On Wednesday the 22nd of February 2012 I attended a public “triangle” meeting held in St Luke’s Church, Arbury, Cambridge. The three sides of the “triangle”, made up of the management of the hostel at 222 Victoria Road, the police, and councillors, met in public, with local residents.
As well as just discussing 222 Victoria Road, this particular meeting, also covered wider policing items, and also a few local planning matters.
- The hostel is to be closed for refurbishment from September 2012 until August 2013. No provision is to be made for replacing the bed spaces elsewhere in the city during the closure. When I asked about the impact on staff, the management appeared unconcerned about losing experienced staff while the premises are shut, despite the lack of experienced staff being blamed for problems in the hostel in the recent past.
- Following the work the number of bed spaces available will have been reduced by about 20. The number of individuals with the highest needs accommodated in the hostel will have been approximately halved, to 34
- The long term reduction in bed spaces at 222 Victoria Road will be accompanied by fewer bed spaces being provided at other hostels in the city. Residents at the meeting expressed concern about this given the current provision is oversubscribed. Councillors shrugged their shoulders and avoided the question, letting Cambridge City Council officer David Greening respond. Mr Greening said fewer bed spaces would be needed in the future as individuals’ average stays in hostels would be reduced due to more effective interventions. Members of the public expressed a concern I share, that this is wishful thinking.
- We were told the refurbishments are to be 50% funded directly by the taxpayer through central government, with the other half put up by the English Churches Housing Group (ECHG) who run the hostel.
- ECHG reported they intend to “respond to residents’ concerns” by spending money on “adding colour” (via green panels) to the front of the building. They told the meeting they are so concerned with aesthetics they’re even moving a window to give the building a more symmetrical appearance. My view is this is a shocking misdirection of funds which could be spent helping the homeless and those with drug and alcohol problems. A member of the public suggested plants; planters in the front, hanging baskets and window boxes.
The meeting had been advertised by Labour Party flyers posted through letter boxes in the area, and Labour Cllr Carina O’Reilly chaired proceedings. The police had also advertised the meeting via their ECops system, however one said 19.30 and the other 20.00. This resulted in about half the public attendees turning up well before the meeting got underway.
Arbury’s Liberal Democrat Councillor Tim Ward had sent his apologies.
Prior to the meeting starting Cllr O’Reilly approached me to tell me that Kevin Scanlon, ECHG’s regional manager, with responsibility for 222 Victoria Road and Cambridge’s Willow Walk hostel, had asked not to be photographed. I had not done anything to suggest I might photograph him, and I asked Cllr O’Reilly why she was only telling me this, she responded to say she thought I was the only person who might want to take photos. A Cambridge News reporter spoke up to say he might have wanted to take photos too. Both of us agreed not to take any photos of the camera shy Mr Scanlon during the meeting.
Mr Scanlon was accompanied by two colleagues, one responsible operationally for the 222 Victoria Road hostel, and the other the project manager for the refurbishment.
A short presentation was given. We were told the central government grant for the refurbishment had been approved; but that ECHG were waiting for the outcome of a Cambridgeshire County Council decision due in April 2012 on the future revenue funding of the hostel. Mr Scanlon explained his organisation didn’t want to spend large sums on refurbishing a hostel it would be left with no funds to run.
Mr Scanlon told the meeting that the changes had been prompted by Cambridge City Council who had asked ECHG to make changes to the service they provide. The main changes involve separating the hostel into separate areas for those with different needs (we were told there are two three bed houses on the site for the use of those almost ready to leave). The refurbished hostel will also contain three emergency rooms which can be allocated by Cambridge City Council officers.
The meeting was told how the top floor would be used by those who had beaten their addictions, whereas the lower floors would be used by those still drinking. A member of the public questioned the rationale of having such people in close proximity; the response from Mr Scanlon was that the separation would be better than in the past, and this was one of the key aims of the project. There was scepticism from those sitting near me over if the separation was sufficient. Having read accounts of those who’ve spent time in the hostel it’s clearly important that those who want to get away from drugs and alcohol are given the opportunity to do so; I’m not convinced the proposals will achieve this.
