The Future of Birch Church

News including Press and Media Coverage (most recent first)

Letter in the Essex County Standard from The Church Commissioners

Essex County Standard 13 July 2018. Page 13

(The letter is the Commissioners' response to the article published in the June 22nd issue of the Essex County Standard. The text of that article is shown in the following section of this page.)

Church public inquiry on hold

I am responding to your recent article concerning the former church building at Birch, which has not been used for more than 20 years.

The reason the Church Commissioners have pressed the pause button on the public inquiry, which was to consider the proposed demolition of the building, is solely because the promoter of the alternative proposal for a residential dwelling has not produced any detailed information.

It became impossible for the Commissioners to prepare any evidence for the inquiry in the absence of detailed specifications and, faced with the mounting inquiry costs, were left with no alternative but to withdraw the demolition proposal for the time being.

If the developer uses this pause to obtain planning and listed building consent and prepares detailed specifications for the work, the Church Commissioners will at that point consider their position.

Paul Lewis
Church Commissioners for England


Article in The Essex County Standard

Essex County Standard June 22, 2018 Page 4

Under threat Church saved
Building spared from demolition

AN HISTORIC church which was earmarked for demolition in a bid to make way for new homes has been saved.

A final decision on the future of the Church of St Peter and St Paul, in Birch, was due to be made after a public inquiry in October.

But campaigners have now been sent a letter stating the demolition plans, put forward by the Church Commissioners for England, have been scrapped.

It means initial plans to convert the Grade II listed building - which was declared redundant in 1990 - into a home could be back on the table.

The letter, which was sent by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, states: "I write to inform you that the referral of the draft scheme for the proposed demolition of the closed Church of Birch St Peter, to the Secretary of State, has been withdrawn by the Church Commissioners for England.

"I confirm that the Secretary of State's interest in the matter has now concluded and the case will be closed."

Tim Young, a Colchester councillor who married Birch girl Julie Young in the church 33 years ago, was part of a campaign group to fight the plans.

He said: "We are absolutely delighted that the church we were married in is not going to be demolished.

"What's strange is, there doesn't appear to be any reason why the church commissioners have changed their mind.

"We were all gearing up for the inquiry in October but it looks like that won't be necessary now."

The Diocese of Chelmsford and the Colchester and North East Essex Building Preservation Trust had spearheaded a campaign calling for the church to be saved.

Simon Hall MBE, chair of the North East Essex Building Preservation Trust, said: "We are yet to obtain the reasoning behind the decision but I believe there has been a recognition that if planning permission is given for the plans to turn it into a dwelling is granted, it would make the demolition plan somewhat obsolete.

He added: "It has been a very long process and the building preservation trust has incurred significant expenses, as indeed has the church and it is a shame that money had to be wasted when we could have come to this situation consensually some years ago at no cost to anyone."


COMMENT:

The above report is misleading and inaccurate in a number of respects.

We are still very much in the dark about what is likely to happen now. The one thing we can be fairly sure of is that the future of the building is likely to remain unresolved for some time yet.


Referral Back to the Secretary of State - Decision Issued

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 saying that the Secretary of State has decided that an inquiry, as originally directed in his decision letter dated 18 July 2014, remains the appropriate mode of determination in this matter. The Planning Inspectorate will now be instructed to proceed with the inquiry arrangements. More details can be found in the News Update of 8th December 2017 on the HOME page.


Non-Statutory Public Inquiry - Pre-Inquiry Meeting held on 28th July 2016

A Pre-Inquiry Meeting was held at Colchester on Thursday 28th July 2016. Information about the meeting can be found on the HOME page in the section entitled Pre-Inquiry Meeting.


Article in East Anglian Daily Times

East Anglian Daily Times 13 February 2014

Birch: Campaigners fear a 170-year-old church will be demolished despite there being a viable scheme to save it

Campaigners fear a 170-year-old church will be demolished despite there being a viable scheme to save it.

The Grade II-listed St Peter and St Paul's church in Birch, near Colchester, which closed in 1990, has stood empty for almost 25 years and has fallen into disrepair.

The Diocese of Chelmsford, which looks after the Church of England's affairs in Essex, says it has been unable to find a suitable alternative use for the historic building in that time. Now Church Commissioners have earmarked it for demolition, a decision that has to rubber stamped by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government before it can go ahead.

