The Future of Birch Church

Demolition or Residential Development?


NEWS UPDATES
in reverse chronological order - most recent first

Non-Statutory Public Inquiry
into the demolition of the Church of St Peter, Birch.

2nd Pre-Inquiry Meeting to be held on 21st February 2018

As explained in the previous News Update (see below), a 2nd Pre-Inquiry Meeting is to be held at 11.00am on Wednesday 21 February 2018 at the Players’ Lounge, Colchester United Football Club, United Way, Colchester CO4 5UP.

On Tuesday 6th February the Agenda for the meeting and the Terms of Reference of the Inquiry were received.

A PDF of the Notice of the meeting can be viewed or downloaded using the link: Notice of 2nd Pre-Inquiry Meeting
The Agenda for the meeting (MS Word document) can be viewed or downloaded using the link: Agenda for 2nd Pre-Inquiry Meeting
The Terms of Reference of the Inquiry are reproduced at the foot of this page as Appendix C.
(Update posted: 06-02-18)


Non-Statutory Public Inquiry
into the demolition of the Church of St Peter, Birch.

The position as at 16th January 2018

On 16th January Notice of a 2nd Pre-Inquiry Meeting (PIM) was issued. The Notice explained that given the length of time since the first PIM was held (on 28 July 2016) and since there had been a change of Inspector, the appointed Inspector has decided another PIM should be held.

This second PIM will open at 11.00 on Wednesday 21 February 2018 at the Players’ Lounge, Colchester United Football Club, United Way, Colchester CO4 5UP.

All the parties who have made submissions are asked to attend or to be represented.

The purpose of the PIM will be to provide an opportunity for procedural and administrative matters relating to the inquiry to be explained and discussed. There will be no discussion on the merits of the Church Commissioners’ proposal or of the Cottee scheme. Members of the public may attend the PIM, or be represented at it, and declare a wish to speak at the Inquiry with an estimation of time it will take for them to present their case.

The Agenda for the PIM is to follow shortly. Formal notice of the date, time and venue for the Inquiry will be given in due course.

A PDF of the full Notice can be viewed or downloaded using this link: Notice of 2nd Pre-Inquiry Meeting   (Posted: 16-01-18)


Non-Statutory Public Inquiry
into the demolition of the Church of St Peter, Birch.

The position as at 8th December 2017

As explained in the previous Update (the position as at 3rd October - see below), on 9th February (2017) the Church Commissioners wrote to the Secretary of State asking that he might reconsider his decision to hold a non-statutory public inquiry into the proposed demolition of Birch church.

On 6th December the Department for Communities and Local Government wrote to the Commissioners with the Secretary of State's decision. The core section of the letter reads as follows:

"The Secretary of State considers that the matters about which he wishes to be informed for the purposes of considering the proposed demolition of the church, as set out in the Terms of Reference for the Public Inquiry, are complex issues. He considers that there is a need for the evidence in relation to these complex issues to be tested thoroughly through cross examination. He also considers that the proposal has generated substantial local interest sufficient to warrant an inquiry.

"Accordingly, and for these reasons, the Secretary of State has decided, in his judgment, that an inquiry, as originally directed in his decision letter dated 18 July 2014, remains the appropriate mode of determination in this matter.

"A copy of this letter has been sent to interested parties. The Planning Inspectorate will now be instructed to proceed with the inquiry arrangements … "

The decision of the Secretary of State is most disappointing and unexpected. A resolution of this long-standing matter is to be further delayed. It is nearly three and half years ago since the Secretary of State originally decided the matter should proceed to a Non-Statutory Public Inquiry and we appear to be no further forward. As yet there is no indication of how long it might be before the Inquiry is held. It previously took the Planning Inspectorate a very long time to appoint an Inspector to conduct the Inquiry. The appointed Inspector, Mr Reid, chaired a Pre-Inquiry Meeting in July 2016. The following December the Inspectorate advised: "There is … the possibility that the appointed Inspector (Stuart Reid) will not be free to conduct the inquiry because of managerial duties", so even a year ago it looked as if another Inspector would have to be appointed. One assumes the Inspectorate has done nothing on this case since February (2017), pending the Secretary of State's decision on whether the Inquiry should proceed. Perhaps not unreasonable to think that even the Inspectorate hoped, and expected, the Secretary of State would decide a Public Inquiry was no longer justified.   (Posted: 08-12-17)


Non-Statutory Public Inquiry
into the demolition of the Church of St Peter, Birch.

The position as at 3rd October 2017

As explained in the previous Update (the position as at 31st August), the Secretary of State invited interested parties to make representations on the matters raised by the Church Commissioners in their request that he might reconsider his decision to hold a Public Inquiry.

On 3rd October the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) emailed those who had made representations with all the representations that had been received, 'suitably redacted where appropriate'. The email also requested final comments on these representations. Final comments have to be received by the DCLG by Friday, 13th October.

A total of fifteen representations were received. Eight are in favour of the Secretary of State reconsidering the decision to hold an inquiry and, by implication, in favour of the Draft Pastoral Scheme for demolition proceeding. Six of these eight representations were from individuals who live in Birch and/or who have relatives interred in the graveyard of the church. Among the 15 representations there was not a single one from a Birch resident, or from someone who has a relative buried in the churchyard, who supports the Cottee proposal, or who favours it over demolition, or who thinks there is any point in, or justification for, a public inquiry.

The representations in favour of the proposed public inquiry proceeding, other than that of Mr Cottee, were all from corporate bodies. None of these bodies is based in Birch and none has a significant stake or involvement in the life of the local community (except, arguably, Colchester Borough Council).

In his letter to the DCLG Mr Cottee claims there is strong local support for his proposed scheme. The CNEEBPT's letter claims there is 'demonstrable and overwhelming local support for the Church's retention'. These claims lack credibility when viewed against the complete absence of local support in the representations received by the DCLG.

We wait to hear whether the Secretary of State does agree to reconsider the decision to hold a public inquiry and his decision on whether the Public Inquiry should proceed.   (Posted: 07-10-17)


Non-Statutory Public Inquiry
into the demolition of the Church of St Peter, Birch.

The position as at 31st August 2017

On 9th February (2017) the Church Commissioners wrote to the Secretary of State asking that he might reconsider his decision, made in July 2014, to hold a non-statutory public inquiry into the proposed demolition of Birch church. Having received no response the Commissioners wrote again to the Secretary of State on 7th July, asking if he might now give this matter attention.

On 31st August the Department for Communities and Local Government wrote to interested parties explaining that the Secretary of State is considering the request from the Church Commissioners inviting him to reconsider his decision to hold a non-statutory public inquiry. A copy of the letter to interested parties, in PDF format, can be viewed or downloaded using this link.

The matters raised by the Commissioners in their request to the Secretary of State have been set out in correspondence and supporting papers that are available in a detailed PDF document (1.17MB) which can be viewed or downloaded using this link.

It is agreed by all parties that the only remaining alternative to demolition is Mr Cottee's proposal for conversion and alteration of the former church to form a single dwelling. The question is whether this proposal is practical and financially viable.

In their letter of 9th February the Commissioners explained that they had two independently commissioned reports with estimates of the cost of repairs to the external and internal fabric of the church. A well-respected firm of architects and a firm of chartered quantity surveyors have both estimated the costs of external and internal fabric repairs alone to be in excess of £3 million. These estimates do not include the costs of conversion of the church to a five-bedroom family dwelling. Mr Cottee estimates the cost of his project at £1,395,326 and he has sought to show he can draw on funds (released from the sale of property he owns) with an estimated 'Total Net Worth' of £1,456,468.63 (at 1st December 2016) excluding any capital gains payable on their sale.

The Commissioners argue that Mr Cottee's 'anticipated' net worth falls well below the cost of repair and conversion of the building which in turn will be considerably more than its market value at completion. They express their very real concern that if the Cottee scheme was allowed to go ahead, once partial demolition and repair was commenced the project would founder and be abandoned. That is very much a concern some of us have in Birch. Such an outcome would create an appalling blight on the churchyard, the village and the Birch Conservation area.

