(From Norwich Evening News 24)
At least four bail hostels run by a private company are operating in secret locations across the city – with families living nearby unaware of their existence.
The hostels – which are normal homes in residential areas – are used to house people awaiting trial in the city or released early from prison and wearing electronic tags and under curfew.
Although only prisoners classed at a low risk of offending and who are deemed safe are placed at these addresses, families living yards from the properties have not been informed of their existence or consulted about them.
The Evening News investigated the issue after we reported that at least one hostel was being run in the city earlier this year.
Our findings have revealed there are at least four in the Norwich area, including three in the Norwich City Council area and one in Old Catton, part of Broadland. A suggestion that there was a fifth hostel could not be confirmed.
We are aware of their exact locations but are not publishing them for safety reasons.
Today, councillors in the area affected and people living near to the hostels hit out at the fact that they were not consulted.
Rupert Read, Green Party member for Wensum ward, where one of the hostels is based, said: “It is unacceptable that our council is being bypassed and not consulted over the location of this new bail hostels in the local area by a private company.
“It’s imperative that councils are involved from day one in helping to decide where to locate any proposed bail hostel.
“ClearSprings is contractually obliged to consult before locating its hostels. I cannot believe that they haven’t even consulted me and my fellow Wensum ward local councillors on this.
“I am outraged by their casual disregard of the rules and of the safety of my constituents.”
The hostels are run by ClearSprings, an Essex-based company charged with managing hundreds of bail hostels nationally.
The firm came under fire earlier this year when it emerged it had failed to inform MPs and council chiefs that it was operating bail hostels in their area.
The Evening News understands that upon finding out about the hostels, both Norwich City and Broadland councils have carried out investigations to determine whether the firm was breaching regulations by operating the homes as commercial enterprises without planning consent. These were dropped as technically no change of use had taken place.
Norfolk Constabulary has also confirmed it has been called out to deal with suspected crimes which have taken place at the Old Catton hostel.
In a recent case at Norwich Magistrates Court one tenant was cleared of an assault at the hostel on grounds of self-defence after a fight broke out at a barbecue there.
The Evening News was able to gain access to the Old Catton hostel. A former tenant there told how drug use and heavy drinking was the norm among the other occupants who stayed there during his time there.
People living near the hostel in Old Catton said they were not consulted before it was set up in January.
One mother, who didn’t want to be named, living yards from the premises said she had seen an increase in police activity since it was established.
She said: “We should have been told about the hostel. I am concerned about it because I have small children. We have seen a lot more police activity since they moved there, including in the last week or so. It makes me uneasy.”
But a woman living next door to the hostel said she had been informed before the premises was taken over by ClearSprings and said she had had no problems with the tenants, who had also helped her with chores such as mowing the lawn.
Another woman, who didn’t want to be identified but who has lived on the street for 30 years, added: “We should have been told. It could lead to more crime or anything on the estate.”
The Local Government Association, representing 400 councils nationally, recently accused ClearSprings of a “shocking lack of consultation”, with families living just yards from the hostels not informed about their use and councils given little or no say about where they are sited or how many are set up in their area.
Hazel Harding, chair of the LGA’s safer communities board, said: “Some councillors are understandably furious that they have not been adequately consulted on what is happening in their area.
“It’s pure folly to dump this kind of accommodation in the middle of a residential street without properly asking for the council’s views.
“The failure to consult genuinely with councils gives the unfortunate impression that they are established under a veil of secrecy. This doesn’t help the people on bail or on early release who come up against resentment from local people who have been unnecessarily alarmed.”
Broadland Council leader Simon Woodbridge said ClearSprings had contacted the council’s housing and benefits teams last year to ensure payments of the benefits were made to the company.
He said the hostels did not contravene planning rules and performed an important role in offender management.
He added: “We have got to make sure we don’t allow offenders or ex-offenders to carry on offending. We need to break that cycle and one way to help do that is to recognise accommodation is an integral part of that if it is in a managed environment. As far as I am concerned these are perfectly safe and well controlled.”
Norwich City Council spokeswoman Amy Lyall added: “We’re aware of three premises operated by ClearSprings in the city.
“The city council is not planning any enforcement action on these premises. One has previously been investigated, and there was not found to be a problem so the case was closed. If any issues do arise, we will take appropriate action.”
A spokesman for South Norfolk Council said the authority was not aware of any ClearSprings bail hostels operating in its area.
A spokeswoman for Norfolk Constabulary said the police had been called to the Old Catton hostel in the past but declined to say what actions were taken or specify any crimes believed to have taken place there.
She added: “If anyone reports crimes there we would investigate them. We take any reports of criminal activity seriously and are aware there have been problems there before.
“It is privately run, we have spoken to the company when we had reports and worked with them, but do not have any role dealing with their running as it is a probation issue.”
ClearSprings referred all media enquiries to the Ministry of Justice.
An MOJ spokeswoman said: “ClearSprings has a contractual obligation to consult the police, enforcement agencies and local authorities to inform the area in which that property will be opened.
“People in this accommodation are mostly on bail, that means they haven’t been convicted of any crime and haven’t been remanded in custody in court as they are not deemed to be a threat to the public.
“When people are released on bail they mostly go to their homes and their neighbours are not consulted then. All these are doing is providing rental accommodation for people if they haven’t got anywhere to stay.
“Defendants who pose a threat to the public continue to be held in custody. Anyone accused of sexual offences, arson or deemed a threat to staff or other residents are not housed in these properties.
“More than half of those in this accommodation are on bail and others are on home detention curfews and assessed as low risk on entry and monitored in their stay and liable to recall to prison if they break their terms.”
And she said they were not truly bail hostels, which require supervision, but “approved premises” for those released on bail who are not deemed to pose a risk.