But Heritage groups, such as The Victorian Society and the Colchester and North East Essex Building Preservation Trust, say church bosses should reconsider their decision in the light of potential new customers - Gary Cottee and his family - coming forward, who want to restore and convert it into a home.

According to Mr Cottee, a local builder, his designs involve removing the southern aisle of the church but keeping the spire and main facades in place. He says the vast majority of people in the village are supportive of his plans.

"There are some people who only want to see a church used for its original purposes but most people understand the landmark can only be preserved by finding an alternative use," he said.

"I would like to restore the building for my family to live in and not for profit to sell on."

However, Church Commissioners have decided this current plan is not "viable or sustainable" - a view that has angered conservation groups.

"We are mystified at the decision of the Church Commissioners to press ahead with the demolition of St Peter's, a beautiful and nationally important building when there is now a viable scheme for its preservation," said Tom Ashley, a churches conservation adviser at the Victorian Society.

A spokesman for the Chelmsford Diocese said the organisation supported the demolition plans and added: "St Peter's church building in Birch has been closed and not used for worship for nearly 25 years. During this time Chelmsford Diocese has consulted with interested parties such as local councils and other representative organisations and invited them to make suggestions as to how the building might be used. However, in spite of several major efforts, a suitable alternative has not been found."

She added: "The Closed Churches Committee of the Church Commissioners decided that the recent proposals to convert the building into a home were not financially viable or sustainable, and would have led to a further lengthy period of uncertainty about the future of the church.

"The final decision and next steps depend on Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government."


Letter from Local Residents

Essex County Standard 24 January 2014. Page 26

Vandalism accusation is totally unwarranted

As Birch residents, we cannot allow last Friday's article about Birch Church (County Standard, January 17) to pass without comment.
For David Balcombe to accuse the Church Commissioners of "wanton vandalism" and say "they should not be allowed to get away with it" is quite disgraceful and totally unwarranted.
The Commissioners are a highly responsible body who have long and extensive experience of dealing with church buildings.
Mr Balcombe and his Trust, by their own admission, have no previous experience of dealing with a redundant church.
One cannot doubt that the Commissioners will have given very full and careful consideration to all aspects of Mr and Mrs Cottee's proposals before coming to a view that they were not financially viable or sustainable.
The Commissioners' decision is not a great surprise. All previous proposals for saving Birch Church have ultimately proved non-viable.
In the course of its viability study last summer, Mr Balcombe's Trust drew up three different schemes for residential development of the building. The trust's own study report showed that for each of these carefully costed schemes, the cost of development exceeded end value by more than half a million pounds. It was this finding that prompted the Trust to approach potential "development partners" and which led to Mr and Mrs Cottee's proposal.
Mr Balcombe seeks to divert attention from the weaknesses of the Cottee proposal by blaming the Commissioners and Birch residents for the failure of his rescue plan.
The root causes of the failure are the inappropriateness of siting a large private home within an open churchyard still used for burials and proposals which, all along, we have believed to be financially non-viable and unsustainable; an assessment now confirmed by the Commissioners.

Richard Carr, Geoffrey and Dianne Carr, John and Lyn Daniels, John and Stephanie Windsor.


Article in Essex County Standard

Essex County Standard 17 January 2014 Page 5

Diocese's stance on spire is a case of wanton vandalism
Anger as church rules against saving historic village structure

