The Future of Birch Church

Timeline of Events
relating to the Future of Birch Church

1850 - The present church of St Peter, Birch, was built by Charles Gray Round, a local landowner. It stands on the site of the earlier medieval church which was demolished in 1849. The Archaeology Data Service's website (in 2006) included the following comment on the present church: "Birch is a monument to senseless Victorian ecclesiastical vandalism; the replacement church is of little merit in its own class".

  •  •  •  •

May 1989 - by this date the Parochial Church Council of Birch had requested that they begin the process for making Birch church redundant. It had become clear there was no prospect of raising the £80,000 required to pay for repairs to the crumbling tower. (Report in the Essex County Standard of 5 May 1989.)

31st October 1990 (over 27 years ago) - Birch church was formally closed for regular public worship and St Mary the Virgin, Layer Breton, was substituted as the parish church. (source - Draft Pastoral Scheme for demolition published by the Church Commissioners in January 2013.)

March 1994 - the Church Commissioners published a Draft Pastoral Scheme for demolition. There were objections to the Scheme from heritage bodies. The Scheme did not proceed. Subsequently proposals for alternative use were put forward, first by the Birch Spire Arts Trust and then Courtland Properties.

December 1997 to June 2002 - Birch Spire Arts Trust came forward with proposals for converting the building into an arts venue. The Trust's plans depended on a successful bid for Heritage Lottery funding. The project was abandoned in June 2002, following receipt of a letter from the Heritage Lottery Fund explaining that the application for funding had been unsuccessful.

August 2002 - Developers Courtland Properties was introduced to the Diocese and the Church Commissioners by the Victorian Society. Courtland proposed conversion of the church into five residential units and the vesting of the tower and spire in a trust (never identified). The costs of repair and conversion were to be funded by enabling development of 16 detached houses on two sites in Birch. The sites proposed for this enabling development were parcels of agricultural land in places where planning permission would not normally be granted for residential development. (Courtland Properties (Birch) Ltd was not incorporated until 10th March 2006.)

19th May 2006 - Courtland Properties staged a public exhibition of its proposals in Birch Memorial Hall. Birch residents received notice of the exhibition only two days before it was due to take place. Up to this time no one in Birch was aware of Courtland's interest in the church and its proposed developments.

5th June 2006 - Courtland's proposals were discussed at a meeting of Birch Parish Council which was attended by a large number of local residents. Strong opposition to the proposals was expressed, not least because of the two proposed enabling developments and Courtland's suggestion that the local community take on responsibility for the future maintenance of the tower and spire. Courtland allowed its option to purchase the building to expire and its interest did not progress beyond April 2009.

Following Courtland's abandonment of its proposals the Church Commissioners continued to seek potential purchasers who were interested in alternative uses for the building. They received expressions of interest from individuals and organisations but none were able to show that their proposals were viable.

30th October 2012 - the Church Commissioners hosted a drop-in session at Birch Memorial Hall about proposals for the future of Birch Church. Representatives of the Commissioners were in attendance to provide information and answer questions. It was explained that the Commissioners would publish once again a Draft Pastoral Scheme for demolition of the building and for the site to become part of the churchyard. When the new Scheme was published people would have 28 days in which to write to the Commissioners with representations for or against the Scheme or to make suggestions or to ask for information.

Early January 2013 (five years ago)- the Church Commissioners published their Draft Pastoral Scheme and a five page 'Explanatory Note'. These documents were circulated to interested Birch residents who had attended the drop-in session held the previous October. Following publication of the Draft Scheme the Commissioners received 11 representations: 6 against the proposed demolition, 4 in favour and one letter of comment.

24th April 2013 - the Church Buildings (Uses and Disposals) Committee of the Church Commissioners met in London. Those who had made representations following the publication of the Draft Scheme were allowed to attend and to speak on their representations if they wished. By this time Chelmsford Diocese had been seeking an alternative use for the building for 23 years.

The Committee decided that the Draft Scheme for demolition should proceed. However, because of objections to the Scheme it agreed that no action would be taken to commence demolition for a period of six months. A six-month exclusivity period was offered to the Colchester & North East Essex Building Preservation Trust (the CNEEBPT) to enable it to undertake a viability study and to conclude a purchase.

21st May 2013 - The Church Commissioners published their Statement of Reasons, setting out in detail (on 17 pages) the representations they had received and the basis on which they had come to their decision that the Scheme for demolition should proceed subject to certain provisos.

October 2013 - the CNEEBPT published the results of its Birch Church Project Viability Study. This concluded that none of the three schemes it had produced for residential development was viable as in each case the estimated end value was substantially less than the cost of development. The CNEEBPT had then entered into discussions with 'development partners'. One of these was Mr Gary Cottee whose proposal to convert the church into a large 5-bedroom family home became the CNEEBPT's preferred option.