The Secretary of State is inviting interested parties to make representations on the matters raised by the Church Commissioners in their request that he might reconsider his decision. This is to enable the Secretary of State to come to a fully informed decision on the request. Representations should be sent to Lorraine Gamble, Planning Casework Manager, at Department for Communities and Local Government, 5 St Philip's Place, Colmore Row, Birmingham B3 2PW (email: Lorraine.gamble@communities.gsi.gov.uk), by 4pm on 28th September 2017 (the original closing date was 14th September but the period for making representations has been extended by 14 days). Representations received will be circulated between parties and a further 7 days will then be allowed for any further representations on other parties’ responses.   (Posted 31-08-17; last update 07-10-17)


Non-Statutory Public Inquiry
into the demolition of the Church of St Peter, Birch.

The position as at early January 2017

The Planning Inspectorate has said it is likely that the Inquiry will now go ahead sometime in late summer / early autumn this year (2017). There is also the possibility that the appointed Inspector, Mr Stuart Reid, will not be free to conduct the Inquiry because of other commitments. If that proves to be the case there will obviously be a need to appoint a new Inspector (and I recall the Inspectorate took a long time to appoint Mr Reid).

The Inspectorate is suspending the timetable agreed at last July's Pre-Inquiry Meeting and set out in the final version of the Inspector's Notes of the meeting dated 5th October 2016. The Inspectorate is due to give more details (to some parties) and set out the next steps 'very early in the New Year'.

Colchester Borough Council's position on the Inquiry is now resolved. The Council has agreed that it will support the endeavours of the Colchester and North East Essex Building Preservation Trust to secure the re-use of this landmark heritage asset (i.e. Birch Church) as an important part of the Borough’s cultural heritage. To that end, it may give evidence in support of the Trust’s case for re-use but will not be represented by Counsel nor will it be appointing expert witnesses.   (Posted 04-01-17)


Non-Statutory Public Inquiry
into the demolition of the Church of St Peter, Birch.

Pre-Inquiry Meeting - 28th July 2016

A Pre-Inquiry Meeting was held in the Boardroom of Colchester Institute on Thursday, 28th July 2016. Notice of this meeting was not posted in Birch until Monday, 25th July, a mere three days before the meeting. Neither Birch Parish Council nor our two Borough Councillors were given notice of the meeting. The failure to provide proper notice of the meeting has been raised with the Planning Inspectorate and with our Member of Parliament.

The Pre-Inquiry Meeting was chaired by Mr Stuart Reid, the Planning Inspector appointed by the Secretary of State to hold the Inquiry. The purpose of the meeting was to agree some administrative and procedural matters including the procedure for the Inquiry, its Terms of Reference, timetable, venue, Inquiry dates and sitting times.

Attending the Pre-Inquiry Meeting were Mr David Balcombe - Director, Colchester & North East Essex Building Preservation Trust, Mr Paul Shadarevian (Counsel for the CNEEBPT), Mr Simon Cairns - Major Development & Projects Manager, Colchester Borough Council, representatives of the Church Commissioners including Messrs Paul Lewis and Jeremy Tipping, Miss Morag Ellis QC (Counsel for the Commissioners) and three Birch residents. Mr Gary Cottee did not attend the meeting.

The Inquiry will be conducted in the spirit of the Town and Country Planning (Inquiries Procedure) (England) Rules 2000. Guidance on the Procedure is set out in The Planning Inspectorate's (PINS) Procedural Guide: Called-In Planning applications - England 23 March 2016 which is available on a government website to view and/or download.

The chairman explained that the Inspector will only make recommendations, as will the Secretary of State. That is what I have always understood to be the position under the terms of the Skelmersdale Agreement.

Mr Cottee was reported to be seeking to 'refine' his proposal and costings for converting the church into a family home. Counsel for the Commissioners said that the Commissioners needed details of the 'refined' proposal so that they could prepare their Statement of Case for the Inquiry. It was agreed that, as the Cottee proposal was central to the inquiry, there would need to be a deadline imposed on the submission of the final scheme, so that the parties had time to prepare their responses. It was agreed that Mr Cottee's final scheme must be submitted by 30th September 2016. (I have written to the Planning Inspectorate saying Birch Parish Council and Birch residents also need access to Mr Cottee’s refined proposal and costings, well before the Inquiry takes place. The only information we have at present is the two outline plans of the proposal exhibited to the public in Birch Memorial Hall in October 2013, and the information in the CNEEBPT’s Project Viability Study published at that time. If the ‘refined’ proposal is materially different to that published in October 2013, we need to know so that any representations we make to the Inquiry are made in the light of the ‘refined’ proposals and costings, not those published in 2013.)

Simon Cairns said, 'the Local Authority position is unresolved'. By this he meant it was not yet known whether Colchester Borough Council will proceed (to put its case to the Inquiry) or withdraw from the Inquiry. If there was a viable and deliverable proposal from Mr Cottee the Council would support him. If not, they would not continue to object (to the draft Pastoral Scheme to demolish) and they would not participate in the Inquiry.

The chairman said consideration would be given to putting Statements of Case on the Inspectorate's website but he was unsure whether this is technically possible at present.

The Inquiry is expected to last about four weeks. The venue is, as yet, undecided and is the responsibility of the Church Commissioners. I urged that the venue should be easily accessible to Birch residents, with provision for car parking as Birch has very limited public transport. There is an intention to hold an evening meeting in Birch Memorial Hall for those who wish to make representations but who are unable to attend the Inquiry during the day because of their work.

Mr Shadarevian, for the CNEEBPT, said some issues of the Terms of Reference are still live. Miss Ellis QC objected that the Terms of Reference were not open for discussion; a point agreed by the chairman. (The Terms of Reference are reproduced at the foot of this page as Appendix C.)

Questions were raised about the involvement of other heritage bodies which have objected to the proposed demolition, namely the Victorian Society, the Ancient Monuments Society and Historic England (formerly English Heritage). Mr Cairns said that he understood Historic England would be submitting written evidence. This suggests to me that Historic England will not be attending the Inquiry or be represented at it. No representative of the Victorian Society or the Ancient Monuments Society attended the Pre-Inquiry Meeting. The Planning Inspectorate will try to ascertain whether these societies would be attending the Inquiry and whether they would be legally represented and call witnesses. This suggests neither society has, so far, given any indication that it wishes to participate in the Inquiry.

Towards the end of the meeting I asked whether, if the Cottee proposal was to proceed further, the Church Commissioners would need to draw up a new draft Pastoral Scheme for the proposed conversion to residential use and put this out for consultation. A senior representative of the Commissioners confirmed that this was the case.

The Planning Inspectorate now estimates the Inquiry will last for four weeks and will begin in May 2017 or soon thereafter.   (Posted 17-08-16; updated 22-09-16)


Non-Statutory Public Inquiry
into the demolition of the Church of St Peter, Birch.

My post below of 23rd October (2015) referred to the notification that Colchester Borough Council had received from the Planning Inspectorate about the Secretary of State's intention to hold a Non-Statutory Inquiry into the proposed demolition of the church. Reference was also made to the notice subsequently prepared by Colchester Borough Council, three copies of which were displayed near the church in early October. (The displayed copies were all removed on 23rd October but the notice can be viewed or downloaded by using this link.) Among other things the notice stated, 'It is currently anticipated that the Inquiry will take place in January 2016'.

I emailed the Planning Inspectorate on 24th October to express some concerns about the notice and its wording. After prompting, a reply was received on 19th November. In this the Inspectorate said, 'It was unfortunate that the notices were put up' and that 'they were of course put up in error'. The reply went on to say. 'The Planning Inspectorate will produce the Notice of the Public Inquiry as soon as (it has) firmed up the terms of reference with the Church Commissioners, secured a suitable venue and fixed on a date. Once the Notices have been sent (the Inspectorate) will require the Council to place these notices in suitable locations'.