A nine-month battle to save a church from demolition has failed.
The Colchester and North East Essex Building Preservation Trust described the decision to knock down St Peter's Church in Birch as "wanton vandalism".
The trust has been trying to come up with ways to save the church since the Church Commissioners and Chelmsford Diocese threatened to have the building demolished.
Last October, developer Gary Cottee said he would be willing to buy and restore the Grade II-listed building and turn it into a home.
But the Church Commissioners and Diocese say Mr Cottee's proposal is "not financially viable or sustainable" and will press ahead with demolition.
David Balcombe, preservation trust director, said: "This is a bitter disappointment. We have worked hard over the past nine months to find solutions to securing the preservation of the Grade II-listed building.
"We remain convinced the sale of the site to Mr and Mrs Cottee would be the best outcome for the heritage of Birch and the preservation of the Conservation Area and the landscape.
"Demolition is an entirely negative response to the problem and one that cannot be undone. The village will be the poorer for its loss and future generations will be denied an important, physical link to the past."
The church, which has an iconic 35-metre spire, was declared redundant in 1990.
Objections have also been made by a number of national amenity societies.
Mr Balcombe said it was understood if those remained, the Diocese would be obliged to refer the matter to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles.
He could then call for an informal planning inquiry.
Mr Balcombe added: "We hope an inquiry takes place as we are sure an independent inspector will find in our favour. It is incredible a few local people are actively campaigning to demolish a part of our heritage. I do not doubt the self-belief of these people, but the mission of our trust is to help to preserve the best of our built environment.
"We have lost so much in the past out of ignorance, greed or in the name of progress, but here we have a clear case of wanton vandalism. They should not be allowed to get away with it."
It is expected the case will be sent to the Government shortly and it will be known within two months if an inquiry will be held.
The trust has rejected the Commissioners' explanation.
It says Mr Cottee could buy the building shortly and work could start as soon as January next year.
A spokesman for Chelmsford Diocese said: The resident's (this should probably read 'residential') proposals were not financially viable or sustainable.
"They would have led to a further lengthy period of uncertainty about the future of the building. This would not have been good for anyone."


COMMENT on the above report:

The 'anger' referred to in the sub-heading of the article would appear to be primarily that of Mr Balcombe. It is certainly not shared by those Birch residents who are familiar with the local situation and the recent history of the building.

To accuse the Commissioners of "wanton vandalism" and say "they should not be allowed to get away with it" is quite disgraceful and totally unwarranted. The Commissioners are a highly responsible body who have long and extensive experience of dealing with church buildings - experience which Mr Balcombe and the Building Preservation Trust do not possess. No one should doubt that the Commissioners will have given very full and careful consideration to all aspects of the proposals from Mr and Mrs Cottee before coming to their view that they were not financially viable or sustainable and that the draft Scheme should proceed.

The Commissioners' decision is not a great surprise. All previous proposals for saving Birch Church have ultimately proved unviable. In the course of its viability study last summer, Mr Balcombe's trust drew up three different schemes for residential development of the building. The trust's own study report showed that for each of these carefully costed schemes, the cost of development exceeded end value by more than half a million pounds. It was this finding that prompted the trust to approach potential 'development partners' and which led to Mr & Mrs Cottee's proposal.

Mr Balcombe seeks to divert attention from the flaws in the Cottee proposal by blaming the Commissioners and Birch residents for the failure of his rescue plan. The root causes of the failure are the inappropriateness of siting a large private home within an open churchyard and proposals which from the start some of us believed to be financially unviable and unsustainable; an assessment now confirmed by the Commissioners.

The article states that objections to the Commissioners' Scheme have "been made by a number of national amenity societies". In fact objections were made by just two amenity societies, the Ancient Monuments Society and the Victorian Society (see the text of the Commissioners' letter below).

By early February 2014 there was confirmation that the Ancient Monuments Society, the Victorian Society, Colchester Borough Council and English Heritage are sustaining their objections to the draft Scheme. Consequently the Church Commissioners will be referring the case to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.


Church Commissioners' Decision on the 'Cottee' Proposal for Residential Development

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 Committee did not consider the Cottee proposal for residential development to be financially viable or sustainable. As at early February 2014 it is known that the Ancient Monuments Society, the Victorian Society, Colchester Borough Council and English Heritage are sustaining their objections to the draft Scheme. Consequently the Church Commissioners will be referring the case to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

Below is the text of a letter dated 7th January 2014, received from the Church Commissioners, confirming the decision made on 18th December and outlining the next stage of procedure.

Birch St Peter

At the Church Buildings (Uses and Disposals) Committee meeting in April 2013 it was agreed that the draft Scheme published under the Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011, which provided for the demolition of St Peters church, Birch and for the site of the building to be appropriated to use as part of the churchyard, should proceed not withstanding the representations made against it. However, it was also agreed that the Scheme should not proceed for 6 months to allow the Colchester and North East Essex Preservation Trust to undertake a viability study with the understanding that if they could demonstrate a financially viable solution and secure the relevant statutory consents they would take ownership of the building and manage the conversion works. All recognised that some demolition may be necessary for a viable development but the benefit would be saving the tower and spire as a significant feature in the locality.

At a meeting on 18th December 2013 the Church Buildings (Uses and Disposals) Committee, having considered all the available information and in particular the Project Viability Study dated October 2013 by the Colchester and North East Essex Preservation Trust, reaffirmed its decision that a draft Scheme for the demolition of Birch St Peter should proceed.

