The Future of Birch Church

The Church Commissioners' Statement
of Reasons for their Decision to
Proceed with the Draft Scheme for Demolition

Following the meeting of their Church Buildings (Uses and Disposals) Committee, held in London on 24th April 2013, the Church Commissioners issued a full Statement of the Reasons for their decision that the draft Scheme for demolition of St Peter's church should proceed, subject to certain provisos. The text of the Statement is reproduced below.

Paul Lewis
Pastoral and Closed Churches Secretary and Bishoprics and Cathedrals Secretary

21 May 2013

Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011
Closed Church of Birch St Peter
Diocese of Chelmsford
Draft Pastoral (Church Buildings Disposal) Scheme

1. The Church Commissioners have carefully considered the representations made in respect of 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.

2. The Commissioners have come to the conclusion that the draft Scheme should proceed notwithstanding the representations that were made against it but have agreed that no action will be taken to commence the demolition of the building for a period of six months to allow for the Colchester and North East Essex Building Preservation Trust to consider the feasibility of any proposals to preserve the tower and spire.

Summary of main points made in the representations

3. Following the publication of the draft Scheme, 11 representations were received (6 against, 4 in favour and one letter of comment). The representations against came from the Local Planning Authority, The Victorian Society, The Ancient Monuments Society, The Colchester and North East Essex Building Preservation Trust, Ms J Edmonds and Mrs R Clifton-Sprigg. The representations in favour came from Mr James Monks, Mrs Clair Cottrell, Mr Geoffrey Carr and the Reverend Richard Carr. A representation from English Heritage not formally opposing the draft Scheme for the demolition of the church was also received, although English Heritage subsequently revised their position.

Representations against

4. The Ancient Monuments Society (AMS) recognised that this has been one of the longest unresolved cases but were not persuaded that the step of full scale demolition was the only way forward. They drew attention to their request to convene a local meeting to pool constructive ideas on the way forward. They offered to draw together financial support for a suitable scheme. The Victorian Society remained strongly opposed to the proposed demolition and supported the AMS' call for a workshop to discuss alternatives which could throw up an eleventh hour scheme to save the building.

5.The Colchester and North East Sussex Building Preservation Trust reiterated the value of the building. They explained that they did not wish to resurrect their earlier Birch Spire Arts Trust proposal but argued that a solution is long overdue for the building, and would wish to be involved in discussions that included options other than total demolition. They suggested that these options would include demolition of nave, aisles and chancel but that every effort should be made to preserve the tower and spire.

6. Mrs Clifton-Sprigg wrote with relief that the building had not been converted to flats or any domestic building and accepted the case for demolition but argued for the retention of the spire. Mrs Edwards understood that there had been problems with the fabric for many years and would regret the loss of it but argued that the loss of the spire would be awful. She argued that it was a beautiful, elegant landmark that could be seen for miles, a much loved irreplaceable part of the landscape.

7. Mr Alistair Day, Planning Officer for Colchester Borough Council, set out the history of the attempts to secure a use since closure but argued that the building had not been actively marketed since closure and urged a final concerted marketing initiative before any decision was taken. Mr Day alleged that the building had suffered from deliberate neglect for a number of years and drew on the evidence of the condition survey submitted to the authority by the Commissioners showing the significant deterioration in recent years. He drew out a number of the issues from the National Planning Policy Framework and said that the decision to pursue demolition was not yet an arguable case. He also argued that if demolition of the building was pursued, the possibility of retaining the church spire should be fully explored. Mr Day also attached a letter of representation received by the Council from Mr Tim Bugg urging the retention of the building.

8. English Heritage commented that the church at Birch was a fine example of the Victorian Gothic revival. The loss of the building would be a considerable one, avowedly contrary to the aspirations of Government policy. In their original letter they were not formally opposing demolition under the Measure (a position subsequently amended) but English Heritage strongly advised the Commissioners to make further efforts to save, if not the church, then its tower and spire.