In response to points I had raised, the Inspectorate advised, 'The Notice will make it clear that it is a public inquiry and will give an opportunity to make representations (whether in support or against) by a certain date.'

As at 19th November the Inspectorate was not in a position to be able to give a date or a venue for the Inquiry. The Inspectorate thought it unlikely it would be able to hold the Inquiry in January given that it will need to set reasonable timetables for the submission of evidence etc.

It does indeed look unlikely that the Inquiry will take place in January. Here we are nearly into December and, although the Secretary of State decided as long ago as July last year (2014) that an Inquiry should be held, the terms of reference for the Inquiry are still not agreed, let alone the date and venue. Efforts are being made to persuade the Inspectorate to hold the Inquiry in Birch Village Hall where it would be most accessible to local residents. It would not seem appropriate for the Inquiry to be held on Colchester Borough Council premises in view of the Council's strong vested interest, i.e. its formal objection to the Commissioners' draft Pastoral Scheme which is the subject of the Inquiry.   (Posted 21-11-15)


Non-Statutory Public Inquiry
into the demolition of the Church of St Peter, Birch.

Colchester Borough Council has received notification from the Planning Inspectorate of the Secretary of State's intention to hold a non-statutory inquiry into the demolition of the church. Copies of a notice about this, which appear to have been prepared by Colchester Borough Council, were posted near the church in early October 2015. Among other things the notice says 'It is currently anticipated that the Inquiry will take place in January 2016'. No information is given about the proposed venue but I was advised in 2014 by the Department for Communities and Local Government that the Inquiry would be held locally.

The above notice invites submissions from objectors to the Church Commissioners' draft Pastoral Scheme for demolition. The wording of the notice tends to suggest (incorrectly) that the Planning Inspectorate is only inviting objections to the draft Scheme; not submissions from those who support the Church Commissioners' Scheme. Use this link to view or download the notice posted in early October.

I have been given to understand the above notice is not the official notice of the Inquiry; the official notice, when published, will specify the date the Inquiry is to be held.

The Inquiry about the proposed demolition of the church is a referral under the Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011 and the Skelmersdale Agreement of 1986. According to a Church Commissioners' annual report published last year, this will be the first such Inquiry to be held in over 20 years. It is a very rare case and accordingly there is little, if any, case law to guide us as to how matters are likely to proceed.

After the Inquiry has taken place the Inspector will write a report which will contain his conclusions and make a recommendation on whether the proposed demolition should be permitted. The report will be sent to the Secretary of State to make the decision taking into account the Inspector's recommendation. If the Inspector's recommendation and the Secretary of State's decision are that the proposed demolition should be permitted that would appear to bring this long-standing matter to a conclusion. If the recommendation and decision are that the proposed demolition should not be permitted, what then?

In 2010 the Department for Culture, Media and Sport published Guidance on The Operation of the Ecclesiastical Exemption and related planning matters for places of worship in England. Paragraph 48 of the Guidance, which makes reference to the Skelmersdale Agreement, appears to be the most relevant and helpful in the present case of Birch church. That paragraph includes the following:

For Church of England church buildings which are closed for regular public worship, total demolition in pursuance of … a pastoral (church buildings disposal) scheme within the meaning of the Pastoral Measure 1983 is exempt from listed building control by virtue of section 60 (7) of the Act, and from conservation area control by a direction under section 75 (2). However, the Church Commissioners have agreed to ask the Secretary of State whether he wishes to hold a non-statutory public local inquiry into any such proposal for total or partial demolition (which would otherwise fall within the scope of those controls) where English Heritage, the Statutory Advisory Committee of the Church Buildings Council, the local planning authority or a national amenity society have lodged reasoned objections. The Church Commissioners have also undertaken to accept a recommendation from the Secretary of State following such an enquiry that the church is of sufficient importance to be vested in the Churches Conservation Trust or, in cases where the recommendation was not that the building should go to the Trust, to make further efforts to find an alternative use and to engage in further consultation with the Secretary of State before using the Pastoral Measure powers to demolish. In considering what recommendation to make, the Secretary of State will take into account the financial implications of retaining a church building as well as the architectural and historic interest of the church, and other planning and social factors, and will consult accordingly. These arrangements are known as the 'Skelmersdale Agreement'.

My reading of this, and I make no claim to be an expert in these matters, is that the Secretary of State has relatively limited powers even if, following an Inquiry, he recommends that a proposed demolition should not be permitted. He can recommend either "that the church is of sufficient importance to be vested in the Churches Conservation Trust" or, in cases where the recommendation was not that the building should go to the Trust, that the Church Commissioners "make further efforts to find an alternative use and engage in further consultation with the Secretary of State before using the Pastoral Measure powers to demolish."

It seems most unlikely the Secretary of State would make a recommendation that Birch church or its tower be vested in the Churches Conservation Trust. Neither the church nor its tower were considered to be of vesting standard over 17 years ago, when they were in substantially better condition than they are now. In 1998 the Church Commissioners sought the advice of the Advisory Board for Redundant Churches on a proposal to vest the tower of the church in the Churches Conservation Trust. In a letter to the Church Commissioners, dated 5 June 1998, the Secretary to the Board wrote:

Having reviewed the case the Board advised against vesting the tower in the CCT on the grounds that it was not considered to be of vesting standard in its own right.

While recognising the value of the church as a feature in the landscape, the Board remains of the view that the church as an entity is not of the standard worthy of vesting in the Churches Conservation Trust. As regards vesting the tower alone, I am directed to say that the Board does not consider it acceptable to use the CCT as an expedient to alleviate the financial problems of potential end users, particularly when neither the church nor the part proposed for vesting is considered to be of vesting standard.

The Commissioners asked the Board for some amplification of their above advice. Extracts of the Board's reply, in a letter dated 20th July 1998, are illuminating and can be viewed on the Heritage Rating page.

Assuming the Secretary of State does not make a recommendation that the church or its tower be vested in the Churches Conservation Trust, his only remaining option would appear to be to make a recommendation that the Commissioners "make further efforts to find an alternative use and to engage in further consultation with (him) before using the Pastoral Measure powers to demolish." The Commissioners have sought for many years to find a suitable alternative use for the building but without success. The only potential alternative use left on the table is the proposal of Mr and Mrs Cottee to convert the building into a five-bedroom home - a proposal which the Commissioners consider to be "not financially viable or sustainable" and which would lead to a further prolonged period of uncertainty about the future of the building. The Secretary of State does not have power to order the sale of the building to, say, Mr & Mrs Cottee or that they be granted permission to proceed with their proposals for residential development.

If, after all this, there is any plan to proceed with conversion of the church to residential use the Commissioners would first have to prepare a new draft Pastoral Scheme for residential development of the church. This Scheme would then have to go out for public consultation as before, and members of the public would have opportunity to make representation for and against the new scheme. That would undoubtedly lead to a further prolonged period of uncertainty about the future of the building.   (Posted 23-10-15)


Reference to the Secretary of State - Decision to Hold Public Inquiry

In late July last year 2014 the Secretary of State decided that a non-statutory public inquiry should be held in order to fully consider all the issues involved in the case. As at early August 2014 the file had been passed to the Planning Inspectorate to agree the terms of reference of the inquiry and to make the necessary arrangements.   (Post updated 23-10-15)


Reference to the Secretary of State

Further to the decision of the Church Commissioners' Church Buildings Committee on 18th December that the draft Pastoral Scheme for demolition should proceed (see below), the Ancient Monuments Society, the Victorian Society, Colchester Borough Council and English Heritage (being the statutory consultees) have all stated to the Commissioners that their objections still stand. The case, therefore, has now been referred to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The Commissioners submitted relevant documents to the Secretary of State in February. The Secretary of State has 12 weeks from receipt of the submission in which to form a view on whether to hold a public inquiry or hearing, or to agree that the Commissioners may proceed with the proposed demolition. We should expect to have his decision by the end of May.   (Update posted 02-04-14)


'A Church Without Walls'

The Parochial Church Council (PCC) of the parish of Layer Breton with Birch has discussed ideas for using the site of St Peter's church if the building is demolished. Ideas include using the space as an outdoor church with a Garden of Remembrance, set up in partnership with Birch Primary School and the local community. The PCC's proposals, which are shown in Appendix B at the foot of this page, were sent to the Church Commissioners following a meeting of the PCC with the Archdeacon of Colchester and Mr Nathan Whitehead, the Diocese's Pastoral Secretary.   (Update posted 07-02-14)


CNEEBPT Survey of Birch Residents' Views

On Saturday 25th January 2014 many Birch residents received through their letter boxes a four-page A5 format leaflet entitled 'survey', with the sub-title 'Colchester & NE Essex Building Preservation Trust'. The CNEEBPT was about to conduct a survey of Birch residents' views on the Cottee proposal for residential development of Birch church. The obvious aim of the survey was to produce a finding of 'overwhelming support' for the proposal.

