant comes from the Department of Health?

Photo of Mr John Bowis Mr John Bowis , Battersea

We are looking for the council to develop proposals on land which it does own. The council probably would not consider the option of purchasing land to place in its ownership, because the cost would not be recoverable under the budgets which we are providing.

The proposal is one of 20 similar projects throughout the country which are required to increase the national stock of secure facilities by some 170 additional places for criminal justice purposes. The project is intended to fill a significant gap in the current provision of secure facilities in South Yorkshire and—as my hon. Friend said—I mentioned in my letter that, at present, the only other secure facilities in the Yorkshire and Humberside region are at Leeds to the north and Hull to the east.

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

I am sorry to press my hon. Friend on such matters, but the council does own redundant schools near the motorway and the Don valley area. Why is none of these mentioned in the report? Why has the Department of Health not asked whether there are other buildings available?

Photo of Mr John Bowis Mr John Bowis , Battersea

It is not for the Department to start hunting around for options or to suggest that the council should look for further options. We can proceed only on the basis that the council has a responsibility to look around for sites for which it has access, and on which it proposes to build and run a secure unit. My hon. Friend's question therefore would be better directed at the city council, to see whether it has other proposals which it could consider.

In part, the national programme forms an integral element of the Government's plans to tackle the problem of persistent young offenders, and it complements the Home Secretary's programme to provide a network of secure training places for sentenced 12 to 14-year-olds by ensuring that local authorities will be in a position to comply with court requirements that certain remanded juveniles be removed from the streets and placed in secure accommodation.

To that extent, one of the underlying purposes of the capital programme is to tackle the very problems that concern my hon. Friend and his constituents.

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mrs. Knight) is a former Sheffield city councillor, and she and I know this matter like the proverbial back of our hands, as I was a councillor on Sheffield city council for 20 years. If, even at this late stage, Sheffield said that it had a redundant school that would be a better option, could that be considered?

Photo of Mr John Bowis Mr John Bowis , Battersea

I do not know the back of my hon. Friends' hands, but I acknowledge that, if the proposal came forward, it would be for Sheffield council to bring it forward and put in a proposal for both the programme and planning consent. That is certainly permissible.

I am pleased to tell the House that local authorities are generally making good progress in taking this capital programme forward. Tenders for four projects have already been let and a number of other programmes will go out to tender in the next few months. All but four of the proposed schemes have already received planning permission or are not anticipating planning difficulties. There is therefore every expectation that the bulk of the programme will be completed during 1996.

The provision of secure accommodation is the statutory responsibility of local authorities. As with any other form of local authority home, the authority must follow statutory procedure for seeking planning consent. I understand that a planning application has been lodged by the social services department, and is currently being considered by the relevant local statutory committee. As such, my hon. Friend will understand that it would not be proper for my Department to attempt to influence what is a local and democratic decision.

That does not mean that we do not take a close and active interest in proposed schemes. Indeed, I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend—and, through him, his constituents—that, if the application for planning permission is granted, we shall work closely with Sheffield social services department to ensure that the highest standards of safety and security are incorporated into the building.

We shall do that in a number of ways. As a matter of routine, my officials will be involved in advising and supporting the authority throughout the planning and design process. That would be achieved primarily by a member of my Department's social services inspectorate working alongside the project team. The advice and support of technical staff in the NHS who specialise in that area of work will also be available to the authority.

Even with that close support during the planning process, the authority will not be able to use the building as secure accommodation without first seeking the approval of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. In considering those matters, she is supported by advice from the Department's social services inspectorate.

Again, I reassure my hon. Friend that the Secretary of State would not wish to approve the opening of the premises unless and until she was totally satisfied with both the standard of safety and security provided, and the quality of the management and supervision of the residents.

Once opened, the unit would be visited regularly by the social services inspectorate both with and without notice, with a major inspection every three years to ensure that standards were maintained. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would have no hesitation in withdrawing her approval at any time if there was an unacceptable diminution in those standards. In reaching such decisions, my right hon. Friend would wish to take into account not only the safety and security of the residents but the potential risks to the public.

I am pleased to assure the House, as I hope I reassured my hon. Friend's constituents the other day, that local authority secure units have a commendable record in containing children safely and securely. It is rare for them to cause concern to residents in the areas where they are located.

I fully accept, however, that my hon. Friend's prime concern and that of his constituents is the difficulty caused by residents in the open part of the home at Limb lane. I also accept that, ideally, they want the whole campus relocated elsewhere, although the number of children accommodated in open conditions would be reduced to four if the secure unit went ahead.

As I said earlier, while the Department cannot intervene in the location of premises, I take seriously the concerns about lack of control of residents. For our part, I am asking my Department's social services inspectorate to discuss with the director of social services for Sheffield what further steps could be taken to improve the quality of management and supervision of residents at Limb lane. In addition, I am sure that the director of social services would wish to consider extremely carefully the points made by my hon. Friend and myself in today's debate.

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

The problems are happening now. I quoted an article showing that only last week people were breaking out, and the police were asking what could be done. Cannot something be done immediately to ensure that that stops?