Representations in favour

9. The representors in favour regretted the loss but agreed that the building should now be demolished. Mr Monks supported the proposals for the treatment of the site but asked that consideration was given to the re-use of materials arising from the demolition around the village. Mr Geoffrey Carr, argued that having watched the deterioration of the building there seems little alternative to demolition. He raised concerns about the likely impact of the demolition work on daily life and made suggestions as to how to mitigate the impact during the process of demolition. The Reverend Richard Carr argued that the building was in a poor state before closure and has substantially deteriorated further since. He was of no doubt that serious efforts had been made, over many years, to explore alternative uses for the building and shared the view that the time had come for action to finally resolve the issue of the building's future. He also argued that the demolition would greatly enhance the environment of the churchyard which was still regularly used for burials.

The Diocesan response to the representations

10. Following normal practice, a copy of the representations was sent to the Bishop of Chelmsford to seek his comments.

11. The Archdeacon of Colchester replied on behalf of the Bishop and reiterated that, notwithstanding the representations, demolition appears to be the only option after the 23 years the building has been closed and the successive failed attempts to secure an alternative use.

12. She explained that the main reasons for pursuing demolition at his time was the continued failure to secure a use and the cost of repairs now estimated at ?1.24 million. She explained that the Diocese had over 300 listed buildings in its care and was well aware of the legislation and guidelines for the care of heritage assets but argued that this case was particularly exceptional given the failure to secure a use for the building after 23 years. She went on to detail the periods of formal and informal marketing of the building and the support given to the attempts by the Birch Spire Arts Trust and Courtland Properties to secure the future of all or part of the building. Since the withdrawal of Courtland Properties there had not been any formal marketing but the property had remained available through the Commissioners' website and some 35 enquiries had been made for the property none of which had been sustained.

13. She also confirmed that the Diocese had considered proposals for the retention of part of the fabric, particularly the tower and spire. She explained that this possibility was established early in the process at the time of the 1995 Feasibility Study and had been suggested to prospective purchasers during negotiations. The Diocese also encouraged this idea in supporting the creation of the Birch Spire Arts Trust. She explained that during consultation with local groups prior to proposing demolition, whilst there was great sentiment for the building locally, there was not the desire or the resource for a local group to take it on.

14. She set out the expenditure on the maintenance of the building undertaken by the Diocese and explained that the repair costs were estimated at over £200,000 at the time of closure. She explained that the major problems with the roof appeared to have been caused through the use of carpet in the repair of the roof prior to closure.

15. She confirmed the view of the Diocese that the mission of the Church of England was not advanced by buildings not in use remaining dormant for long periods of time. The continued presence of St Peter's was a stark reminder of the painful decision to cease worshipping in the building and demolition would provide closure for local people. Demolition would also eliminate health and safety concerns for people visiting graves in the churchyard. Further, the Archdeacon explained that wider pastoral reorganisation means that the village of Birch will be within a new team ministry in which there are nine church buildings of which eight are listed and in the care of a combined local population of 16,419 according to the 2011 census and a total Electoral Roll membership of 541. The ongoing costs of insurance, maintenance and staff time on St Peter's could be better spent assisting the mission of the Church.

16. She confirmed that if demolition was taken forward the Diocese would work to ensure that everything that can be done to militate against significant disruption would be undertaken and that following demolition the Scheme permitted the incorporation of the church site into the churchyard. In line with legal requirements determined by the Chancellor, the Diocese would welcome use of the site as a garden of remembrance.

17. She also drew to the Commissioners' attention the fact that the Diocese was working with the Ancient Monuments Society to convene the meeting of interested parties suggested by the Society during the representation period. The aim of the meeting was to see if a last minute proposal, which was viable and sustainable, could be formulated. She explained that in view of the unfortunate lack of success of previous proposals, the Diocese felt it was only prudent to pursue the demolition procedure in parallel with this process. However, she confirmed that should a final proposal come forward this would be pursued seriously.

Further comments of the representors

18. The Diocesan response was sent to the representors for their further comment. Further written responses were received from the Colchester and North East Essex Building Preservation Trust, The Victorian Society, The Ancient Monuments Society and The Reverend Richard Carr; in addition, English Heritage submitted a revised letter of representation.

19. Mr Balcombe, writing on behalf of the Colchester and North East Essex Building Preservation Trust, reaffirmed the views set out in its letter of 18 January. Whilst the Trust accepted that it was unlikely that the whole of the church could be saved, they believed that it may be possible to save the spire. The Trust argued that following a meeting to discuss possible options a feasibility study would be required, an exercise that should take no more than three months. The Trust was willing to undertake this work if they had an assurance that they could acquire the site as preferred bidder. They urged the Commissioners to allow a little more time before proceeding with the draft Scheme.