We believe the survey was fundamentally flawed. Because of the manner in which it was conducted, we consider the exercise should more properly be described as a petition, rather than a survey. The responses were collected by Mr and Mrs Cottee who had the greatest personal interest in the results and were not averse to putting forward arguments in favour of their preferred option. At houses where they found no one at home they left a leaflet in which the term 'petition' appeared twice. The text included the statements: "we are seeking to find out the opinion of the residents of Birch by carrying out a petition" and "Unfortunately you were out when we knocked at your door with the petition … ". At the foot there was the statement: 'This leaflet was prepared and delivered by the Cottee Family'.

Other concerns about the survey/petition can be viewed on the CNEEBPT Survey page of this site.   (Update posted 02-04-14)


Church Commissioners' Decision on the Cottee Proposal

At its meeting on 18th December 2013, the Church Buildings (Uses and Disposals) Committee of the Church Commissioners reaffirmed its decision that the Draft Pastoral Scheme for the demolition of Birch church should proceed.

The Colchester and North East Essex Building Preservation Trust's (CNEEBPT's) viability study had demonstrated that the Trust's own proposals for residential development of the church were not financially viable. Also, in the Committee's view, the Cottee proposals (which were promoted and supported by the CNEEBPT) for converting the church into a large family home were not financially viable or sustainable and would lead to a further prolonged period of uncertainty about the future of the building.

The text of a letter dated 7th January 2014, received from the Church Commissioners, confirming the decision of its Church Buildings (Uses and Disposals) Committee at the meeting on 18th December is reproduced on the News page of this website.   (Update posted Jan 2014)




As explained below, in the Background section of this page, in January 2013 the Church Commissioners published a draft Pastoral (Church Buildings Disposal) Scheme which proposes that Birch church be demolished and that the site of the demolished building be incorporated into the churchyard as a garden of remembrance.

Because of objections to the draft Scheme, the Church Buildings (Uses and Disposals) Committee of the Church Commissioners met on 24th April 2013 and agreed that no action would be taken to commence demolition for a period of six months to allow the Colchester and North East Essex Building Preservation Trust (the CNEEBPT) to consider the feasibility of any proposals to preserve the tower and spire.

The CNEEBPT appointed a Working Group to carry out a feasibility study. The Working Group prepared a report, dated September 2013, for the Board of the CNEEBPT. A redacted version of this report was issued to members of Birch Parish Council when the Council met on October 1st, to provide Councillors with an update. David Balcombe, the CNEEBPT's Director, attended that meeting and explained that the main concern was the tower and spire. Between the courses of the spire's stonework are iron cramps which have corroded and caused cracking of the stonework. The budget for repairing the spire was £200,000.

Mr Balcombe went on to say the CNEEBPT had looked at three proposals for residential development but the estimated end values were insufficient for any of these to be viable. The CNEEBPT had then entered into discussions with 'development partners', two of which had expressed an interest and put forward proposals. The CNEEBPT preferred the proposal of Mr Gary Cottee of Tiptree, a Quantity Surveyor, who wanted to convert the church into a large family home.

The CNEEBPT organised an exhibition of its proposals for preserving the tower and spire of Birch Church. This was held in Birch Memorial Hall on 4th and 5th October 2013. The exhibition was disappointing. Most of the information displayed was about the failed attempts to find an alternative use for the church since its closure 23 years earlier and outline plans of the three proposals which had been found to be unviable. The only other exhibits were two outline plans of Mr Cottee's proposal. There was no supporting documentation about the proposal, or copy of the Working Group's report on its feasibility study, or handout that visitors could take away to read.

By the end of October 2013 the CNEEBPT had completed its Viability Study and produced a much fuller report than that disclosed to Birch Parish Council on 1st October. This later report, which recommended Option 4 (the Cottee proposal), was submitted to the Church Commissioners and to Chelmsford Diocese. The main body of the Trust's report has been published on the Trust's website and can be downloaded from the page www.colchesterbpt.co.uk/birch-church When the report was first published on the Trust's website, none of the appendices to the report were disclosed. On 29th January 2014 six of the appendices were made available on the website.

The Church Commissioners have carried out their own assessment of the viability of the Cottee proposal. This was considered by the Commissioners' Church Buildings (Uses and Disposals) Committee at its meeting on 18th December 2013. In the Committee's view, the Cottee proposals for converting the church into a large family home were not financially viable or sustainable and would lead to a further prolonged period of uncertainty about the future of the building. The Committee reaffirmed its decision that the Draft Pastoral Scheme for the demolition of Birch church should proceed, subject to a possible reference to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. (see text of a letter received from the Church Commissioners.) By early February 2014 we knew the case was being referred to the Secretary of State.

The CNEEBPT Birch Church Working Group Reports

In the information and comments below, reference is made to the 'September report', a redacted copy of which was given to Birch Parish Council on 1st October 2013, and the 'October' report which is available on the CNEEBPT's website and which was submitted to the Church Commissioners and Chelmsford Diocese.

The feasibility study, funded in part by the Architectural Heritage Fund, was limited to the examination of the financial viability of saving the church.

The CNEEBPT appointed the Morton Partnership to undertake an assessment of the condition of the spire and to report on matters of general condition. The September report stated that the essence of its findings were that:

Some of us who have lived in Birch for many years, and watched the steady deterioration of the building, were surprised by the finding that the church "is in reasonable structural condition". It was difficult for us to reconcile the assessment of the church being in a reasonable structural condition with the Condition Survey report prepared by Purcell Miller Tritton LLP in January 2012. Mr Morton's report was not made available for public inspection until late January 2014, when it was added to the Trust's website as a download. The first sentence of para. 2.1 of the October report states: "The building is in a very poor condition although it is structurally stable with the exception of one area of roof that could soon collapse." This conveys a rather different impression of the condition of the building than that given by the September report.

The Trust's Working Group looked at 4 development options, all of which incorporated the spire. The four options were described in the September report as follows:

The Trust commissioned cost reports for each of the first three options above. According to the September report, the estimated costs included landscaping, garaging, fees, partial demolition, a 5% contingency sum and VAT. Professional advice was sought on the potential sales values of these three options. In each case the cost of development far exceeded the estimated end values, leading the Working Group to conclude that these three options were unviable. If the Trust intended to develop the site itself, such a viability gap would prove difficult to resolve. Also, if the Trust planned to raise the project capital itself, selling the development upon completion, the proven non-viability would certainly fail to attract funders. Lower down this page are details of the Development Costs and End Values contained in the Trust's October report, and questions about inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the figures given.

The Trust's Option 4

As none of its own schemes had proved viable, the Working Group then approached potential 'development partners'. Approaches to several companies resulted in expressions of interest from two parties.

The identities of these parties were omitted in the redacted copies of the Working Group's September report. The October report identifies them as Mr GM & Mrs GT Cottee of Spring House, Ransom Road, Tiptree and Messrs Jason and Mark Harding of Harding Homes Ltd, 111 Crouch Street, Colchester. Mr Cottee is a Chartered Quantity Surveyor and a Director of Abacus Build (UK) Ltd of 6 Nags Corner, Nayland, Colchester CO6 4LT, a development company. According to the Working Group's September report, Abacus Build undertakes design and build and project management projects and has an annual turnover of around £4million.

