A SIGNIFICANT reordering for a historic church is in limbo after developers of adjacent land who promised to give financial backing to the project sold their site to the Government.
The Grade I listed St Mary’s, at Sevington, near Ashford, in Kent, was due to receive £450,000 towards a reordering that would turn the building into a community hub. The cash was offered by the Axa/Friends Life pension fund, which planned to build a warehouse complex on the land beside the 12th-century church. Earlier this year, however, the Government bought the site to build a large post-Brexit customs checkpoint for lorries.
A spokeswoman for Canterbury diocese said that, none the less, “As part of their ownership of the land, the Government have taken on all of the obligations that apply to this ownership when it was transferred from AXA.”
That said, no detailed discussions had taken place. “Nor is anything yet confirmed with regards to taking forward our long-planned renovation work.”
Only a hedge separates the 100-acre plot from the churchyard of St Mary’s. The plans included a new car park, new and relaid floors and tiling, a kitchen, improved lighting and heating, and repairs to the roof, timbers, and stonework.
A leaflet produced for local consultation said that the reordering would provide a more flexible space which, in addition to worship, would offer “refreshment and relaxation spaces, fitness and art classes, intimate concerts and lectures.
“The re-ordered church will serve the new business community by providing respite, spiritual comfort and refreshment during work breaks. This will ensure not only the continued use of the church, but will also provide the church with an income to maintain its upkeep and enable it to continue to serve the community as a place of worship.”
Paul Bartlett, a Conservative ward councillor for Sevington and deputy leader of Ashford Borough Council, said: “The plans for the church are very exciting and really beneficial for the community. There are services there every month, but it is like so many churches — attendances are low. It is difficult to attract people. The intention was that the church would be brought into more regular use, and the community supports that.”
The sudden annnouncement last summer that the Government had bought the site was initially not welcomed in Ashford, he said, “but we understand the need for it. l Iive 25 yards from the site, and was a little grumpy when the news broke, but I have got over that now. I would describe residents as ‘reluctant supporters’. There is a possibility that up to 400 jobs could be created, and, at a time of high unemployment, that is welcome news.”
There was relief that Axa’s plans for an Amazon distribution warehouse, which would have dwarfed St Mary’s rare octagonal steeple, will not now go ahead.
Mr Bartlett is also hopeful that an unused part of the site can be converted into a wildlife habitat, to offset the carbon footprint of lorries expected to spend at least two hours having their loads checked.
The site, called an Inland Border Facility by the Government, is close to junction 10a of the M20, and has space for 1700 lorries.
The Team Rector of the Ashford Town Benefice, Canon Jeremy Worthen, said: “As a church family, we are committed to supporting our local community in Sevington throughout all the changes that lie ahead, including the ongoing commercial development as well as that arising from Brexit. We want to be a welcoming place for all who come to the area, whether they’re local residents, people who work here, or just passing through.
“As part of this picture, we are working with those who are preparing for the proposed Inland Border Facility to ensure that our church building is properly protected during construction work. Looking to the future, we are also working on plans to better equip our building to be a continuing resource for the whole community.”