Another feature proposed are areas, open to the public, and separate from the residential parts of the centre, including a computer room, meeting room, and gym.
Questioned on where the tenants would go during the refurbishment, or in the longer term what the impact of the reduced number of rooms would be, Mr Scanlon, for ECHG, said “I don’t know”. Councillors also didn’t answer the question, even though it was directed specifically at them. City Council officer David Greening was invited to comment and confirmed bedspaces were also planned to be lost at Jimmy’s and elsewhere in the city. He said that in the past people had been spending years in hostels, but now the hostels were much better at helping people to move on so there was less need for them. However countering his own point, he agreed the current provision was oversubscribed. Mr Greening pointed out that only those with a link to Cambridge were able to access the city’s longer term hostels, and other homeless people were encouraged to leave the city, he gave this as another reason the city could cope with fewer beds for those who would otherwise be homeless and perhaps living on the streets.
Talking about the revenue funding for the ongoing running of the refurbished hostel Mr Scanlon told the meeting ECHG was making a bid to Cambridgeshire County Council to keep staff levels at the centre the same despite the plan for them to be dealing with fewer residents. The aim is to provide more intensive help and treatment. We were told that the number of individuals from the “current client group” would be reduced from 74 to 30 (and ~20 further individuals, with lesser needs, would also be accommodated).
Mr Scanlon appeared to not be too keen on the idea of shrubs, rather than green panels, to improve the appearance of the building, saying he was concerned about the costs. We were told that railings would be put up to prevent people sitting on the low wall in front of the building.
A number of people asked about the expected impact on groups of people from the hostel drinking in the area and causing problems (such as arguing and fighting in the streets). The response was simply that the numbers of such people ought be reduced, and a consequent reduction in the problems might be expected. Mr Scanlon said that those with chronic alcohol problems were accommodated at Willow Walk, and those at 222 are those who are prepared to make an effort to tackle their problems.
Mr Scanlon and his colleagues left immediately after their short presentation and questions. They didn’t wait for the police, and other sections of the meeting.
The police sent two PCSOs, Clare Jolly and Luke Upcott. Only PCSO Jolly spoke.
PCSO Jolly told the meeting that the police attended the 222 Victoria Road hostel on a daily basis.
A very odd, content-less, recount of recent major events in the area was given, but without any details, those present being assumed to be aware of them. They were, the death of the man found in the church foyer, the incident of the woman who fell from Kingsway flats, and bizarrely “a man arrested for driving a car”.
The discussion then turned to other policing matters.
A resident complained about people driving on the pavement on Histon Road; PCSO Jolly said this had not been reported to them before, and suggested the resident report it, including “index numbers” of cars via Ecops. (I suspect this was an attempt to prevent incidents being recorded, as I have on a number of occasions confirmed that incidents reported via ECops are not routinely formally recorded).
A resident complained that she had tried to report criminal damage done to vehicles, but the police had refused to accept her report on the grounds she didn’t own the vehicles in question. PCSO Jolly confirmed the refusal was in line with police policy; this didn’t go down well at all with those present.
PCSO Jolly was asked if the police would accept a report of a burglary from a neighbour who’d been asked to look after a home while the owner was away. PSCO Jolly said that while the police might respond to a call from a neighbour if it was thought the burglars were on the premises, but otherwise they would want to hear from the owner of the property before taking action.
I hope, and presume, that PCSO Jolly was just out of her depth and talking nonsense. I think great damage to the perception of the police was done by the presentation and the North Cambridge Neighbourhood Policing Sergeant, Sgt. Wragg, should probably seek to make a statement in the follow-up note which was promised to be circulated after the meeting to clarify the police position.
