A RURAL PCC in Northamptonshire has condemned a decision by the diocese of Peterborough to sell 114 acres of glebe land without acknowledging community objection. This was a “betrayal” of Christian mission in the area, the PCC said.
Last month, the PCC of St Mary the Virgin, Titchmarsh, received formal notice that the Peterborough diocesan board of finance (DBF) had agreed to sell a ten-year development option on a plot of agricultural land between Titchmarsh and the neighbouring town of Thrapston.
The lay chairman of the PCC, Stephen Barber, explained on Monday of last week: “The diocese’s envisaged industrial and logistic park development will effectively join Titchmarsh and Thrapston, and create a large socially and visually intrusive development in what is currently open countryside.”
A resident, Antar Howarth, said: “The local council have said they do not require any more land for this purpose. The proposed site is bigger than the inhabited part of the village. The land also sits alongside a nature reserve of special scientific interest.”
About 150 people, including the PCC, residents, and some supporting clergy and neighbouring parishioners, have written to the Bishop of Peterborough, the Rt Revd Donald Allister, to object to the plans and express multiple concerns. A website and petition have also been set up.
“Disappointingly,” Mr Barber said, “to date, all letters have been answered by the Bishop’s Chaplain, stating that the Bishop has no direct involvement in the matter. The PCC finds [this] simply incredible, as in the DBF annual report and accounts 2019, the Bishop claims to be in overall charge of the diocese, is president and a director of the DBF, and is a member of the DBF management team.”
Many correspondents had pointed to the fund-raising efforts of St Mary’s, he said, which, thanks to £1 million in funding from grants and local support, had recently been restored with a new servery and lavatories. The church had also introduced a Sunday school, and a support group for teenagers.
This progress, Mr Barber said, “is now threatened by the diocese’s action. While the PCC has supported previous limited development of our glebe land, the scale of the development the diocese now proposes is without local precedent, and is nowhere supported by the policy or detail of local land use planning. . .
“Our community has been deeply scarred by previous botched developments, and continues to live with the consequences. However hard the PCC works to maintain relationships with our village community, it is inevitable that the wider community will see the diocese’s action as a betrayal of the duty of pastoral care, and that this will undermine the Christian mission at our local level.”
He continued: “The diocese appears to have focused purely on its investment strategy, its finances, and the funds it needs to support its own bureaucracy and narrow objectives. . . We find it inexplicable that a diocesan administration allegedly committed to growth and mission can, with so little thought, no consultation, and no empathy, walk all over a rural community that has steadily and significantly increased its support of the local church over the last 30 years.”
Mr Barber said that the PCC was also concerned about the “state of ecclesiastical law” in this area. The notice that the PCC was served regarding the land was stated as being under Section 20(5) of the Endowments and Glebe Measure 1976, Mr Barber said. “But, as that legislation was repealed last year, we suspect it is actually under Section 22 of the Church Property Measure 2018.”
This meant that, while the PCC could make representations to the DBF, it could appeal only through the civil planning process, he said. “The PCC is concerned that the DBF is shaping up to effectively ‘wash its hands’ of any impacts of its decision on the mission of the local church and its relationship with its local community.”
The diocese of Peterborough said in a statement last week that supporting the provision of clergy and church growth presented “a great financial challenge, and did so even before the current pandemic.
“Many sources of income go towards realising this commitment, including the parish share paid by our churches, national grants, donations, and investments such as glebe land. The diocese has a responsibility to make the best possible use of all its assets so that it can continue to support the provision of clergy.
“A proper legal process is being followed to ensure that any representations regarding proposals for glebe land in Thrapston and Titchmarsh, from their parochial church councils, are given due consideration. In the event that this should lead to actual development proposals, the usual civil planning process would apply, and any interested parties can comment at that stage.”
A briefing sent by the diocese to the PCC reads: “We are seeking to enter into an option agreement for a period of 10 years with IM Properties to promote land at Titchmarsh Glebe for development. The site extends to 114 acres and lies to the east of the A605. Under the same agreement, IM Properties will also promote a smaller area of land (5.1 acres) to the east of the A605.
“The proposal for the larger site is to deliver a sustainable industrial and logistics park with significant economic, social and environmental benefits. The smaller parcel of land will deliver an improved roundabout junction with a residential or mixed-use development.”
A notice was also sent to the PCC of St James’s, Thrapston, concerning the smaller development.