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Church begins pioneer project in east London

10 January 2014


Regenerating: (above and below) concept drawings of the development plan for St Mark's Church and community centre, and its interior. St Mark's is in the diocese of Chelmsford

Regenerating: (above and below) concept drawings of the development plan for St Mark's Church and community centre, and its interior. St Mark's is i...

A CHURCH in London has begun an ambitious regeneration project that will create a new church building, 97 affordable homes, a community centre, a gym, and 50 new jobs. Demolition work has already started on the 1950s building of St Mark's, in Marks Gate, Barking, and the church hopes to have the work completed by 2015.

Canon Roger Gayler, who has led St Mark's for 38 years, said that the scheme had been many years in the making. "In 2007, we tried to get some grants to repair and maintain the building," he said. "We didn't get that money, but it brought us into contact with the Berkeley Foundation [a charity that helps churches develop under-used land], who asked us: 'What is it you actually want?' We talked about the vision, and realised it was not just repairing, but rebuilding to serve the community."

The proposal, which was finally signed off in September, means that St Mark's will lease its land to the local council, Barking and Dagenham, for 150 years, at a peppercorn rent. The council will then build the new homes, church, and community centre, before leasing the church and other facilities back to St Mark's, free of charge. A crèche, coffee shop, training kitchen, media college, and business start-up units will also be housed in the new development.

"We had a pre-school, youth groups, pantomimes, and dancing clubs [using the church], but you could only do one thing at a time," Canon Gayler said. "In the new building, we can have the pre-school morning and afternoon, and parents can also have a workout in the gym, join the community choir in the auditorium, and use the church to pray."

St Mark's did not have a large congregation, Canon Gayler said; so offering services to the local area was vital to keep its outreach credible within the community. "We can also do things around debt and social enterprise, and other issues which are prevalent here, like domestic violence," he said.

Marks Gate is an area of high unemployment, and a local councillor, Sam Tarry, said that a great deal of the housing stock was of a low standard. "We need to offer our young people the possibility of careers to enrich their lives, and community programmes which set Marks Gate apart as the place to live," he said.

"Roger Gayler is a star in Marks Gate for me. He is a man who so evidently cares about his people, and when he first talked to me about his dream for a new church, linked to a state-of-the-art community complex and housing to boot, I felt it was something we could and must make happen."

A Christian social enterprise for the homeless, Green Pastures, will also be involved in the project. Its chairman, the Revd Peter Cunningham, said: "We feel we are part of the population of Marks Gate, and have committed ourselves to this development because we really do care about the people."

Canon Gayler said that leasing rather than selling the land was important, and was a model that other churches should use. "We are trying to learn lessons from the past, and not just selling the family silver," he said. "The council gets the benefit of the housing; we get the benefit of a community development that has not cost us anything.

"The church will increase its asset base hugely, and still retain the freehold of the land, but, more importantly, will be engaging right at the heart of the community, creating some full- and part-time jobs for the facilities that will be housed there."

The scheme has also been backed by the Bishop of Barking, the Rt Revd David Hawkins. "The Marks Gate project offers new and practical opportunities for everyone, in an area which needs a lift," he said.


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