A resident asked what the items on poles outside 222 Victoria Road were. It was confirmed they were Cambridge City Council owned and run CCTV – the fact residents are not aware of this shows they need to be better signed – this is something I have been lobbying for for many years now. PSCO Jolly expressed her support for the City Council’s deployment covert cameras, saying they were more effective at catching people. (I support the use of covert techniques in appropriate circumstances too, but the City Council has no mandate for covert deployment in this manner, and denies this is what its operations amount to).
A brief discussion of local, Arbury, planning matters was chaired by Cllr Todd-Jones.
The discussion started with the application from Trinity College to house 40 Graduate Students in the ex NHS property, Wessex Place.
The main concern raised by local residents was parking. A number complained about students using the on-street residents parking bays in the evenings (when the bays are not in operation), some were concerned about parking in near-by uncontrolled streets.
I thought the anti-student tone of a number of the contributions was horrible. Such venom against any other sectors of society would not be tolerated, but it appears students, even graduate students, are considered fair-game for attacks in Cambridge.
I don’t think the fact the residents will be graduate students is relevant at all; and personally I’d suggest that a practical and realistic approach ought be taken and a handful of parking spaces provided for on the site. If there are trainee teachers living there travelling well out of Cambridge on placements, why deny them a place to park, or trainee doctors, places all over the region, or those working in other fields with a need for a car.
One concern raised was that councillors may have been misled, and the impression given to them that resident students would need permission from the Motor Proctor to keep cars. Understandably given the complexity of the university’s rules (which can be gold-plated by the colleges), there were differing interpretations of what they actually are from residents present. Students with “MA Status” don’t need to apply for a licence, is my interpretation of (S.3(d)) though in Cambridge there is often a huge gulf between what the rules say and how they interpreted in practice.
98 Room Student Hostel on Histon Road / Victoria Road Junction
The decision of councillors to reject this development has been overruled by an unelected planning inspector.
A number of residents complained about the lack of democracy in the planning appeals system.
A number of residents made comments which would have been better made earlier in the process, but Cllr Todd-Jones reported many of them had in fact been put forward by him and others at the appropriate point.
This hostel is more worrying as it is not run by any academic institution.
One resident questioned why student halls were being built, not family homes. I wasn’t there to answer questions, but have heard two points made, one is the argument moving students into dedicated accommodation might free up houses for others; resulting in both families and students ending up in more suitable accommodation. Another aspect is economics; student halls provide investors an excellent return on their money, and are continuing to do so even in the current economic environment.
Cllr O’Reilly suggested the main driver was the universities, ARU and the University of Cambridge, both seeking to accommodate all of their students, which neither was able to do at the moment.
HMO at 19 Alpha Road
Cllr Todd-Jones reported this application had been withdrawn.
Residents of Alpha Road asked about another property where someone was living in a converted shed. (This is getting increasingly common in Cambridge). Cllr Todd-Jones said he was awaiting advice from the council’s planning officers about this kind of arrangement, and what, if any permission would be required.
On the subject of the same property one person present complained they lived near enough to hear the noise from a HMO but were outside the consultation area for notifications of planning applications. (This is a point I’ve made in the past, relating to licensing, and the council’s response has been they’re very concerned about only notifying those they have to by law, out of fear any other action could be interpreted as improper; councillors pathetically accepted this explanation).
One resident said she’d like to see a family friendly pub offering good food; but didn’t appear to be actually proposing to invest in and run such a business in the premises.
Cllr O’Reilly said she had visited the property with someone who was considering running it as a pub, but he would have wanted to create and sell off some flats to fund it, and the risk the city council might not permit that was too great for him to take.
Liberal Democrat campaigner Alan Levy said there was no point in the planning system designating pubs as community facilities and keeping the buildings there if no one was going to run them as a successful business.
Residents lamented the fact the fate of the building appears to depend on the unelected planning inspector from Bristol, rather than local councillors.
Cllr Todd-Jones kept quiet about the fact he doesn’t vote on planning matters.
- October 2011 Triangle Meeting
- Proposals for the Future of the Hostel at 222 Victoria Road – details released via my FOI request.