20. Mr Saunders for the Ancient Monuments Society, wrote in support of the work being undertaken by the Building Preservation Trust together with copies of outline plans prepared by the Trust showing proposals for the residential conversion retaining the tower, spire and west end of the building.

21. The Victorian Society confirmed its arguments that the case for total demolition had not been made, not least because options for the partial demolition had not been adequately explored. The Society attached a copy of its letter to the Commissioners of November 2012 confirming that the Society, whilst wishing to see the whole building restored, would be satisfied with the retention of the tower and spire. In supporting the retention of part of the building, the Society set out the extent to which the costs of repair identified in the report by Purcell Millar Tritton related solely to repair of the roof and the repair costs associated with the Tower and Spire were only a small percentage of the identified costs. The Society also raised concern that maintenance had ceased over a decade before the current proposals and although accepted the difference between the secular and ecclesiastical systems, drew attention to paragraph 130 of the National Planning Policy Framework that "where there is evidence of deliberate neglect of ... a heritage asset the deteriorated state of the heritage asset should not be taken into account in any decision".

22. Mr Carr argued that the letter from the Archdeacon of Colchester was an accurate and admirable summary of the fact relating to the history of events since the closure at Birch. He commented that it was disturbing to realise just how much had been spent on repairs to the building and its insurance since closure. Mr Carr also questioned whether after all the failed attempts over 23 years, there was any realistic prospect of an "eleventh hour" scheme to save the building.

23. Mr Carr challenged the view of the importance of the building, citing information from the Archaeological Data Service suggesting that the Victorian "replacement church is of little merit in its own class". Mr Carr also set out concerns about any proposal to save the tower and spire and argued that any proposal to restore the spire must include proper financial provision for its future care and maintenance.

24. Mrs Rosemary Clifton-Sprigg was unable to attend the meeting of the Church Buildings (Uses and Disposals) Committee. She expressed her surprise at the low level of representations received concerning the proposals. She supported proposals to retain the tower and spire and the use of the demolished parts to a quiet area adjoining the churchyard. She explained that she would find any conversion or change of use of the sacred place of worship deeply disturbing.

25. English Heritage submitted a revised version of their original representation letter and asked that it substitute the earlier letter. It differed from the earlier letter in that it removed any suggestion that English Heritage were not objecting to demolition and urged, more directly, support for further time to be allowed for the Colchester and North East Essex Building Preservation Trust to find a way of averting the demolition and, in particular, to securing the future of the tower and spire even if the conservation of the building as a whole remained beyond reach.

The Meeting of the Church Buildings (Uses and Disposals) Committee

26. Mr David Balcombe, for the Colchester and North East Essex Building Preservation Trust, and Mr Tom Ashley, for the Victorian Society attended and spoke to their representations against the draft Scheme. Mr Geoffrey Carr attended and spoke to his representation in favour of the draft Scheme. The Archdeacon of Colchester, the Venerable Annette Cooper, Mr Nathan Whitehead and Mr Kevin Quinlan from Chelmsford Diocese attended the meeting on behalf of the Bishop and the Archdeacon addressed the Committee, speaking in favour of the draft Scheme.

Mr David Balcombe, Colchester and North East Essex Building Preservation Trust

27. Mr Balcombe explained that he was the only employed director of the Colchester and North East Essex Building Preservation Trust. He argued that the Trust believed that it was possible to save the tower and spire if the current process was paused for a few months to allow a feasibility study to be carried out. The Trust recognised that, given the condition of the major part of the fabric, the difficulties of access and the position within an open churchyard, the building was a fairly unappealing commercial project. Whilst it was easy to see the conversion of a building like this in an urban setting like London, the prospect in a location like Birch and with the site constraints was a much more difficult one.

28. He explained that securing a use, such as that which had been pursued by the Spire Arts Trust, when grants were available was a worthy solution but this was no longer the case given the high costs of repair in relation to the value of the building. The building was now in a precarious position and the Trust believed that the point had been reached where only the demolition of substantial parts of the building could ensure the retention of the important and distinctive tower and spire.

