TWO YEARS ago, Thurrock was marked by the government as having one of the lowest levels of community cohesion in the country. In plain words, folk from different walks of life don’t seem to get on.
And although this is a borough bustling with activity, a night like last night at the planning committee re-inforced that we may be under the shadow of Canary Wharf and a bustling 21st century metropolis but there is a clumsy culture in Thurrock that still reeks of a parochialism and petty mindedness that does not do the borough proud.
The decision to allow a home in Cromwell Road, Grays, to be converted for the care of people with learning disabilities came to a bitter conclusion with an emotional blast by veteran councillor Yash Gupta against committee chairman Terry Hipsey, who had questioned his commitment to community cohesion.
Last month, the residents had rejected the application and on the night, the councillors had rejected the application but due to the nature of the constitution, the application returned to the table and was recommended by 5 votes to 4.
The areas of dispute surrounded whether this semi detached house was the best place for the three to live in and the ramifications surrounding the living arrangements including the carers.
But the night was punctuated by terms such as “Not Normal”; “Them”; “They will be up all night” “They get excited” You started to wonder who they thought was moving in: John Merrick?
There were many valid points made. Mr John Vesey pointed out that when he (along with cllr Yash Gupta MBE) were part of the team that saw the transferal of clients from South Ockendon Hospital to care homes in 1994 it was not to small semi detached houses such as the one proposed.
Many councillors were concerned with the levels of noise coming from the house and seemed to fear that it would be going on for 24 hours and many were simply saying that new small care homes such as the one in Lodge Lane seemed to be the working model in the 21st century, not this one.
The applicant, Mrs Dorothy Bello became more and more exasperated and perhaps hit the nail on the head saying. “Following your logic, will you be trying to evict any family with noisy children?”
Indeed, Tilbury councillor Steve Liddiard seemed to be the voice of reason when he simply said: “”Isn’t it just a matter of soundproofing the property so that the neighbours will feel assured that the noise may be limited.”
That found favour with Cllr Wendy Herd who said: “This is about integration and community cohesion. There are concerns but we have the power to put conditions on this application.”
But what may have repercussions, certainly within the Labour group is the chairman, cllr Terry Hipsey’s outburst against cllr Yash Gupta when he asked him. “Do you not support community cohesion, cllr Gupta”
Cllr Hipsey is not a man to be trifled with and it reminded many observers of his days as leader of the Tories. Cllr Gupta was visibly hurt.
Cllr Gupta, who has a daughter with disabilities, appeared outraged by the inference that he didn’t support that notion, and gave an angry, loud and emotionally charged response to Cllr Hipsey, saying: “If you look at my record since 1974 I have been working for community cohesion for all the people of the Borough. I support them. I am telling you that’s my position on community cohesion and I don’t want any lessons from anybody here.”
The heated exchange brought an end to almost an hour’s hearing of the issue, which started with members being addressed by Howard Ray, who spoke on behalf of his parents, who live next to the proposed home.
He said residents had been stunned by the fact that a decision had not been made at a previous meeting, even though a majority of councillors voted against the scheme.
He said: “The application was presented to you and at that meeting one of the local residents spoke on behalf of the community, as did Cllr Gupta. At the end of the debate we were all pleased that the majority of committee members voted against it but what happened after that was a mystery.”
He went on to detail problems his parents and other residents had with the home, where he said a resident had already moved in. They centered around parking problems and noise, including washing machines and TVs running through the night.
The applicant, Mrs Dorothy Bello, once again addressed the committee, though she seemed keen to get over an emotive message, rather than one based on planning issues. She went onto the front foot to point out her anger at ‘losing’ the original vote and appeared to suggest that councillors and local residents were reacting adversely against the home’s potential residents.
She said: “This home is to provide a more fulfilled and enriched life for the people living in the premises. They will be no noisier than an average family, there will be no requirement for medical attention and the residents will not be driving.
“Everyone should adhere to planning law and I feel this whole decision-making process is abhorrent. As a woman and a mother, would I go to my neighbours asking them to move out if they had disabilities?”
Cllr Phil Anderson was even more supportive of the application, saying: “What is being proposed here is commendable and deserves support. I don’t see any reason why the people here would be any noisier or worse than anyone else.”
And Cllr Steve Veryard was swayed enough to say: “We keep hearing abut this as if they are weird people. They are some people’s children, it’s not their fault they were born disabled, we should be encouraging them. The vibe I’m getting is that we should back it.”
However, Cllr Shane Hebb was not convinced and said: “I applaud what Mrs Bello is trying to achieve but I have problems with this site. There has to be somewhere else in this big town called Grays for this.”
Cllr Barry Palmer chipped in with: “We are not judging this on the nature of the individuals, but the suitability of the location.”
But when it came to a vote Cllrs Hipsey, Herd, Liddiard, Veryard and Anderson elected to support the application, which was carried 5-4 – much to the annoyance of residents and Cllr Gupta who left the chamber in angry moods.
Afterwards, Mr Ray gave us his reaction. He said: “For residents this was about a democratic process that seems to have gone badly wrong. Just because you have a new set of rules doesn’t make them a better set of rules.
A care expert also commented on the tone of the meeting. She said: “Where do they want this care home. Down the bottom of an industrial estate where no-one can see them. Just like the one on Panorama?”