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Fens demolition ‘would be tragedy’

22 November 2013


"Victorian jewel in the fens": St Paul's Eastville

"Victorian jewel in the fens": St Paul's Eastville

THE Chancellor of the diocese of Lincoln, the Revd and Worshipful Judge Mark Bishop QC, has been asked to consider making an order for the demolition of a small Grade II-listed Victorian church on the grounds that it is necessary in the interests of health and safety, and because there is not enough time to obtain a faculty. He said that it "would be a tragedy if it was necessary to demolish this Victorian jewel in the Fens", and asked for more advice from specialists before making a final decision.

The church, St Paul's, Eastville, is situated in flat fenland 12 miles east of Boston. It was the last of six churches built under the Fen Churches Act 1816, and was completed in 1840. It is not in a conservation area, and is regarded as having only landscape value owing to its isolated location in a churchyard a mile-and-a-half north of the village.

The quinquennial survey in June 2005 stated that the church was generally in a good condition; some minor repointing and drainage work was necessary, but "nothing serious". Three years later, the CBC reported that damp ingress and flaking plaster were evident. The church ceased to be used for worship in about 2007, because there were signs of movement in the structure, and the congregation could no longer take on the financial burden of maintaining the building.

The congregation now worships in New Leake, a small chapel on the border of Eastville and New Leake village. Although no longer in use, St Paul's has not been made the subject of a formal closure process, and, if that process were now begun, it would take at least 18 months for it to be completed.

In October 2012, the local authority received a complaint that the church was in a dangerous condition. An external inspection raised concerns, and the perimeter of the church was secured by a fence line to protect the public from falling masonry. The DAC instructed a consulting structural engineer to report on the damage to the church and to make recommendations.

The engineer's report stated that there was serious structural damage, and that the church could be stabilised only by complete underpinning, which was theoretically possible. The delicate condition of the chancel arch and the north transept, however, meant that they could collapse at any time, which would bring down the roof, and, if that happened, cause the progressive collapse of the whole building.

The report concluded that the church could collapse "in the very near future"; that "any form of underpinning would be dangerous in this situation"; and that it was doubtful if any specialist contractor would be prepared to undertake piled underpinning of the church with the level of risk involved.

The danger to members of the public arose because they had to have access to the graveyard to tend graves; there was shared access with dwelling houses on both sides; and it was impossible to fence off an area to protect the public from a potential collapse of the tower. It was decided by the local authority that it would seek an order in the Magistrates' Court if the church did not act to remove the danger.

The Chancellor, to whom the application for the demolition of the church was made, under section 18 of the Care of Churches and Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1991, inspected the church. It was clear, he said, that it had been a much-loved parish church, as demonstrated by the artefacts left inside; and the churchyard continued to be a focus for the community, with several well-cared-for graves and a very recent burial.

The Chancellor asked the surveyors to answer four questions: (1) How close to collapse is the chancel arch? (2) What preventive measures are practicable to support the arch to prevent collapse? (3) If the chancel arch were supported by such measures, to what extent would the risk of collapse be reduced? (4) What is the minimum measure immediately necessary to secure the safety of neighbours and visitors?

If the only way in which demolition could be prevented was by operatives standing beneath the chancel arch in an effort to prop it up, then that would involve too great a risk for it to be attempted. A controlled demolition would inevitably follow. There had been a number of suggestions of remote working, however, involving a technique which would mean that operatives would not be exposed to that unacceptable risk. Further advice was required from a specialist in dealing with the problems which faced this church.

The Chancellor said that he was not satisfied that it had been established that demolition was the "minimum measure immediately necessary", and that it was not practicable to secure safety and health by works of repair. The requirements of section 18 of the 1991 Measure had not been met, and no order would be made until specialist advice had been taken and a plan adopted for the church.

In the mean time, the Chancellor stood ready to make any emergency orders if required.

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