29. He explained the two, illustrative plans which had been circulated. The first preserved only the tower and western end of the nave through the creation of a single residential dwelling. The second also preserved the chancel converted either as additional accommodation or as a second dwelling. Time was, however, required to make an assessment of the building as it was not possible to know if the proposals were viable.

30. He explained that if the Trust was given time they would undertake specific pieces of work. First, it would apply for a grant from the Architectural Heritage Fund (AHF) to support the feasibility work. That grant application would need to be made before the end of the week and a decision would be known by 8 May, after which work could begin. Secondly, there would need to be a public meeting before feasibility work started to explain what was being proposed and ensure that the local community were willing to support the proposals. There would then need to be a further public meeting at the end of July when the outcome of the work was clear and the future strategy could be explained. If it was clear that the proposals were viable, the Trust would intend to purchase the building itself and take forward the proposals by spring 2014.

31. The Trust were making this suggestion as an agency of last resort and were assuming that they could acquire the building at a token value and also receive a sum equivalent to the costs of demolition.

32. In response to a question, Mr Balcombe explained that the Trust had not previously undertaken the rescue of a church building although there was some experience within the wider national umbrella body for building preservation trusts. The Trust itself had undertaken a number of building rescues in the past, over the 25 years it had been active but in the last eight years it had concentrated its efforts on providing advice and good practice. Mr Balcombe was himself a former head of conservation of Sheffield Council and of a County Council and now the part-time director of the Trust. Mr Balcombe also explained that it was only when the Trust had become aware of the formal proposals for demolition that they had been prompted to step in.

33. A number of questions were raised about the condition of the tower and spire, particularly as it might be difficult to understand the condition of the spire within the timeframe of a short feasibility study. Mr Balcombe was clear that an engineers report would be required to assess the condition and until that work had been done no one was in a position to know. He confirmed that the proposal intended the ownership of the tower and spire and responsibility for its future maintenance to pass to the owners of the new house.

34. He explained that the size of the building on his illustrative plan was about 2,000 sq feet, the chancel unit possible a little smaller. In responding to questions about viability, he suggested that the costs of building out the spire unit might be of the order of £800,000; the chancel unit would be more straightforward. It was possible that the second unit was required to make the proposals viable but it was difficult to see that there would be a profit. These were, however, questions which would be properly answered by a feasibility study. Part of any argument was to answer the questions as to how viable the proposals were.

35. Mr Balcombe was asked to respond to the apparent lack of support from within the village to the retention of the building. He reiterated that the Trust was an organisation of last resort; what ever one thought of the building, the spire had a distinctive impact on the local landscape. He was aware that there had been no proper debate in the community since the Birch Spire Arts proposals. Lots of local effort had been put into that, including fundraising and the loss of that proposal had taken the wind out of the sails of the local community. He explained that he had been involved in the saving of The Maltings, at Mistley where the local community had reached the point of hoping for demolition but, along with the Princes Foundation Trust, a proposal had been developed which saved the building and gained local support.

36. Mr Balcombe was asked, for the sake of clarity, to confirm the key outcomes which were contingent before the Trust could proceed with its proposals. He confirmed that these included the grant for feasibility study from AHF which would be known by 8 May, the assessment of the fabric of the tower and spire which may suggest the project is not achievable. He also confirmed that the Trust would need to reconsider if the public feedback was not just uninterested but hostile. He explained that applications for any planning consents and grants for architectural fees would follow after the completion of the feasibility work in August.

37. In response to further questioning he confirmed that the Trust had very carefully considered the case. The author of the Purcell Miller Tritton report was on the board of the Trust and they believed that it was both possible and feasible. He also explained that the Trust's request for a halt in the process was because, while it was possible to proceed in parallel, it did not help to proceed with a gun to the head. In order to provide the grant for the feasibility study, the AHF would need a letter of comfort that the Commissioners would be willing to sell the site or at least afford the Trust preferred bidder status recognising that this was the best and last hope for the building. Mr Balcombe accepted that if another buyer came forward there was no harm done if the building was still saved.

