Judge eases the way for community care: Residents lose fight to block home for 10 mentally disturbed patients. Adam Sage reports

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MENTAL HEALTH charities yesterday welcomed a judicial decision which they say will pave the way for former psychiatric patients to be taken 'out of the ghetto' and housed in pleasant, residential suburbs.

They were commenting on a ruling by the Lands Tribunal dismissing objections from residents in Worthing, West Sussex, to the establishment of a home for 10 mentally disturbed patients. In a historic decision, the tribunal, which deals with disputes about property, said the need for community care outweighed other factors, including a restrictive covenant preventing 'any trade or business whatsoever' in the area.

Such covenants have previously been crucial in stopping the setting up of homes for the mentally disturbed and threatening the Government's care-in- the-community policy.

The five-bedroomed house in Worthing had been bought by Penny Lloyd, a registered nurse, and her husband Richard, who obtained planning permission for a home for former psychiatric patients. But eight local families objected, citing the covenant in support. They said the presence of the mentally disturbed could be dangerous and would affect the value of their properties.

Peter Betteridge, who has two teenage children and lives about 30 yards away, said: 'We can all agree to the principle of community care but when it happens on your own back door, it is a horrible thing.' However, Judge Bernard Marder said there was no evidence to suggest that people with mental illness would be 'more or less objectionable or anti-social than . . . 10 residents chosen at random from the community at large'.

He ruled that with the Government closing mental hospitals, the need for community homes in Worthing was desperate. 'In the light of these findings, I am satisfied that the restrictive covenant . . . is contrary to the public interest.' He ordered the objectors to pay half Mr and Mrs Lloyd's legal costs.

Commenting on the decision, Ian Bynoe, a legal director of the mental health charity Mind, said: 'It is ignorance and groundless prejudice which so often leads people to object to such schemes. This ruling showed understanding and sensitivity towards mental health policy and people with mental health problems, and should discourage future protests.'

Former psychiatric patients were often housed in inner-city areas, where residents would not protest at their presence, he said. Judge Marder's comments 'might cause developers to be braver and to take housing of this sort out of the ghetto and into areas where ordinary housing can be provided'.

According to lawyers, restrictive covenants are common in suburban housing developments built since the end of the last century. Brian Knowles, the Lloyds' solicitor, said: 'It is the older type of covenant . . . which doesn't take account of social changes. Seventy years ago, it wasn't conceived that the mentally ill would be living in the community.'