Mr Cottee had produced a cost plan (which was attached to the full September report but not to the redacted version given to Birch Parish Council) and was reported to be confident that the development of the church could be achieved within its parameters. The cost plan and the associated sketch drawings (only one of which was disclosed to Birch Parish Council) indicated the retention of the majority of the church with demolition limited to the entire South aisle. The building would be enclosed by new glazed screen walls fitted between the exposed arches and a structural steel frame inside the building would be designed to be independent of the historic fabric and carry all the new loads for the inserted floors. The chancel would be restored as a single volume space without sub-division. This is the CNEEBPT's Option 4 which was displayed at the exhibition held on 4th/5th October 2013. Use the link to view or download an outline Plan of Option 4 (in PDF format).

The total project costs of Mr Cottee's scheme were estimated to be £1,209,000 inclusive of VAT and a 10% contingency sum.

At their meeting on 25th September, the Trustees of the CNEEBPT resolved that the outline proposal put forward by Mr & Mrs Cottee be accepted as the preferred scheme for Birch Church and that the Birch Church Working Group continue discussions with Mr Cottee to help refine the project prior to presentation to the Church Commissioners and Chelmsford Diocese.

It was pointed out by one visitor to the exhibition that there was inconsistency in the drawings displayed for Option 4. The plan views had the south aisle end walls and gables demolished, whereas the elevation views showed it remaining, which was misleading. In answer to this visitor's question, Mr Balcombe told him that he, Mr Balcombe, had proposed demolition but Mr Cottee had asked to keep them. The problems of doing that, with buttressing, and weatherproofing the plastered interior walls, had not been considered.

Relevant to the above issue is a letter of 5 February 2013, from the Senior Advisor of the Statutory Advisory Committee (SAC) to the Church Commissioners, which contains the following:
" … though the NW tower and W front form a single composition, whereas the NW tower is in principle a self-supporting structure, the W walls of the nave and S aisle are part of the nave which, if demolished, would leave the facade without any substantive means of support other than the tower. While it is not for the SAC to suggest how the facade walls might be supported, it was observed that not only could buttressing the W facade adversely affect its architectural quality, but it also had potential for high impacts on the archaeology of the site - notably the remains of the medieval church, its burials and churchyard. It was also observed that even if the facade could be preserved without unacceptable damage to the archaeology of the site, provision would be required for its future preservation, maintenance and repair."

There is a puzzling apparent inconsistency in descriptions of Option 4 in the October report. On pages 20/21 we read: "New, enclosing, external walls for the dwellings would sit outside of this grid so that the new fabric protected the historic fabric from the weather and allowed the glory of the original architecture to be seen from within the new internal spaces." On page 42 we read: "Most of the church fabric is kept and restored, retaining the appearance of the church largely intact when viewed from the North, East and West."

Development Costs and End Values

The costing information provided in the October report appeared to contain a number of inconsistencies and inaccuracies. This was surprising, appearing as it did in a formal report about a proposal for a project valued at over £1.2 million, submitted by a registered charity to the Church Commissioners. It did nothing to give one confidence in the reliability of the report or the professionalism of the submitting body.

The costings for Option 1, as set out on page 26 of the report, show 'VAT on fees' as £54,475. This, I believe, should be £58,475.

The costings for Option 1, as shown on page 26 of the report, and my amended figures (in red) are as follows:

Cost ItemReport figuresAmended figures
Construction costs£1,263,200£1,263,200
Fees @ 18%£227,376£227,376
Ecology£55,000£55,000
Archaeology£10,000£10,000
VAT on works£63,160£63,160
VAT on fees£54,475£58,475
Total cost£1,677,211£1,677,211

The End Value is given as £950,000, so the cost of development exceeds the End Value by £727,211.

The costings for Option 2A, as shown on page 30 of the report, are as follows:

Cost ItemReport figures
Construction costs£1,403,200
Fees @ 18%£252,576
Ecology£55,000
Archaeology£10,000
VAT on works£70,160
VAT on fees£63,515
Total cost£1,854,451

The End Value is given as £1,200,000, so the cost of development exceeds the End Value by £654,451.

The costings for Option 3, as set out on page 33 of the report, give the 'Construction costs' as £998,800. After studying figures shown on page 34, I believe this figure should be £938,800. If this figure is used for construction costs, then the fees and VAT figures almost fall into line.

The costings for Option 3, as shown on page 33 of the report, and my amended figures are as follows:

Cost ItemReport figuresAmended figures
Construction costs£998,800£938,800
Fees @ 18%£168,984£168,984
Ecology£55,000£55,000
Archaeology£10,000£10,000
VAT on works£46,940£46,940
VAT on fees£47,795£46,797
Total cost£1,226,571£1,266,521

The Total cost as shown in the report is therefore nearly £40,000 less than it should be if the calculations had been done correctly, despite the construction costs shown in the report being £60,000 greater than the correct figure. (If the figures for each cost item, as given in the report for Option 3, are added up correctly, the total cost comes to £1,327,519, not £1,226,571.)

The End Value is given as £700,000, so the cost of development exceeds the End Value by £566,521.

For each of the above three costings, the Trust has calculated VAT liability as 5% on construction costs and 20% on fees, ecology and archaeology costs.

The 'Projected costs' for each of the above three options, as set out in section 4.3.1. on page 34 of the report, are based on the assumption that fees on construction costs can be negotiated down from 18% to 12% in the current market.

In this section, for some unexplained reason, the construction costs shown for Options 1, 2A and 3 are different from those shown on pages 26, 30 and 33 respectively. Furthermore, the figures given for fees are not 12% of the relevant construction costs. In each case the figure for fees is at least £4,000 less than 12% of the relevant quoted construction costs. There is then a question as to why the costings on pages 26, 30 and 33 include VAT at 20% on Ecology and Archaeology fees, but no VAT at all on these fees is included in 'Projected costs'.

The 'Projected costs' as shown on page 34 are as follows:

Cost ItemOption 1Option 2AOption 3
Construction costs£1,260,000£1,400,000£939,000
Fees @ 12%£147,000£164,000£108,000
Ecology£55,000£55,000£55,000
Archaeology£10,000£10,000£10,000
VAT on works£63,000£70,000£47,000
VAT on fees£29,000£33,000£22,000
Total cost£1,567,500£1,735,500£1,180,400

If 'Projected costs' are calculated using the construction costs quoted on pages 26, 30 and 33, and on the same basis apart from a reduction in fees to 12%, the costs become those shown in the table below.

Cost ItemOption 1Option 2AOption 3
Construction costs£1,263,200£1,403,200£938,800
Fees @ 12%£151,584£168,384£112,656
Ecology£55,000£55,000£55,000
Archaeology£10,000£10,000£10,000
VAT on works£63,160£70,160£46,940
VAT on fees£43,317£46,677£35,531
Total cost£1,586,261£1,753,421£1,198,927

It could be argued that the costings for Options 1, 2A and 3 became academic as development costs exceed end values by so much that the Trust itself acknowledged none of these options was financially viable. However, the Trust clearly put a good deal of work into these costings (notwithstanding the inconsistencies referred to above) which provide a useful basis for comparison with costings for the Cottee proposal.

The costings for Option 4 - the Cottee proposal, as set out on page 42 of the report, show Construction costs at £1,040,917. Fees at 18% are shown as £40,000, but 18% of the construction costs is £187,365. VAT on works and fees appears to be based (approximately) on VAT at 5% on fees as well as construction costs but with no VAT liability on the ecology and archaeology fees.