Mr Tom Ashley, The Victorian Society

38. Mr Ashley wished to echo what had been said by Mr Balcombe. The Victorian Society was committed to give strong support to the Trust and to do what it could to smooth the planning application process. The Society accepted that it was now unlikely the whole building could be saved but argued that time should be given to allow for the feasibility work and for a proposal to be developed which could save the tower and spire. Whilst this was a nationally important building recognised by its listed status, it was also a focus for the conservation area and as part of an ensemble of buildings. Without the church building the Conservation Area lost its key focus.

39. He drew attention to the costs of repairs identified in the Purcell Miller Tritton report and suggested that the total estimated cost of ?1.25 million was something of a red herring if no one was suggesting retaining the whole structure. The vast majority of these, costs were taken up by the repairs to the roofs. He further explained that the fact that there had been no maintenance on the building for ten years during which the costs of repair had swollen significantly, was not a factor which would be taken account in the secular system. The receipt of an expression of interest was not an excuse for not doing repairs.

40. He quite understood local opinion; the building had been neglected for a long time and it was now difficult to reach graves. The previous proposals had threatened to double the size of the village and this would have caused alarm. He argued that those conditions no longer applied and that people could be brought round to support a limited scheme which would secure the future of the tower and spire.

41. In response to a question about the unusual prospect of the Victorian Society supporting the preservation of architectural remnants, Mr Ashley confirmed that this was unusual and that the demolition did destroy the integrity of the building but the Society's response was purely pragmatic in that it was better to save something than nothing. In this instance, saving tower, spire and west front ensured the preservation of what was best about this building. The Society could have taken the view to hold out for the preservation of the whole building and in doing so end up having to accept demolition.

42. A further question was raised about the value of the building. The Commissioners' Statutory Advisers had quoted Mr Matthew Saunders' assessment of the building; it was a tame work by a nationally celebrated maverick, of scholarly interest only and, like Pevsner, just about the only comment made by Mr Saunders in relation to the tower and spire was that it rose to 110 feet in height. The Commissioners' Advisers had said that the tower and spire were not considered of notable historic interest. Mr Ashley responded that this was not the view of the Victorian Society nor of English Heritage. He accepted that the building was not an outstanding example of the work of Teulon but the tower and spire and west front were significant and worthy of preservation. Whilst other examples of Teulon's work existed, that was not the point in considering the future of this building in Birch. In response to further questioning, Mr Ashley went on to explain that in any survey of the whole of Teulon's work it would not be a major example but, in this location and in the particular surrounding it was significant. He supported the view that the church building was the lynchpin of the conservation area and without it the other buildings were less cohesive as a group.

43. In a further question the view expressed by the Society as to the deliberate neglect of the building was challenged. Attention was drawn to the context of paragraph 130 of the National Planning Policy Framework that such deliberate neglect or damage to a heritage asset was in the hope of gaining a planning consent. Mr Ashley responded that he was perhaps more inclined to speak of wilful neglect in this case. It was the neglect which had brought everyone to the point of this hearing and the figures for the cost of repair which have set the tone of the debate. This was all predicated on the condition of the building which was as a result of the building not being maintained.

Mr Geoffrey Carr

44. Mr Carr explained that he had not intended to speak but now wished to respond to some of the points raised. He lived next to the church building and owned two of the adjacent properties.

45. He explained that the tower was in poor condition. He had climbed the tower and wound the clock for 40 years until the last two years when he had been advised to stop for his own safety. The tower moved in the wind and pieces dropped off. He also believed that there would be opposition in the village to any conversion of the tower. People living in the tower would overlook properties and there would be objections to this and to the prospect of car-parking over graves.

46. Mr Carr said that vehicular access was highly problematic. There were serious problems with the school which had an effect on house prices. The whole area was blocked at the time of school drop off and pick up.

47. He also challenged the view that planning consent would be forthcoming for anything that was being proposed. The claims that the church was the centre of the Conservation Area was also challenged as whenever you tried to do anything to your property it was always described as the central building in the Conservation Area. He believed instead that plans to create a garden of remembrance will enhance the area. For the village, the church building was not the central focus but rather the school.

48. In response to a question about why there had been so few representations, he expressed the view that people locally were supportive of the proposal for demolition. People had wanted the building saved but the building was past that now. Neighbours, however, were opposed to development and don't want to see houses on the site. He drew attention to the letter from Mr Monks, who lived at the bottom of the lane from the church building, who had supported the demolition.