Photo of Mr John Bowis Mr John Bowis , Battersea

It is precisely because of my hon. Friend's concerns and because he sent me the most recent report in his local newspaper on the problems at the home in the village of Dore that I have said clearly that, following this debate, I shall draw attention, through my social services inspectorate and its discussions with the director of social services, to the points made by my hon. Friend, the points which he submitted to me in writing and my response.

I hope that it is clearly understood that that is a message to the authorities in Sheffield that I want the problems caused to local people by residents of the home to be tackled now. In particular, I want to be satisfied that the authority has reviewed its policies on control and discipline of young people in its care, in the light of the clear guidance on permissible forms of control in children's residential care homes which we issued in April 1993, as well as what has been said during today's debate.

I wish to make it clear to my hon. Friend, the Sheffield authorities and the people of Sheffield who may be concerned about the extent to which staff of such homes can control young people in their care in open homes or any other form of accommodation that the Government and the whole House would expect all staff in children's homes to take positive action to prevent children from running away or running amok.

Staff should not hesitate to take the appropriate action to prevent a child from injuring himself or herself, or another child or person, be it a member of staff or someone outside the home, or damaging property. They should not shrink from using physical restraint on those children when necessary. They should also remember that external doors can be locked in exactly the same way as one would lock the doors of one's own home to keep children in and intruders out.

It is important to say a word about some of the initiatives that we are taking to make residential care for children a positive placement choice, providing proper care for children rather than the dustbin which some people had come to regard as the sole purpose of residential care. On Friday in this House, I was pleased to present awards for good and innovative practice in residential child care, sponsored by Advancement of Residential Child Care—ARCC—and Care Weekly. I am anxious to raise the morale and the standing of staff who work in residential child care. That can come about only if good practice reigns, and if bad practice is rooted out.

We have had some valuable reports on this subject, including those from Sir William Utting and Norman Warner. We have acted on them; we have been supported in our efforts by the Association of Directors of Social Services. We know that, over the past 15 years or so, there has been a significant reduction in the number of children in residential care. Many of those who remain are older than such children used to be, and resident children with emotional difficulties and disturbed behaviour live together in greater concentrations than before.

I do not underestimate the difficulties faced by staff in providing the right care for these children. Many come from disadvantaged backgrounds; many have experienced multiple placements; many have been physically or emotionally abused. Whatever we might aspire to, children's homes can never be replicas of family homes. It is therefore important that they be managed so as to ensure they play a positive part in meeting the needs of vulnerable children.

Successive reports have commented on the good work being undertaken by dedicated and committed staff, but they also point to many examples of poor or inattentive management: too many unqualified staff left inadequately trained, supervised and managed to deal with difficult children. That is why we set up the residential child care support force, under the leadership of Adrianne Jones. It has been encouraging to see the response of local authorities, which welcome the help given them by the support force to improve the management and quality of their residential child care services.

The support force has developed a substantial agenda. It includes looking at the effectiveness of pre-placement assessments, developing a strategic planning framework for local authorities to use on their own or in collaboration with other authorities, developing effective relationships between education and social services departments, and looking at models of staff management and supervision.

I am well aware that the main effort towards and responsibility for achieving change in residential child care lies with the purchasers, the planners and the providers. For our part, we have promoted the residential child care initiative, which has thus far enabled about 400 senior officers from the local authority residential child care sector to study for a diploma in social work.

To help to combat the often negative image of residential child care, in collaboration with other agencies such as Barnardo's we have developed communications strategies designed to increase understanding and recognition of the positive contribution that residential child care makes to certain groups of young people.

In 1993, our social services inspectorate published "Corporate Parents", a report of inspections of child care services in 11 local authorities. It described a high incidence of children's absence without authority—a point that we heard several times today—from the homes visited. Although all homes had procedures to be followed in the case of absence of a child, there was little in the way of good practice guidance.

Furthermore, in very few authorities were there management monitoring systems to establish the number of absent children, the pattern of absence or the reasons for their running away. The report accordingly recommended that local authorities establish monitoring systems. A forthcoming set of standards for residential child care services, prepared by the SSI, will stress the need for children who run away to be offered a chance to speak to a person independent of the home. The home should also have positive practices for receiving a returning child, so that he or she will be encouraged to remain.

None of these initiatives can necessarily produce immediate results, but I wanted to show my hon. Friend that the Government take this subject seriously. If children are to receive the necessary care, affection and discipline in children's homes, it is important that these initiatives succeed. If they do not, what we have described here today is unlikely to improve. That would not be acceptable to my hon. Friend or me, or—most importantly—to the children or their families and to those in the neighbourhoods in which they live.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hallam, and my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mrs. Knight), who has been listening intently and who knows Sheffield well, may not be completely satisfied by what they have heard me say today. I hope, however, that I have been able to convince him that I take his concerns seriously; and that, to the extent to which it is in the gift of the Department to do so, I have been able to reassure my hon. Friend that we shall look carefully at the child care regime at the open children's home in Dore, and at the proposals and procedures for secure accommodation, if it is offered. If planning permission for a secure unit at Limb lane is granted, we shall ensure that it is designed with the protection of the residents, both internal and local, fully in mind.