The costings for Option 4, as shown on page 42 of the report, and amended figures calculated on the same basis as the costings for Options 1, 2A and 3 (with VAT on fees, ecology and archaeology @ 20%), are as follows:

Cost ItemReport figuresAmended figures
Construction costs£1,040,917£1,040,917
Fees @ 18%£40,000£187,365
Ecology£55,000£55,000
Archaeology£10,000£10,000
VAT on works£54,245£52,046
VAT on fees£50,473
Total cost£1,209,164£1,395,801

The recalculated total cost is £186,637 greater than that shown in the report. Even allowing for the ability of Mr Cottee, through his business contacts, to substantially reduce the cost of fees, the revised total cost suggested that considerably more finance would be required for the project than was shown in the report and for which provision needed to be made.

Fenn Wright's estimate of End Value is given as between £950,000 and £1 million.

As explained above, the development costs of the Trust's options 1, 2A and 3, discounting any grants and based on fees at 18%, exceed the estimated end values by £727,211, £654,451 and £566,571 respectively. Calculating costs for the Cottee proposal on the same basis, as shown in the amended figures column of the above table, the total development cost exceeds the estimated end value by between £445,801 and £395,801. This does not appear to sit easily with Mr Cottee's letter of 9th September 2013 to the Trust, in which he says: " … our expectation is that the development costs should not exceed the approximate end value".

On the other hand, if the total development cost of Mr Cottee's proposal is £1,209,164, as shown in the October report, then this cost exceeds Fenn Wright's estimated end value by only between £209,164 and £259,164. How can it be that Mr Cottee is able to reduce the gap between the development cost and end value of his proposal to less than half of what the Trust could achieve with any of its own professionally costed three options?

The Trust's viability report states that Mr Cottee has produced a cost plan and is confident that the development of the church can be achieved within its parameters. Mr Balcombe has given the impression that Mr Cottee has costed the project very carefully. However, the Trust's report states on page 44 "there are at this stage many abnormal risks in undertaking this project such as the uncertainty of gaining planning permission and LBC for a scheme that involves substantial demolition and alteration, the precise extent and cost of the structural repairs required to the Spire, the duration, complexity and cost of site acquisition and rights of access, the unknown issues surrounding any below-ground archaeology and burials, the possibility of having to manage the relocation of protected species and creation of suitable, alternative habitats and the abnormal cost of gaining a temporary access to the site in order to limit the disruption of site traffic and operations on neighbours and the local community". Is the £1,209,164 costing given in the report realistic, given all these uncertainties and the well known fact that restoration or redevelopment of a historic building often proves much more costly than originally planned, once building work commences and hidden defects are revealed?

Development costs per square metre of floor area are also worth noting in considering the financial viability of the Cottee proposal. These costs are not quoted for Options 1, 2A and 3 in the October report, although they were in the September version. However, they can be calculated from information contained in the October report. For the purposes of comparison one should use the costs based on fees at 18% of construction costs as this is the percentage quoted for fees in the Cottee proposal costing on page 42. Using the floor areas quoted in the text of the October report (another inconsistency is that the floor areas quoted in the text differ from those quoted on the plan drawings - see note below), the development costs are as follows:

OPTION 1 - £1,677,211 ÷ (232 + 55 + 110) = £4,225 per m²
OPTION 2A - £1,854,451 ÷ (232 + 150) = £4,855 per m²
OPTION 3 - £1,266,521 ÷ 232 = £5,459 per m²
(No floor area is specified in the text for Option 3, but it appears to be as Spire House in Option 2A - i.e. 232m²).

No floor area for Option 4, the Cottee proposal, is given in the text. On page 38 of the October report the development cost is given as £2,200 per m² gross internal floor area, about half or less than the cost for Options 1, 2A or 3. Is there any rational explanation for such a large difference between the cost per m² of Mr Cottee's proposal and the costs for each of the other three options?

(Note: The Option 1 drawing in the report has a note: ground floor 182.33 m², first floor 118.21 m², second floor 12.06 m², total 312.59 m². The report text gives floor area as 232 m² + 55 m² + 110 m² (total 397 m²), an 84.4 m² difference.
The Option 2A drawing in the report has a note: Birch Spire House: ground floor 81.29 m², first floor 81.29 m², second floor 12.06 m²; Chancel House: ground floor 98 m², first floor 86 m², (total 358.64 m²). The report text gives floor area as 232 m² + 150 m² (total 382 m²), an 23.4 m² difference.
The Option 3 drawing in the report has a note: Birch Spire House: ground floor 81.29 m², first floor 81.29 m², second floor 12.06 m², total 174.64 m². No floor area is given in the report text, but as the floor areas quoted for Spire House on the drawings for Options 2A and 3 are identical, it seems reasonable to assume that if the floor area had been quoted in the text it would be the same as for Spire House in Option 2A, i.e. 232 m², which would give a 57.4 m² difference.)

Other Points Arising From The Reports

Expectation of a 'Reverse Premium': The Trust expected Mr Cottee to receive from the Church a grant at least equivalent to the cost of total demolition, associated costs and layout of the memorial garden. The September report noted that the Trust did not yet know if the Diocese and the Church Commissioners would agree to a 'reverse premium' on disposal. However, as guidance, the various costs to the Church, if it elected to demolish the building and establish a 'memorial garden', were considered likely to be in the order of various figures which were omitted in the version of that report seen by Birch Parish Council. The costs listed in the report's calculation were (i) Total demolition, (ii) Ecology reports and mitigation, (iii) Archaeology watching brief and building record, (iv) Temporary site access during demolition works, (v) Loss of Crop payment, (vi) Soft capping outline of church walls (11O metres at £45 per metre), (vii) Landscaping, (viii) Freestanding interpretation board, and (ix) Benches and foundations.

The brazenness of seeking a reverse premium based on this catalogue of costs was only exceeded in the September report by a comment which looked not far removed from blackmail: "Should the Church reject our case for a 'reverse premium' it is possible that both submissions may be withdrawn." This threat does not appear in the October version of the report but, now we know the size of the reverse premium that was sought, one can understand how important it was to the funding of the Cottee proposal.

At the exhibition on 4th October I asked Mr Balcombe what he believed to be the cost of demolition. He told me the estimates he had received were each in the region of £35,000. Adding the other eight costs listed above, I assumed the Trust was perhaps holding out to Mr Cottee the hope of a reverse premium in the order of £40,000 to £50,000. The October report revealed that Mr Cottee and the Trust were seeking a contribution from Chelmsford Diocese of £180,800: four times my rough estimate.

I did point out to Mr Balcombe that he had raised the issue of a reverse premium at the Church Commissioners' meeting in April. There he had said "the Trust … were assuming that they could acquire the building at a token value and also receive a sum equivalent to the costs of demolition" (see para. 31). The Commissioners had responded by saying "On the matter raised by the Colchester and North East Essex Preservation Trust that if they acquire the building they should receive the amount that it would have cost to demolish, the Archdeacon confirmed that the provisional estimates the Diocese had received suggested that demolition could be achieved at nil cost" (see para. 54). Mr Balcombe appeared quite unabashed when I reminded him of this.

It has since been confirmed to me that Chelmsford Diocese will not agree to any reverse premium.

Planning Consents: Mr Cottee's proposal is dependent upon winning planning approval and Listed Building Consent for the works, ahead of acquisition. There is no doubt that local residents would lodge objections if an application was made for Planning Approval.

Report Recommendations: Two of the Trust's recommendations, appearing in both the September and October reports, were:
 • "That detailed enquiries are made to establish the ability of Mr Cottee to finance the project."
When asked on 4th October, Mr Balcombe confirmed to me that he did not yet know whether Mr Cottee was in a position to finance the project.