The Diocese of Chelmsford

49. The Archdeacon of Colchester explained that she had been archdeacon for almost nine years and that Birch church had been closed many years before her arrival. The worship focus was at Layer Breton where there were twenty people on the electoral roll and a usual Sunday attendance of around six people.

50. The attempts over many years to find a use for the building had foundered. The previous proposals by Courtland Properties looked positive but agreement for them could not be achieved not least because of the concern in the village about the extent of the proposed development.

51. The Diocese had over 500 church buildings in its care of which over 400 were listed. There were 225 within the Colchester Archdeaconry of which two-thirds were listed. The Diocese understood very well the importance of heritage maintenance; however, it was not appreciated that the Diocese was one of the poorer dioceses within the Church of England and the money for that maintenance came from the people in the pews. It received annual support from the national church of ?2.5 million with a priority to evangelise effectively within the rural environment.

52. The Diocese had been anxious when the Commissioners chose to bring forward the hearing on the proposals at Birch. However, after 23 years of seeking a use there was a need for a focussed timeline towards the resolution of this. There was a need to bring to an end the uncertainty and the pain that the constant reminder of the building brings to the village. The Diocese believe that the creation of a Garden of Remembrance on the site will help achieve this pastorally. The building stands in a large churchyard which the Parochial Church Council and the civil parish struggle to maintain. The current proposals will allow the village to move on and are fully supported by the patron.

53. She confirmed that the ongoing insurance was costing the Diocese £1,000 per month and, in addition, the Diocesan Surveyor had to visit each fortnight to assess the safety of the site which could not continue indefinitely. She explained the pastoral impact on those with family members buried in the churchyard and particularly for those families who have only very restricted access to cremated remains close to the building where access has to be supervised.

54. The Diocese had continued to take the building very seriously. Everyone had, it seemed, tried to raise funds for the restoration of the building but no use had emerged. 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.

55. In response to a question, the Archdeacon confirmed that the PCC were solidly in favour of the demolition proposals. She also refuted the suggestion that there had been wilful or deliberate neglect on the part of the Diocese. The building was already in need of substantial works of repair at the time of closure and the Diocese simply did not have the funds to continue to spend money on this building alongside the support for the other parishes and buildings maintained by them.

56. She confirmed that the condition and presence of the derelict building was not helpful to the mission of the Church in the area. In many ways it acted as a reminder of failure and the demolition will remove this, improve access to the site and better support the pastoral care of the community. She explained that the Diocese did have a strategy for engaging with and ensuring the maintenance of the buildings. It encouraged and supported the production of leaflets and information and the use of web-sites and the development of strong "friends" groups. There was a difficulty with a number of Essex churches, particularly some of those which were listed Grade 1, as they often stood outside the main village envelope.

57. In respect to Birch she believed that the process of the decline of the church building had been significantly longer then the 23 years it had been closed and there was a need to achieve closure on the issue for the sake of the village.

Reasons for the Commissioners' Decision

58. The proposed demolition of a Grade II listed building was a serious matter only considered in exceptional circumstances. The consideration of representations submitted in respect of a Scheme providing for demolition of a listed building only rarely came before the Commissioners for determination and, in reaching a decision as to whether or not the Scheme should proceed, the Commissioners had to satisfy themselves that every reasonable attempt to secure an alternative use for the building in question had been pursued and that no alternative use was likely to be achieved for the building.

59. Members noted that this was the second occasion in its history that representations against a Scheme for demolition of the church building at Birch had been received by the Commissioners. The renewed proposals for demolition arose after more than 23 years had elapsed since closure and 17 years of active use seeking since the previous demolition proposals. Two significant proposals, by the Birch Spire Arts Trust and Courtland Properties, had failed to secure an alternative future for the building. The failure of two different proposals for conversion, one developed by the private sector and including enabling development, and one brought forward by a trust and dependent on support from the Heritage Lottery Fund provided significant evidence that a viable suitable use by way of conversion was unlikely to be achieved given the condition of the building and the views of the local community. The Commissioners further noted that this position was now accepted, albeit with some reluctance, by English Heritage, the Victorian Society and the Ancient Monuments Society as well by the Colchester and North East Essex Building Preservation Trust.