In reaffirming its previous decision the Committee noted that the Trust had concluded that they would be unable to take ownership of the property as their Project Viability Study had demonstrated that they could not deliver a financially viable solution. They also considered the proposal from Mr and Mrs Cottee promoted and supported by the Trust and had before them the views of Colchester Borough Council, The Victorian Society, Ancient Monuments Society, The Birch Parish Council, The Parochial Church Council and some members of the community who had written to the Commissioners after attending the Trust's public consultation meeting and viewing the Project Viability Study on the Trust's web-site. In the Committee's views, the proposals from Mr and Mrs Cottee were not financially viable or sustainable and would lead to a further prolonged period of uncertainty about the future of the building which would be harmful to the mission of the Church in the locality.

The Commissioners will now seek confirmation from the two national amenity societies (the Ancient Monuments Society and the Victorian Society), the Local Planning Authority and English Heritage as to whether they wish to sustain their objections to the draft Scheme. If any of them decide to sustain their objection, the Commissioners, under an agreement made in 1986 with the Government, will refer the case to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to determine whether or not he wishes to call the case in to hold a non-statutory Public Inquiry or hearing into the question of the proposed demolition before they make the Scheme.


Publication of the Trust's Project Viability Study

The Colchester and North East Essex Building Preservation Trust completed its Viability Study in October 2013. The report of the study was sent to the Church Commissioners and to Chelmsford Diocese. The main body of the report was available as a download from the Trust's website but has now been removed. However I do have a PDF of that report if anyone needs to see it.


Article in Essex County Standard

Essex County Standard 11 October 2013 Page 6

Builder could save church by turning it into a large home

A DEVELOPER has stepped forward to save a church threatened with demolition.

Gary Cottee's proposal to buy the Grade II-listed St Peter's Church, Birch, and turn it into a home, was put forward as one of four options for the landmark building, at a public exhibition.

Mr Cottee is director of Abacus Build, based in Nayland.

The exhibition was staged by Colchester and North East Essex Building Preservation Trust, which earlier this year launched a campaign to save the landmark church tower and spire, which the Church Commissioners and Chelmsford Diocese want to see demolished, saying the cost of saving the church would run to about £2million.

Following the exhibition, it was agreed the Cottee's proposal, would be taken forward if commissioners and diocese agree.

Under their plans, the exterior of the building, which has a 35metre-tall spire, would remain the same, but the inside would be altered. Other options on show at the two-day exhibition also envisaged turning the church into a home or homes.

David Balcombe, Trust chairman, said about 85 people turned out to view the exhibition at Birch Memorial Hall and feedback had been mainly positive.

However, he said he was still keen for residents to give their feedback on the proposal.

To do so, e-mail davidbalcombe@email.com or paul.lewis@churchof england.org


COMMENT on the above report:

The above report appears to confirm that Mr Cottee is in fact a property developer. It goes on to say that he proposes to buy the church and "turn it into a home". This suggests a rather different picture from that painted by Mr Balcombe when he spoke to Birch Parish Council on Tuesday 1st October. At that meeting he said Mr Cottee was a Quantity Surveyor who was planning to convert the church into a large family home for himself and his family. Does Mr Cottee the property developer really want the building as a home for himself? Even if he does initially occupy it, how long will it be before he tries to sell it?

Whilst it is true that three other options were on show at the two-day exhibition, the above article does not mention that the Trust's feasibility study had shown that for each of the Trust's own development options the cost of development far exceeded the estimated end value. All of its own three proposals were therefore unviable (to the tune of about half a million pounds or more in each case).

Mr Balcombe is not 'Trust chairman'. He is employed part-time by the Trust as its Director.


Letter from Local Residents

Essex County Standard 19 July 2013 Page 25

Trust proposals are unpopular

IN your recent article about Birch Church (County Standard, July 12), Mr Balcombe is reported as denying that many people are concerned about his Trust's proposals.

He claims to have met only two people opposed to his scheme, of whom Richard Carr was one.

At least four of us signing this letter have told Mr Balcombe personally, and in very clear terms, that we are strongly opposed to his scheme. Mr Balcombe knows full well that the four Birch residents who made formal representations to the Church Commissioners each wrote in support of their scheme for demolition and the creation of a garden of remembrance.

