The Future of Birch Church

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 leaflet was published by 'Colchester & NE Essex Building Preservation Trust 2014' (sic) and 'Mr and Mrs Gary Cottee'.

The obvious aim of the survey was to produce a finding of 'overwhelming support' in Birch for the Cottee proposal for residential development of Birch church. One can only surmise that the Trust wished to submit such a finding to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. By early February 2014 it was known that the Ancient Monuments Society, the Victorian Society, Colchester Borough Council and English Heritage were sustaining their objections to the draft Pastoral Scheme for demolition and that, consequently, the Church Commissioners would have to refer the case to the Secretary of State.

A Fundamentally Flawed Survey

The leaflet claimed "The Parish Council have said that in their opinion, the majority of people in the village wish to see the church demolished and a 'garden of remembrance' placed on the site of the church". Birch Parish Council was, understandably, more than a little displeased about this untrue claim. The Council had never expressed such an opinion, either in writing or at any of its meetings.

A survey asking people if they 'agree with the Parish Council' about an opinion it has never expressed is fundamentally flawed.

Survey Conducted on a False Prospectus

On the last (back) page of the leaflet was a list of seven 'Frequently asked questions' with the Trust's answers. Some of the answers given were highly questionable and potentially very misleading, particularly for those with little or no knowledge of the relevant history and background.

Lower down this page are the 'Frequently asked questions' and answers, as published in the leaflet, together with comments on them.

Survey Findings Unreliable and Not Valid

Any results of the survey must be regarded as unreliable and lacking validity.

The survey was conducted by, for, and under the sole control of the Trust and Mr & Mrs Cottee: parties who had a strong vested interest in the outcome. The Trust and the Cottees alone:

The survey leaflet did not specify the question that was to be put to Birch residents. No questionnaire or response form was delivered with the leaflet, which suggested that responses would be sought verbally - which they were. There can be no certainty that questions were asked in a consistent and unbiased form.

There was a substantial risk, previously mentioned, of people being influenced in their responses by the questionable and potentially misleading answers given to the 'Frequently asked questions' on the back of the survey leaflet.

One could only conclude the whole exercise was to be conducted without any independent monitoring or independent verification of the responses and results. It cannot be considered an objective, impartial or accurate method of assessing the views of Birch residents on the Cottee proposal. The findings of such a survey cannot be viewed as valid or allowed to carry any weight in subsequent decision making.

An Unnecessary Survey

The views of Birch residents on the Cottee proposal for residential development of the church were sought only four months before the survey was carried out. That was the specific purpose of the exhibition staged by the Trust itself in Birch Memorial Hall on 4th/5th October last. In the intervening four months there had been no change to the Cottee proposal or the general situation other than the Church Commissioners finding that the proposal was not financially viable or sustainable and deciding the draft Scheme should proceed.

Mr Balcombe has consistently promoted the view that there is strong local support for the proposal. On page 47 of the Trust's viability report is the claim that the project "has overwhelming local support". That claim was not supported by the responses received at the exhibition.

Page 46 of the Trust's viability report, 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 subsequently 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 was 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 was still only 27%. This cannot by any stretch of the imagination be interpreted as 'overwhelming local support' for the Cottee proposal.

The Survey Leaflet

The first page was the front cover of the leaflet. The second page showed a very basic outline ground plan of the Trust's Option 4, the proposal of Mr and Mrs Cottee.

The third page of the leaflet was headed 'The Survey' and had two sections as follows:

Background

"Birch St Peter's Church has been vacant for nearly 24 years and last year, the Church Commissioners consulted people on their intent to demolish it. Various bodies objected, including the Colchester & NE Essex Building Preservation Trust who were later given 6 months to carry out a study. This looked at the financial viability of saving the church. Mr & Mrs Cottee came forward during the study as possible buyers and they worked with the Trust in coming up with Option 4 that would turn the church into a family home for their own occupation. Only the South aisle would be demolished.
Despite this, Church Commissioners have decided to continue with their plans to demolish the building.

The Survey

"The Parish Council have said that in their opinion, the majority of people in the village wish to see the church demolished and a 'garden of remembrance' placed on the site of the church. No plans have been made available of what this might look like.
However, the trust and Mr & Mrs Cottee would like to carry out a doorstep survey to get a good feel for what people think. Do you agree with the Parish Council?
We will be knocking on doors within the area over the next couple of weeks to obtain your views. IF WE FIND OVERWHELMING SUPPORT to keep the church and its spire by converting it into a house, this may help to save the building. Your cooperation is therefore vital!
Thank you."

Frequently Asked Questions

The last page of the leaflet listed seven 'Frequently asked questions' with answers. Some of the answers given were distinctly questionable and liable to mislead. The Questions and Answers, with some of my comments, are as follows:

1. Isn't the church falling down?
A. No! The Trust have commissioned a structural survey and it was found to be in very reasonable condition.

