Service Family Unit Wins Support Of Thousands

Plans for a home-from-home for service families visiting injured veterans received unprecedented backing as the head of the Army leant his support, while tens of thousands signed up online.

Residents in a Surrey suburb are attempting to block plans for the unit near the Headley Court rehabilitation centre, which cares for dozens of service personnel who have lost limbs and suffered severe trauma in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, since the beginning of this week, more than 10,000 people have signed an online petition demanding that the unit be built while General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the British Army, has also voiced his support.

A total of 40,000 people – including hundreds of serving and former soldiers – have signed the online petition in the past 13 days.

The campaign will today make its last stand against the local objectors at a decisive planning meeting.

The extraordinary case centres around a planning application for 36 Grays Lane in Ashtead. An Armed Forces charity, Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, applied to buy the £1.7 million seven-bedroom house and use it as a base for families, backed by readers of The Daily Telegraph in a Christmas appeal.

They were shocked when 83 householders in the well-heeled suburb wrote letters of objection.

The residents said they feared the area will be affected by increased levels of noise and traffic – and believed it could hit their house prices by up to 20 per cent.

The local planning committee has recommended that permission be refused on grounds that the home-from-home would “adversely affect the quiet and peaceful nature of the surrounding area”.

A local council development meeting will decide the fate of 36 Grays Lane tomorrow night.

Sir Richard Dannatt said today: “At the very least our soldiers should always expect the nation, the Army and their commanders to treat them fairly, to value and respect them as individuals and to support them and their families appropriately.

“The aspiration of SSAFA Forces Help to provide a residential facility for visiting families at the Defence Rehabilitation Military Centre at Headley Court will make an enormous contribution to this process.”

The case has caused widespread outrage amongst politicians, serving and former personnel and their families, who accuse the residents of being “staggeringly selfish” and “nimbys”.

Defence minister Derek Twigg has said the facility was “vital” and had the “absolute support” of the Government.

He said he was “saddened” by the opposition to accommodation.

He said: “We want to ensure the families of our personnel get the best possible care.

“We have got to let the planning process take its due course but we hope the residents see that it is a vital facility.”

The Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre cares for people like Captain Peter Norton, 43, who lost an arm and a leg and gained a George Cross for his bravery in Iraq last year.

His wife, Sue Norton travelled 20,000 miles over the past two years ensuring the couple’s sons Toby, aged two, and Tom, aged four, can see their father, and was instrumental in the campaign.

She said she has been “overwhelmed” by the support, including from head of the Armed Forces, Sir Richard and his wife Lady Pippa, for the campaign, which has seen 500 letters of support arriving at the local council ahead of tomorrow’s decision.

“This probably would not have happened without the positive support that Sir Richard and Lady Pippa have given us,” she said.

“At the end of the day, they are just another Army family and they know what we are going through.”

She will present her case at tomorrow’s meeting.

“I’m not looking forward to it but I know if I stumble Peter will help me,” she said. “At the end of the day it’s a must – this is so much bigger than us. It started with our story but it’s for all those other families that need this so desperately.”

Will Batchelor, a former Territorial Army Lance Corporal and Iraq veteran who has been leafleting locals said the majority seemed supportive and dismissed the Grays Lane residents objecting as “snobs”.

He said: “There’s a bit of a mindset among servicemen that no one gives a monkeys about them but its been quite comforting for them to realise that members of the public really do care, and although it’s a silent majority it’s a majority nonetheless. At least that’s something good to come out of this.”