Campaigners' protests can't stop women's refuge plans

A FORMER nursing home looks set to be turned into a refuge for homeless women despite more than 200 objections from the local community.

The plans for the B-listed building, which stands in a row of protected properties in Portobello's John Street, have sparked anger among neighbours.

They have accused the owner, landlord Khwaja Akbar Mir, who is also known as John Akbar, of neglecting the property since taking it on five years ago.

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They are also concerned about widespread complaints about the disruptive behaviour of people living at bedsits run by the Akbar family elsewhere in the city.

Despite receiving 234 objections, city officials have urged councillors to approve Mr Akbar's application for a licence.

John Stewart, chairman of the Portobello Amenity Society and former head of the John Street Action group, said there was deep concern about the proposals.

"We complained about the poor maintenance to the property but it doesn't seem to have been maintained at all since he bought it five years ago. The garden was a wilderness and we had to call the council to clear it at least twice."

The Akbar family has been at the centre of a string of complaints concerning other properties they rent out in the city. There were complaints of drug-taking, drunken people having sex in the garden and tenants living in "appalling conditions" at a property in London Street in 2003. Since then there have been complaints of poor maintenance at another home in Leith.

The planned Portobello refuge is intended to accommodate women "with low support needs" and is not intended for anyone with drink or drug problems.

Portobello councillor Maureen Child said the history of complaints at other properties and concerns about the maintenance of the John Street home had worried neighbours. "There is a lack of confidence in the Akbars' business practices and ability to run a sound institution," she said.

However, Mark Turley, the council's director of community services, has recommended the council grant Mr Akbar a licence for six months under close monthly supervision.

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Mr Akbar has also made an application to the Care Commission to have his company, Mir Housing Services, registered as a support service which will bring it under closer scrutiny than his other rented properties. However, a Care Commission spokesman said the application does not include the John Street property.

Shabana Akbar, who works for the family firm, said: "Many of the problems we've experienced in the past have been down to inexperienced staff, and the failure by the council to provide background reports on the people they were sending to us.

"John Street will be different as we will only be accepting women who have been evicted due to rent arrears, have had their homes repossessed due to the credit crunch or other social reasons not related to addiction.

"We feel we've chosen a sensitive client group and we ask the council to grant us this application for six months, as recommended, to give us the chance to prove ourselves."

The final decision on the license application is due to be made by the council's licensing sub- committee next Tuesday.