COMMENT:
The statement that the building is 'in very reasonable condition' is not consistent with the summary of the building's condition on page 8 of the Trust's own viability study, which starts with the words: "The building is in a very poor condition … "

The structural survey did not find the building 'to be in very reasonable condition'. In his letter of 22nd July 2013 to the Trust, Mr Morton explained that the inspection was 'visual only' and he said, inter alia, "Overall the structural condition of the spire is not unreasonable, with there being no signs of any major instability". Saying the structural condition of a building 'is not unreasonable' is not the same as saying the building is 'in very reasonable condition'.

For a fuller understanding of the real condition of the building it is worth studying the Condition Survey produced by Purcell Miller Tritton LLP in January 2012. The document can be downloaded from the Trust's website in PDF format (Appendix i). The report contains some telling photographs as well as text. The report concludes with estimated costs of repairs, based on 2010 building costs. These are in excess of £1.24 million, excluding VAT and professional costs. That does not suggest the building was in 'very reasonable condition' even two years ago, let alone now.

2. Has Mr and Mrs Cottee enough money to pay the high cost of restoration and conversion?
A. Yes. Detailed information has been given to the Church Commissioners to demonstrate this.

COMMENT:
Birch residents have no evidence confirming whether or not Mr and Mrs Cottee have enough money to pay for the high cost of restoration and conversion. Mr Cottee has estimated the total cost of his project to be £1,209,000 - a very substantial sum. There is, of course, no guarantee that if the project were to proceed there would not be a large cost overrun. The Trust's report is honest enough to admit, on page 44, "there are at this stage many abnormal risks in undertaking this project".

Detailed information was, no doubt, 'given to the Church Commissioners to demonstrate' Mr and Mrs Cottee's ability to pay the high cost of restoration and conversion. Did the information given actually demonstrate this to the Commissioners' satisfaction? We do not know one way or the other. The Church Commissioners will certainly have enquired thoroughly into Mr and Mrs Cottee's financial resources. One wonders whether the results of their enquiries played any part in them coming to the view that the proposals from Mr & Mrs Cottee were "not financially viable".

3. Is restoration and conversion financially viable?
A. Yes. As this will be a personal project for Mr & Mrs Cottee's own occupation, the motivation is not to achieve a profit, therefore viability depends solely on the Cottee's proven ability to fund the project.

COMMENT:
The Church Commissioners must have had very good reasons for coming to their view that "the proposals from Mr and Mrs Cottee were not financially viable".

The above answer does not seem consistent with Mr Cottee's letter of 9th September 2013 to the Trust, in which he says "While our intention is to build a home for our own occupation, our expectation is that the development costs should not exceed the approximate end value." Furthermore, it is stretching credibility to believe that Mr Cottee, a businessman, company director and property developer, would willingly invest more than £1.2 million in a property which he believed might be worth significantly less than this sum on completion. It just doesn't stack up.

The above answer refers to 'the Cottees' proven ability to fund the project'. Is it a fact that Mr and Mrs Cottee have actually proved their ability to fund the project? We have no independent evidence of this, only the unsubstantiated claim made here.

4. Is the project 'sustainable'?
A. Yes. The spire and fabric will be properly restored. Money for the repairs will be secured by legal agreement, with money only being released upon completion of agreed work stages. Thereafter, the building will be insured and maintained.

COMMENT:
Sustainability is more than a matter of resources to complete the initial restoration of the tower and spire. There does not appear to be any sound and secure provision for the preservation, maintenance and repair of the tower and spire in years to come. Old buildings, even restored ones, need regular maintenance and repairs. Work on structures like towers and steeples tends to be particularly costly because of the requirements for special materials, skills and scaffolding, etc.

We don't know what criteria the Commissioners used in judging the issue of sustainability but we can be sure they will have had very good reasons for coming to the view that the proposals from Mr & Mrs Cottee were not sustainable.

5. Won't the burials be affected?
A. No. Burials will continue here for at least another 20 more years. Funeral corteges will still park on the drive in front of the church. The building will be largely unaltered on 3 sides, retaining the same visual backdrop to the burial ground. The existing serenity of the graveyard will remain. No human remains will be moved in this scheme.

COMMENT:
It is anticipated that burials will continue in Birch churchyard for much longer than 20 years. Available space and the present rate of usage suggest 50 years or more.

Is it really likely that the existing serenity of the graveyard will remain unaffected if the church, situated in such a prominent position within the churchyard, is converted into a large family home: accommodation for a family rather than, say, a quiet couple?

6. Will any gravestones be affected?
A. Yes. A number of gravestones, all more than 100 years old, to the South of the church will be carefully and respectfully moved by specialists into the active burial area.

7. How long will the project take to complete?
A. Work could commence - subject to planning approval - by January next year with construction work completed by the end of 2015.

COMMENT:
Completion of the legal formalities involved in Mr and Mrs Cottee purchasing the property could take somewhat longer than a year. Their agreement to purchase the building depends, among other things, on them reaching agreement with Colchester Borough Council's Planning Department that the necessary Planning Approval and Listed Buildings Consent can be achieved before they complete the purchase and that the Church does not seek to impose onerous covenants on the purchase.

There can be no certainty that such a major restoration and conversion will be completed within one year. There is no knowing what problems might arise once the partial demolition and subsequent construction gets under way. Local residents will undoubtedly have to endure a good deal of disruption while work is in progress.