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Construction starts on ‘sensitive’ Spitalfields site

30 November 2012

GEOFF CRAWFORD

THE construction of a new nursery and community building on an "extremely sensitive" site, a few feet away from Christ Church, Spitalfields, a Grade I listed building designed by Nicholas Hawskmoor, is under way, after "much passionate debate".

The application to build on land between Christ Church Gardens and Christ Church C of E Primary School, a conservation area that was originally the churchyard (pictured, above), was submitted by the trustees of the school, and approved by Tower Hamlets Borough Council in July last year.

Campaigners, however, argue that the council has taken "potentially unlawful steps" in recent months. In a letter to the interim chief executive of the council, and the Chancellor and Registrar of the diocese of London, four local residents involved in interest groups - the Friends of Christ Church, Spitalfields (FCCS), the Spitalfields Trust, the Spitalfields Society, and Spitalfields Open Space - argue that Christ Church Gardens is the site of a disused burial ground, which has not been deconsecrated, and that no provision has been made for reburying the in- terred remains.

They also argue that the land, held in charitable trust by the council, should not be "taken out of public recreational enjoyment".

Philip Vracas, of the Spitalfields Society, said this month that the campaign opposing the building was "ongoing. . . The preferred outcome is we should decide whether we are a law-abiding community or not, and, if we are, then it needs to be torn down, and the churchyard needs to be restored for the benefit of the public and of the heritage setting." The school should consider "acquiring a plot next door to the school, or building in its own existing playground".

On its website, the FCCS argues that the partially completed building, which replaces a youth centre constructed in 1969, with temporary permission, is "intrusive and unsympathetic" to the setting. FCCS wants to see the churchyard gardens "reinstated in full", with no building to the south of the church.

In March, the leaders of all three main political parties on the council wrote to the Archdeacon of London, the Ven. Peter Delaney, asking him to "revisit" the proposals.

A total of 315 letters opposing the plans were received by the council, 252 of which came from people resident outside the borough. Letters of support from 242 people included 176 from those living inside the borough. A petition addressed to the Bishop of London opposing the building attracted 650 supporters.

A spokeswoman for the council said that its development committee believed the building to be a "significant improvement" on the earlier youth centre: it is lower in height, and would create a larger space between it and the church.

The school needed "additional educational space", and the building would deliver "wider benefits for the community", who would be able to use it out of hours. The spokeswoman argued that the land was "not on public open space", and was "currently closed off" to members of the public.

Although the planning application had been thoroughly looked at, the spokeswoman, when asked about the concerns relating to the disused burial ground, said that "the granting of planning and other associated conservation-area consent does not obviate the possible need for other permissions."

In a submission to the council last year, English Heritage said that the new building was "more sympathetic to the setting of the church".

A statement from the diocese of London said that the development had been reviewed by the diocesan advisory committee for the care of churches, and had been granted a faculty by the Diocesan Chancellor. It said that the development of the gardens and youth centre would mean that the public space would double in size, and that "the new development will create a substantial area of beautiful public green space and a versatile new building, all of which will be of enormous benefit to the school, church, and community."

The building is scheduled to be completed by May next year.

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