60. However, the Commissioners were now asked to defer a decision on the future of this building to allow an attempt to secure the future of the tower and spire and possibly also the chancel of the building. The Commissioners were conscious of the significant time which had been allowed to pursue a use and that, notwithstanding the many expressions of interest which had emerged for the building, none had developed or proposed an idea until now which would have led to the retention of the tower and spire alone.

61. The Commissioners accepted that the tower and spire was a significant feature of the wider landscape visible over a substantial distance across fields although, from their visit to the site on 20 March, members had noted its impact upon its immediate surroundings in the village was less significant owing to other development and landscape features largely obscuring the view of it.

62. The Commissioners were mindful that any proposal to further delay a decision about the future of the building would leave the village of Birch and relatives of those buried in the churchyard with further uncertainty and would leave the local Church with a continuing difficulty in developing its mission and ministry as well as the ongoing cost to the Diocese.

63. The Commissioners welcomed the offer from the Colchester and North East Essex Building Preservation Trust to undertake a feasibility study, the outcome of which would be known within a relatively short period of time and would enable there to be agreement as to whether the tower and spire could be saved. However, the Commissioners believed that a decision to allow the current Scheme to proceed need not impair work on such a feasibility study. Were a proposal that secured the future of the tower and spire shown to be feasible and viable, a new draft Scheme would need to be prepared and published for consultation under the Mission and Pastoral Measure in any event. The Commissioners, therefore, considered that it would be sufficient to guarantee that work would not begin on the demolition of the building for a period of time, so as to allow the feasibility study to be undertaken.

64. The Commissioners also considered the request of the Building Preservation Trust for preferred bidder status in order to support their application for funding for the feasibility exercise. Whilst the Commissioners could not, as a matter of law, bind themselves to a contractual position with the Building Preservation Trust, because any proposed use would be the subject of separate consultation under the Measure, they were happy to provide the Trust with an exclusivity agreement for a fixed period in which the Building Preservation Trust could develop their proposals.

65. The Commissioners recognised that any further delay in the resolution of the future of this building would be unwelcome to those in the village of Birch. However, they believed that it was reasonable to allow for this further work to be put in hand, especially if it allowed some consensus to be reached about the future of the building and site by both those in the village and those representing wider national heritage interests.

66. The Committee also considered all the other points made in the representations but felt that none of them was of sufficient weight to outweigh the points listed above.


67. In the light of these various points the Commissioners agreed that:
(i) 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 notwithstanding the representations made against it; and
(ii) that no action be taken to commence works of demolition for a period of six months from the date of the Committee meeting on 24 April 2013; and
(iii) the Colchester and North East Essex Preservation Trust be supported in its efforts to undertake a viability study funded or part funded by the Architectural Heritage Fund with a view to a purchase of the building by the Trust and a six month exclusivity period be offered from 24 April 2013 to enable them to undertake such a study and conclude such a purchase (subject to the statutory requirements under the Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011 for the publication and consultation upon a further draft Scheme to enable such a use and sale).

68. They realise that their decision may disappoint the representors against, but hope that this statement will be helpful in indicating that their decision was reached only after consideration of all the relevant factors.

69. The Commissioners' decision on this matter is final, subject to the procedures set out in the following paragraph. If, however, an interested party or representor feels that the decision is in someway unreasonable or flawed as a result of a legal or administrative irregularity, they may be able to seek permission to apply to the High Court for a judicial review of the process by which the decision was reached. There are strict time limits in seeking permission to apply for judicial review. Anyone wishing to pursue this will need to take their own legal advice.

70. In the light of this decision, the Commissioners will seek confirmation from the two national amenity societies (the Ancient Monuments Society and the Victorian Society), the Local Authority and English Heritage as to whether, subject to the final attempts to secure the future of the tower and spire, they wish to sustain their objections to the draft Scheme. If they do decide to sustain these objections, 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. More information about this procedure is to be found in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport publication - The Operation of the Ecclesiastical Exemption and Related Planning Matters for Places of Worship in England dated July 2010.

71. The Commissioners will notify all those who have made representations of the outcome of this process.

Paul Lewis