4th and 5th October 2013 - The CNEEBPT organised an exhibition in Birch Memorial Hall of its proposals for preserving the tower and spire of Birch Church. 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 Cottee proposal and no copies available of the CNEEBPT's Birch Church Project Viability Study.

18th December 2013 - The Commissioners' Church Buildings (Uses and Disposals) Committee met. After having carried out their own assessment of the viability of the Cottee proposal, the Committee came to the view that the Cottee proposal was 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.

Early February 2014 - By this date the case had been referred to the Secretary of State, under the terms of the Skelmersdale Agreement, because of sustained objections to the proposed demolition from qualifying bodies.

18th July 2014 - the DCLG wrote to qualifying bodies, notifying them of the Secretary of State's decision that a non-statutory public inquiry should be held in order to fully consider all the issues involved in the case.

Early August 2014 - by this date the file had been passed by the DCLG to the Planning Inspectorate to agree the terms of reference of the inquiry and to make the necessary arrangements.

Early October 2015 - Copies of an undated 'Notice of Non-Statutory Inquiry into the demolition of the Church of St Peter, Birch' were posted near the church. The notice said that Colchester Borough Council had 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 of St Peter, Birch. It went on to say: 'No date has yet been provided for the inquiry but January 2016 has been identified'. Subsequent enquiries revealed that this notice was not the official notice of the Inquiry.

28th July 2016 - A Pre-Inquiry Meeting was held at Colchester Institute. Notice of the meeting was not posted in Birch until Monday, 25th July, a mere three days before the meeting. Neither Birch Parish Council nor the parish's two Borough Councillors were given notice of the meeting. The meeting was chaired by Mr Stuart Reid, the Planning Inspector appointed to conduct the Inquiry.

Present at the meeting were Mr David Balcombe - Director of the CNEEBPT, Mr Paul Shadarevian - Counsel for the CNEEBPT, Mr Simon Cairns of Colchester Borough Council, and representatives of the Church Commissioners with their counsel, Miss Morag Ellis QC. Three Birch residents also attended. Mr Gary Cottee did not attend and was not represented.

As stated in the minutes of the meeting, it was expected that the Inquiry would last for four weeks and would begin in May 2017 or soon thereafter.

20th December 2016 - The Inspectorate notified Colchester Borough Council, but not Birch Parish Council or those Birch residents who had attended the July meeting, that the inquiry timetable agreed at the Pre-Inquiry Meeting had been abandoned and that the Inquiry would now be postponed until the autumn with the likelihood that a new inspector would be appointed.

3rd February 2017 - The Planning Inspectorate met with the Church Commissioners to discuss how best to move the case forward.

9th February 2017 - The Commissioners wrote to the Secretary of State requesting him to reconsider the decision reached in July 2014 to hold a non-statutory Inquiry. Having received no response to their letter of 9th February, the Commissioners wrote to the Secretary of State on 7th July, wondering "if (he) might now give this matter attention".

It is worth noting that the Commissioners' letter of 9th February to the Secretary of State, requesting him to reconsider the decision to hold a public inquiry, was written only six days after the Commissioners' meeting with the Planning Inspectorate. Was the Commissioners' letter written with the tacit approval, or even encouragement, of the Inspectorate? It is fair to assume that at the meeting on 3rd February the parties would have discussed the issue of the viability of the Cottee proposal. The Commissioners would have explained that they had received independently commissioned reports from a well-respected firm of architects and from a firm of chartered quantity surveyors. Both reports estimated the costs of external and internal fabric repairs alone (i.e. without conversion to residential use) to be in excess of £3 million. Mr Cottee estimated the total cost of his project as £1.395 million and his net worth at less than £1.5 million. In the light of that information the Planning Inspectorate was perhaps persuaded that no good purpose would be served by a public inquiry. It may have been more than a little pleased at the prospect of resolving this long-standing and unusual case without the need for a public inquiry.

31st August 2017 - The DCLG emailed interested parties, inviting their representations on the Commissioners request to the Secretary of State that he reconsider the decision to hold an Inquiry.

6th December 2017 - On 6th December Mr Richard Watson, Head of the DCLG's Planning Casework Unit, wrote to the Church Commissioners, notifying them of the Secretary of State's decision that an inquiry, as originally directed in July 2014, remained the appropriate mode of determination in this matter.

It was five years ago that the Church Commissioners published their Draft Pastoral Scheme for demolition and three and a half years ago that the Secretary of State ordered a public inquiry to be held into the matter.

As at January 2018 there is no indication of how soon the public inquiry might take place.