 • "That consideration be given for the setting aside of a financial bond of an appropriate amount to be held in a place to be agreed that may be used by the BPT or Colchester Borough Council or Chelmsford Diocese to secure the weather-tightness and stability of the building should works on site cease for any reason prior to the completion of these works."
Birch residents had a concern as to what might happen if Mr Cottee (or another developer) acquired the building and site, commenced conversion, and then encountered insuperable obstacles, financial or otherwise, to bringing the project to a satisfactory conclusion. There was a fear that there would then be a demand for enabling development (i.e. building more houses) either in or adjacent to the churchyard. That is something which most Birch residents would definitely not wish to see.
At the exhibition I asked Mr Balcombe about the likely value of such a financial bond. He appeared to suggest that initially it should be somewhere approaching the total cost of the project, gradually reducing as the building work progressed. How, one wonders, would Mr Cottee have managed to secure funding for such a large bond at the start of the project when, unlike a conventional mortgage, a lender would have no asset as security for the loan.
At the meeting of Birch Parish Council on 4th February Mr Cottee said that the intention now was to arrange an escrow account, not a bond, to guarantee funding for the work.

The Sustainability Issue

The only justification for allowing residential development of the church would be as a means of preserving the tower and spire. The question then arises of the historic interest and architectural quality of the tower and spire. How important is their preservation?

In 1998 the Church Commissioners sought an opinion on these matters from the Advisory Board for Redundant Churches. The Board's letter of 20th July 1998 to the Commissioners stated that "the Board did not consider the tower and spire to be of notable historic interest". Neither did the Board consider the architectural quality of the tower and spire to be of significant local or national importance. "It was the Board's view that the tower and spire were neither distinctive in terms of their interest and quality, nor of such national importance to merit preservation … ." The letter concluded with the opinion that "the overall importance of the tower and spire of Birch … rests almost entirely on its value as a feature in the landscape. As part of a larger structure, the Board did not consider the tower and spire to be distinctive, nor indeed distinguishable from the quality and interest of the church as a whole."

In summary, the tower and spire are neither of notable historic interest nor of special architectural merit. Their importance rests almost entirely on their value as a feature of the landscape.

If residential development of the church can only be justified as a means of preserving the tower and spire, it is essential that any scheme for such development must include secure and sustainable provision for the future preservation, maintenance and repair of the tower and spire.

Can such provision for the 110 foot high structure's future care and maintenance be guaranteed in the medium to long term, under private ownership? Will there be covenants in any transfer deed requiring owners to maintain the tower and spire in good order, and prohibiting demolition for, say, 99 years? Even if such covenants were in place, what certainty can there be that owners of the property would have the will and the financial resources to comply with them.

The Views and Wishes of the Local Community

There is no question that most people consider the spire of Birch church to be a notable and attractive landmark. Most people, not least the residents of Birch, would be sorry to see it disappear. There is, however, no prospect of preserving the tower and spire on their own. The only options are either the demolition of the church and the creation of a garden of remembrance on its footprint OR the residential development sought by Mr & Mrs Cottee.

There is a pastoral concern about the appropriateness of converting the church into a large family home, situated as it is in an open churchyard still used for burials and where people regularly visit the graves of relatives. The church is situated entirely within the churchyard and close to its entrance. Every funeral cortege has to pass close to it on the way to a grave. That cannot be a satisfactory arrangement either for prospective occupants of the dwelling or for mourners passing to and from a burial. Would a large family residence, situated in such a prominent position in Birch churchyard, really be conducive to, or consistent with, the peace and dignity which should be defining features of any graveyard, of a sacred place where loved ones are laid finally to rest?

Mr Balcombe, Director of the CNEEBPT, has consistently promoted the view that there is strong local support for his Trust's proposals. On the 'Latest News' page of the Trust's website, referring to the exhibition held on 4th/5th October, is the statement "Approximately 85 people visited the exhibition and 'the vast majority' approved of the proposals to save the church through its conversion to a single house." On page 47 of the Trust's viability report, is the claim that its project "has overwhelming local support".

What are the facts about local support for the Cottee proposal? The October version of the Trust's viability report, on page 46, referring to the exhibition held on 4th/5th October, has the following: "attendees were invited to fill out a response form and 26 people did so on the day. A single form was later posted to the trust and 2 people emailed the trust with comments after the exhibition. … 23 respondents wanted the church/ spire to be saved. 3 respondents wanted the church demolished and 2 responses raised questions that were not adequately addressed within the exhibition/ at the event." The Chair of Birch Parish Council has confirmed to me that when Mr Balcombe opened the comments box in her presence, only 19 comments were in favour of his scheme, 6 were against and 2 were undecided. If out of approximately 85 visitors, only 19 expressed support for the Cottee proposal, then the level of expressed support is less than 23% or a quarter. If one accepts Mr Balcombe's figure of 23 respondents supporting the Cottee proposal, then the level of support is still only 27%. This cannot by any stretch of the imagination be interpreted as the 'vast majority' approving the Cottee proposal or 'overwhelming local support'.

Despite arranging its exhibition last October to show Birch residents the Cottee proposal, and to give us an opportunity to express our views on it, the Trust is now (late January/early February) carrying out a door to door survey in the village to show there is overwhelming support for its proposal. No doubt that is what the results of this survey will suggest. Ask anyone 'would you like to save the tower and spire?' and the answer will be 'yes'. Ask whether they support the conversion of the church into a large private family residence in the churchyard which is still used for burials, and the answer may well be rather different. Some of us consider the survey to be seriously flawed and the information provided in the survey leaflet to be potentially very misleading. Our reasons for questioning the validity and need of the survey are set out on the CNEEBPT Survey page.

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Background

St Peter's Church, Birch, in the county of Essex, was formally closed for public worship over 27 years ago, for safety reasons related to the poor state of the building. Over the intervening years various attempts have been made to seek an alternative use for the building which would preserve it for the future. All have failed and the Church Commissioners now propose to demolish the building.

Pastoral Scheme for Demolition

In early January 2013 the Church Commissioners published a draft Pastoral (Church Buildings Disposal) Scheme which proposed that the Chelmsford Diocesan Board of Finance demolish St Peter's church and dispose of the materials of demolition, and that the site of the demolished building becomes part of the churchyard.

The site of St Peter's would be commemorated by retaining the outline of its walls within which would be, as a local amenity, an area with benches and an information board giving the history of the site. All tombstones within the vicinity of the building would be protected from accidental damage during the demolition. The contents of the building (including the stained glass windows) would be relocated in accordance with the directions of the Bishop of Chelmsford.

The published text of the draft Scheme is reproduced as Appendix A at the foot of this page.

Representations to the Church Commissioners

When the Church Commissioners published their draft Scheme for demolition, they invited representations on it. They received eleven representations: four in favour of the draft Scheme, six against, and a letter of comment from English Heritage.

The four representations in favour of the Scheme for demolition were made by people who live in the parish of Birch and who have lived here for several years.

Of the six representations against the Scheme, two were made by individuals with Birch connections. One of these subsequently advised the Commissioners that while she supported proposals to retain the tower and spire, and the use of the demolished parts to a quiet area adjoining the churchyard, "she would find any conversion or change of use of the sacred place of worship deeply disturbing" (see Statement para. 24).

The other four representations against the Scheme for demolition were made by Colchester Borough Council, the Colchester and North East Essex Building Preservation Trust, the Victorian Society and the Ancient Monuments Society - all corporate bodies, the latter two based in London.

These representations were considered at a meeting of the Commissioners' Church Buildings (Uses and Disposals) Committee, held in London on 24th April 2013, when representors had opportunity to speak on their submissions. The Committee also considered the response of the Diocese of Chelmsford to the representations. The Archdeacon of Colchester, speaking for the Diocese, "confirmed that the PCC (Parochial Church Council of the Parish of Layer Breton with Birch) were solidly in favour of the demolition proposals" (see Statement para. 55).

The Decision of the Church Commissioners
on the Draft Scheme

Following their meeting on 24th April the Commissioners decided that the draft Scheme, providing for the demolition of the closed church building of Birch St Peter and the incorporation of the site of the demolished building into the surrounding churchyard, should proceed notwithstanding the representations made against it. However, they "agreed that no action will be taken to commence the demolition of the building for a period of six months (from the date of their meeting) to allow for the Colchester and North East Essex Building Preservation Trust (CNEEBPT) to consider the feasibility of any proposals to preserve the tower and spire" (see Statement para. 2).

