A couple of months ago a man called Simon Herbert put in a planning application to convert a house into a children's home in Buckinghamshire. The house stands in Vale Road, Aylesbury, on a mixed estate of mostly owner-occupiers. Herbert gave the local planning authority his residential address, 27 miles away, in the village of Lidington near Milton Keynes.
But the children's home provider wasn't Simon Herbert, the man from a village up the road. It was G4S, the world's largest security company — headquarters Crawley, close to Gatwick Airport. The G4S name did not appear on the planning application.
That wasn't the only odd thing about it.
A Supporting Statement purporting to come from 'Childrens Services' was sent to Aylesbury Vale District Council.
It's on the Council's website for members of the public to read. The document bears a cheery logo — four smiley faces, and the slogan "Caring for Children".
Amid eight positive pages, it claims: "Both Local and National Planning Policy support the proposed change of use."
That sounds reassuring. Who wrote it? Perhaps the Local Authority Children Services department?
Well, no. The document from 'Childrens Services' is by G4S. Yet the company name appears nowhere upon it.
Council officers have been baffled by the 'change of use' application for the house on Vale Road. On 4 June, Belle Daytonn, the committee administrator for Aylesbury Town Council, emailed the District Council planning department:
"Is this application from a private person, Mr Simon Herbert? Is Mr Herbert linked with Benjamin Homes UK? Is the home linked with social services?"
Sue Pilcher, the senior planning officer, replied: "Although the application has been submitted in the name of Simon Herbert, he is a director of G for S Care and Justice Services." (She means G4S). Pilcher said the company "have discussed the site with Bucks County Council Children's Services with a view to housing children there should permission be granted."
I searched Simon Herbert's name for other applications to convert houses into children's homes. He's been busy. There's an application to Milton Keynes Council to convert a property in Great Linford. And another one to South Northamptonshire Council to turn a house into a children's home in the village of Middleton Cheney. No mention of G4S.
Do the villagers of Great Linford and Middleton Cheney know that G4S is coming their way?
I asked company spokesperson Nicola Savage what G4S is up to.
She said that there were four such planning applications under consideration — in Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Worcestershire. She claimed:
“It is common practice for planning applications for change of use to be made in an individual’s name, and in fact the vast majority of applications for Children’s Homes are made in this way. There are also commercial considerations which mean we would prefer our competitors are not informed of our plans."
What are we to make of that?
Can it be true that commercial operators of children's homes routinely conceal their identity in planning applications? Are the vast majority of commercial children's home providers keeping public officials and representatives and local residents in the dark? Is that all right?
And what about that commercial imperative to conceal the corporate identity? Does that make sense?
The most recent guidance from Government (The Children Act, Guidance and Regulations, Volume 5, Children's Homes, 2011 PDF) places a requirement on all providers to take into account the location of similar services in the area when considering the location of new children's homes.
That's going to be difficult if they are secretive about it.
What's more, Children's Homes Regulations 2001 (amended in 2011), require registered providers to meet a fitness test of 'integrity and good character'.
Does hoodwinking the public show 'integrity and good character'? I asked Ofsted, who are responsible for inspecting and approving children's homes (or not).
“Ofsted is unaware of the specific details of this particular application, however as a general rule Ofsted would be concerned if a provider were willfully misrepresenting themselves in a planning application to a local authority and would take action accordingly to investigate.”
If G4S's plan was to evade local opposition, it didn't work in Aylesbury.
An alert resident called Glenda Beato rumbled the G4S connection and found out that Simon Herbert is in fact the commercial director of G4S Children's Services.
Beato lives with her husband and two children in Vale Road, Aylesbury. She works as an administrator in a community centre. She called a public meeting, inviting G4S to attend. Paul Cook, the managing director of G4S children's services, came along. Beato says: "the mysterious Simon Herbert attended too but said nothing!" Beato says more than 100 residents packed the St John's Ambulance HQ in Aylesbury on 10 June.
After the meeting G4S sent the Council a detailed rebuttal of residents' concerns. The document is not dated, nor does it bear the G4S name, address or logo, nor is it attributed to any person or department.
It was emailed to the senior planning officer by Dave Beadnall, who didn't state his job title. (He is G4S Children's Services Manager for Safety Health & Environment. That took some finding out).
G4S evidently doesn't think much of local residents. "Many of the objectors appear to have misunderstood the facts as set out clearly in the application," says the anonymous rebuttal letter. Objectors "have chosen to focus on more emotive, non-planning issues".
The anonymous corporate voice dismisses all the concerns raised in 92 residents' written objections, which include worries about parking, property values, quality of life, existing anti-social behaviour problems in the locality — and G4S.
"Issues have also been raised with the fact that the company's name was not included on the form, this is indeed true," writes Anon. He didn't elaborate upon that.
Some residents had pointed that sections of the form had been left blank. About that, Anon said: "This application was validated and registered by the LPA, therefore the content of the form was deemed acceptable."
The letter went on:
"Some residents have been aggrieved as to the lack of consultation carried out within the local area about the proposed change of use. A meeting was in fact held with local residents about the proposed change of use."
That's rather sly. It was local residents, having rumbled G4S, who called in executives for a grilling.
Glenda Beato told me:
"G4S tried to fly under the radar by using an employee's name on the planning application, they have fabricated claims about traffic movements on the application and they say that residents were consulted about the home. In fact the residents held a privately funded meeting and invited G4S to speak, otherwise there would have been NO contact whatsoever! The saga continues, but the moral of this story is study all Planning Notices with care as G4S could be entering your lives by using their under hand, bullying tactics!"
During the research for this article, the name Dave Beadnall (sender of the anonymous rebuttal) rang a bell. Nine years ago Beadnall was one of three G4S guards involved in the fatal restraint of youngster Gareth Myatt at Rainsbook Secure Training Centre near Rugby. There is an article about that here.
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