A COUNCIL'S new policy of “secretly” buying houses to convert into children’s homes has been criticised by a senior councillor after anonymous leaflets and letters began circulating around the town.

Stockton Borough Council and its partner child-care organisation, Spark of Genius, recently decided to buy houses that could be used as children’s homes before gaining planning permission.

The idea is to buy properties at as cheap a price as possible, but also to prevent pressure being put on sellers to withdraw the property.

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There were large scale protests in Thorpe Thewles for a children’s home last year and nearly a quarter of the adult population wrote to the council to object.

Planning permission was eventually granted for that home, but another one, in Wolviston, fell through when the property was taken off the market.

Now an anonymous letter has been circulating around Hartburn, in Stockton, which says the council is trying to buy a £650,000 house in Darlington Road.

The leaflet also says the council and Spark of Genius, has been trying to buy a different property in Wolviston and that vendors are not being told what the house would be used for.

Ken Lupton, leader of the Conservative Group on the council and a former council leader, represents Hartburn and said the council should be more open.

He said: “I think it’s reprehensible. I believe the policy of bringing these young people home is right but there should be a thorough consultation. The council should be open and transparent and they’ve ridden over that policy altogether. I’ve had a number of very, very concerned residents, especially those ones close to the property. When it’s the local authority buying, people’s perception will be that, ‘they’ve bought the property, it’s a done deal.’”

A Stockton Borough Council spokesman explained the idea is to buy three more homes, each containing five children aged between eight and 16.

A total of £2m has been spent on refurbishing the old King Edwin School in Stockton for the youngsters.

The council will save about £400,000 a year by bringing 20 children currently sent elsewhere in the country back to Stockton.

Ann McCoy, Stockton council’s Cabinet Member for Children and Young People, said the children were vulnerable not criminal..

A major consultation exercise with the community would happen even before a ‘change of use’ planning application was made.

She said: “We must not lose sight of the fact that the overriding aim of this project is to give our looked after children a much better start in life by ensuring more of these children can live and be educated within the Borough.

“We have been very open about our revised approach to purchasing properties that may be suitable for conversion into children’s homes and we are placing great emphasis on talking to and involving local people.

“Stockton council is corporate parent to all of its looked after children and, like any parent, we want nothing but the very best for them. All elected members have signed a pledge affirming their commitment to their corporate parenting role and we want our communities to support our efforts to do what is best for children in our care.”