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".

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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 - 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".

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

The Commissioners argued that Mr Cottee's 'anticipated' net worth fell well below the cost of repair and conversion of the building which in turn would be considerably more than its market value at completion. They expressed their very real concern that if the Cottee scheme was allowed to go ahead, once partial demolition and repair was commenced the project would founder and be abandoned. (That is very much a concern of some Birch residents.)

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.

Subsequently the DCLG emailed those who had made representations with all the representations that had been received, 'suitably redacted where appropriate'. The email also requested final comments on these representations.

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

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

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.

21st February 2018 - A 2nd Pre-Inquiry Meeting was held at Colchester United Football Club. The meeting was chaired by Mr Colin Ball, the new Planning Inspector appointed to conduct the Inquiry.

Subsequently Mr Ball issued his detailed Note (formal record) of the meeting. This clarified the main issues for the inquiry and explained various procedural matters. The Inspector was very conscious of the long delays in holding the Inquiry and was keen to start it as soon as possible, as were the Church Commissioners. At the start of the meeting he talked about beginning the Inquiry in May or June (2018). Because of issues raised by objectors to demolition the Inspector then proposed that the inquiry should open in October 2018. On 7th March the Planning Inspectorate issued an 'Inquiry Programme incorporating agreed dates', the last line of which reads: "9 October Inquiry opens".

On 12th April an email was received from the Planning Inspectorate saying: "An inquiry date has not yet been agreed". The Inspectorate understood that the Church Commissioners were waiting for Mr Cottee to submit his planning permission and listed building consent applications.

20th April 2018 - The Church Commissioners wrote to the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). Among other things their letter stated: 'The Commissioners have … decided they have no choice but to withdraw the referral of the proposal, that is, the draft Scheme for demolition, from the Secretary of State … .' The opening sentence of the final paragraph reads: 'The Church Commissioners are, therefore, for the moment, withdrawing its referral to the Secretary of State of the draft Scheme for demolition of Birch St Peter church and the proposed Inquiry will not proceed.'

In their letter the Commissioners said they remained concerned that they still had no detail of the repair, refurbishment or rebuilding works proposed by Mr Cottee beyond the original sketch plans and outline of costs. They went on to say this meant that they were unable to prepare further for the proposed inquiry or properly test the viability of Mr Cottee's proposals. The Commissioners said they would review their position in six months' time, by when they would expect Mr Cottee to have produced fully detailed drawings and schedules of works with detailed cost estimates; also, that Mr Cottee will have applied for a grant of planning permission and listed building consent and confirmed in detail the availability of external grant funding including from Historic England and other bodies.

12th June 2018 - The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government wrote to interested parties informing them 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" and confirming "that, as a consequence, the non-statutory public inquiry will not proceed". The letter went on to confirm that "the Secretary of State’s interest in the matter has now concluded and the case will be closed".

Whilst this was the end of the matter for the Secretary of State and the public inquiry ordered by one of his predecessors in July 2014, Birch residents had no clarity on what would happen now about the future of the church building.

13th July 2018 - the Essex County Standard published a letter from the Church Commissioners give their reason for withdrawing their reference to the Secretary of State. They said the reason they "have pressed the pause button on the public inquiry … is solely because the promoter of the alternative proposal for a residential dwelling has not produced any detailed information." They go on to say: "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."

29th July 2018 - Colchester Borough Council received and registered planning and listed building consent applications from Mr Cottee for the conversion of Birch church to a five-bedroom residence. The proposed development is described on Colchester Borough Council's website as: "Demolition of majority of south aisle (retaining western gable wall). Renovation of retained building envelope, Conversion to single dwelling, including new reinforced concrete raft foundation, partial mezzanine and new floors to tower."

The plans submitted to Colchester Borough Council show that in addition to the five bedrooms and the living and dining rooms, there are to be a large games room, a cinema room, an office, a snug and a shower and boot room. Part of the churchyard to the south of the church would become a private garden and car parking for the residence. Like the building itself, this part of the churchyard would become private property with no public access.

Notification of these applications was not sent to Birch Parish Council until the evening of Monday 4th September. Objections to, or comments on, the applications, Nos 181908 and 181909, have to be received by Colchester Borough Council by Monday 24th September.