The Commissioners issued representors with a Statement setting out the full reasons for their decision. The text of that document is reproduced on the Statement page of this website. Although lengthy, the Statement merits detailed study. It provides a good history of the various efforts to find an alternative use for the building since its closure. The Statement also sets out the arguments put forward in the representations made against and in favour of the Scheme, and the many factors the Commissioners took into account in reaching their decision.

Proposals for Preserving the Tower and Spire

At the Church Commissioners' meeting on 24th April, David Balcombe, Director of the CNEEBPT, presented two illustrative plans, the first preserving only the tower and western end of the nave through the creation of a single residential dwelling, the second preserving also the chancel either as additional accommodation or as a second dwelling (see Statement para. 29).

At the meeting on 24th April Mr Balcombe confirmed that his Trust's "proposal intended the ownership of the tower and spire and responsibility for its future maintenance to pass to the owners of the new house" (see para. 33). He confirmed this intention during a public meeting held in Birch Memorial Hall on 7th June.

At the public meeting on 7th June, it was revealed that the Trust's proposals included acquisition of the part of the churchyard lying on the south side of the church, for a garden for the proposed residential dwelling(s). The twenty marked graves (all over 100 years old) in this part of the churchyard would be removed.

The CNEEBPT's Feasibility Study

The CNEEBPT set up the Birch Church Working Group to carry out a feasibility study of its proposals for preserving the church tower and spire. Members of the Group were David Balcombe, six of the CNEEBPT's trustees, and Libby Kirkby-Taylor (an officer of Colchester Borough Council).

On Thursday, 4th July, a structural survey of the tower and spire was carried out by Mr Edward Morton, Managing Director of the Morton Partnership. According to the Working Group's report Mr Morton found that the church is in a reasonable structural condition with no signs of instability. The term 'reasonable' is open to very wide interpretation and many Birch residents were more than a little surprised by this assessment.

In September 2013 the Working Group prepared a report for the Board of the CNEEBPT. The Group had looked at four development options, all incorporating the spire. The three development options devised by the Trust itself were found to be unviable because in each case the cost of development far exceeded the estimated end value. The fourth option was a proposal of one of CNEEBPT's 'development partners', Mr Cottee of Tiptree, to convert the church into a large family home. The Working Group recommended to the CNEEBPT Board that Mr Cottee's outline proposal be accepted as the preferred scheme for Birch church.

The CNEEBPT staged a public exhibition in Birch Memorial Hall on October 4th and 5th (2013) to explain the outcome of its feasibility study and the proposal for residential development of Birch church. Details are provided in above sections of this page.

By the end of October the CNEEBPT had completed its Viability Study and produced a much fuller report than that produced in September. The October report, which recommended Option 4 (the Cottee proposal), was submitted to the Church Commissioners and to Chelmsford Diocese. This proposal was considered by the Church Buildings (Uses and Disposals) Committee of the Church Commissioners when it met on 18th December 2013. The Committee did not consider the Cottee proposal for residential development to be financially viable or sustainable and reaffirmed its decision that the Draft Pastoral Scheme for the demolition of Birch church should proceed (see text of a letter received from the Church Commissioners.) Because statutory consultees are sustaining their objections to the draft Scheme, the Commissioners are now referring the case to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. His decision is expected by mid-May.



Appendix A

The published text of the Church Commissioners' draft Pastoral Scheme, proposing the demolition of St Peter's church, Birch, is as follows:

Draft Pastoral (Church Buildings Disposal) Scheme

This Scheme is made by the Church Commissioners ("the Commissioners") this ............. day of ................................................ 20....... in pursuance of the Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011.

Whereas:-

1.   By a Scheme of the Commissioners made pursuant to the Pastoral Measure 1983 and confirmed by Her Majesty in Council by and with the advice of Her Majesty's Privy Council on the 31st day of October 1990 the parish church of Saint Peter, in the former parish of Birch with Layer Breton in the diocese of Chelmsford ("the building") was declared closed for regular public worship and the church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Layer Breton was substituted as the parish church.

2.   A suitable use has not been found for the building and it does not appear to the Commissioners, after consultation with the then Advisory Board for Redundant Churches, that the closed building is of such historic and archaeological interest or architectural quality that it ought to be preserved in the interests of the nation and the Church of England.

Now, therefore, it is hereby provided as follows:-

Demolition

1.   The Chelmsford Diocesan Board of Finance shall demolish the building and shall dispose of the materials arising from the demolition.

Disposal

2.   The site of the building shall be appropriated to use as part of the churchyard annexed or belonging thereto.

3.   The contents of the building, excluding the tombstones, monuments and memorials, shall be disposed of as the Bishop shall direct subject to listed building consent being granted.

4.   This Scheme shall come into operation on such date as the Commissioners shall determine following the making of this Scheme by the Commissioners.

In witness whereof the Church Commissioners have caused their Common Seal to be hereunto affixed.

Executed as a Deed by the    )
affixing of the Common Seal  )
of the Church Commissioners  )
in the presence of:-        )


Appendix B — 'A Church Without Walls'

Proposal from the Parochial Church Council of Layer Breton with Birch
for future use of St Peter's Church site.

We would like to see this geographical space reclaimed as a place of worship for the community, a church without walls.

The area where the church currently stands could be made into a garden, planted by members of the church, the school and the community, which might include:

This area could be used for worship by the school and the 'Messy Church' currently meeting monthly in the school.

It could also be used for:

Partnerships could be developed with other local groups, e.g. conservation and wildlife, Birch Art Gallery.

Reclaiming the land on which St Peter's stands for worship could help to heal some of the wounds created by the closure of the church, maintain a visible Christian presence in the village, and be a focal point for the development of our mission and ministry to this community.


Appendix C — Public Inquiry Terms of Reference

The Terms of Reference for the Public Inquiry, as issued at the Pre-Inquiry Meeting held on 28th July 2016 and re-issued on 6th February 2018, are as follows:

St Peter and St Paul's Church, Birch, Colchester, Essex

App Ref APP/NPCU/RARE/A1530/73500

Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011: Draft Pastoral (Church Buildings Disposal) Scheme affecting the closed Grade II Church of St Peter, Birch

The Secretary of State's preliminary views on the terms of reference for the holding of a non-statutory Inquiry are as follows, and are set out as the matters about which he wishes to be informed for the purposes of considering the proposed demolition of the church, including investigation of its viability, and any other relevant considerations, and making a recommendation to the Church Commissioners:

(i) The special architectural, historic or archaeological interest of the Church of St Peter and St Paul, Birch, including its contribution to the Birch Village Conservation Area and the surrounding area;

(ii) The effect of the proposed demolition on the character or appearance of the Birch Village Conservation Area;

(iii) The structural condition of the building and its internal features, and the extent of work required to restore the building, or part of it, the practicality and likely cost of such restoration, and whether such restoration is financially viable;

(iv) The prospects and practicality of finding a suitable alternative use for the building, or part of it, with or without adaptation, the practicality and likely cost of any alternative use(s), and whether any such alternative use(s) is/are financially viable;

(v) The views of neighbours and other interested people on the proposed demolition and potential alternative uses;

(vi) The significance of preserving, appropriating to other uses, or demolishing the building, in relation to the work of the Church of England within the parish of Birch with Layer Breton and the Diocese of Chelmsford;

(vii) Whether the demolition should be allowed, or whether the Church should be vested in the Church Conservation Trust, its suitability for such vesting, and the financial implications of such vesting, or, whether, although it should not be vested, further efforts should be made to secure its preservation; and

(viii) Any other related matters including other planning and social factors which the Inspector appointed to hold the non-statutory Inquiry wishes to raise.

The Secretary of State intends to hold the non-statutory Inquiry in the spirit of The Town and Country Planning (Inquiries Procedure) (England) Rules 2000, Statutory Instrument 2000/1624 (as amended).

Relevant guidance on the Procedure is set out in PINS' Procedural Guide: Called-In Planning applications - England 23 March 2016.

6 May 2016