Furthermore, he will know that the Parochial Church Council is solidly in favour of the Church Commissioners' scheme as, we understand, are members of Birch Parish Council.

All of us consider the spire of Birch church to be an attractive landmark which we would be sorry to lose.

However, we are not aware of any Birch resident who is happy about the prospect of one or two homes being built in the church or who believes that a prospective purchaser would be willing to take on responsibility for the future care and maintenance of the tower and spire.

Any scheme for preserving the tower and spire must be acceptable to the local community and include proper sustainable provision for the maintenance and repair of the 110 foot high structure.

We are not persuaded that Mr Balcombe's proposals can meet either of these essential requirements.

Contrary to what Mr Balcombe claims, and would like others to believe, there is not support in the local community for his Trust's proposals.

John and Lyn Daniels, Geoffrey and Dianne Carr, Bill and Sue Dyer, John Harrison, Marian Campion, Chris Boyce, Malcolm and Josephine Sach


Article in Essex County Standard

Essex County Standard 12 July 2013 Page 19

Church homes row

VILLAGERS have raised concerns over a heritage group's plans to save an iconic church spire and turn it into a home.

A campaign was launched earlier this year by the Colchester and North East Essex Building Preservation Trust to preserve St Peter's Church in Birch by carrying out the ambitious project.

It was launched because the Church Commissioners, who manage the Church of England's property, said they wanted to demolish the redundant building.

In April the commissioners granted the trust six months to conduct a feasibility study of how it would go about its proposed project to save it. The trust is also considering building a second home in the grounds.

However, Richard Carr, who has lived in Birch for more than 30 years, said: "A number of us do have concerns about the proposal which actually involves one or two houses within the perimeter of the church building, bearing in mind it is still an open churchyard where burials take place."

Mr Carr said the Church Commissioners' proposal included creating a memorial garden in the churchyard once the building was demolished. He said this was the preferred option of many residents.

Mr Carr added: "There are considerable concerns over the viability of the proposals. The owner of the property in the spire would have responsibility of maintenance and the upkeep of the spire."

But David Balcombe, trust director, refuted many people were concerned about the proposals.

He said: "I have met two people opposed to the scheme and Mr Carr was one. He is welcome to make those points of view. We may decide we can't do the project and it is not financially viable.

"If it turns out we decide to press ahead with the scheme, we will submit a planning application and he is welcome to make representations."

As part of the feasibility study, the trust hired a crane to enable the spire to be assessed. It has been confirmed the spire is structurally sound.

The trust hopes to announce the findings of its study in October and will submit them to the commissioners. It says the costs of saving and converting the Grade II listed church, which was declared redundant in 1990, would be about £2 million.


Article in Essex County Standard

Essex County Standard 5 May 1989

Village church set for closure as appeal fails

Birch church looks set to be made redundant after the failure of an ambitious £80,000 appeal to pay for repairs to the crumbling tower
The appeal was launched to pay for urgent work on the 133-year-old St Peter's church three years ago.
But last year it was realised the mammoth appeal was way beyond the reach of the church's small congregation.
And the Parochial Church Council requested that they began the process of making the church redundant.
Rector the Rev Peter Spencer explained: "We got no great response from the appeal, and it was too much for the congregation of only about 28 people to raise."
Services are currently being held at St Mary's in Layer Breton but St Peter's is still being used for larger services including weddings and funerals.
However, if St Peter's becomes redundant Layer Breton may become the parish church and we will hopefully get permission to use Layer Marney church for bigger services," Mr Spencer added.
Making a church redundant can be a long process and although Birch church is currently being discussed by the Church Commissioners it could still be up to a year before being finalised.
The future of the building, and how the £9,000 appeal money raised is to be spent, will not be discussed until the redundancy is finalised.
Colchester Archdeacon, the Venerable Ernie Stroud, said he had only received one objection to the planned redundancy and said English Heritage had declined to give a grant for the work as the church was of no particular architectural importance.


COMMENT on the above report:

The final paragraph of the report is interesting in the light of English Heritage currently sustaining objection to the Church Commissioners' Draft Pastoral Scheme for demolition. In 1989 the view of English Heritage, apparently, was that St Peter's church was of 'no particular architectural importance'. That opinion seems consistent with the opinion of the Advisory Board for Redundant Churches as expressed in its letter of 20th July 1998 to the Church Commissioners.