BRITAIN’s oldest synagogue, Bevis Marks, in Aldgate, is said to be under threat of closure if two proposed high-rise developments in the City of London go ahead.
The Grade I listed building, dubbed the “cathedral synagogue” of British Jewry, dates from 1701 and was the first to be built after Jews were allowed back in England in 1656. Trustees have described the City of London Corporation’s plans for two office blocks directly next door as a “systemic planning failure” showing “total disregard” for the Jewish community.
The only non-Christian place of worship in the City of London, it is a centre for people from all over the world, and is home to the UK’s Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities.
The two planning developments, plus a third already approved, will block out sunlight for all but one hour a day, making worship impossible, the trustees say. The building is lit by up to 240 candles, supplemented in 1928 by limited electric lighting, and its listed status prohibits any enhancement of the lighting.
Historic England has declared draft plans for future land use in the City of London unsound, citing Bevis Marks as “one of the country’s most important heritage assets”. The Rabbi of Bevis Marks, Shalom Morris, said that while each new development on its own would be unacceptable, all of them together would be catastrophic.
“We find ourselves as a community alarmed and frustrated that the City policy of focusing tall, high-density development in the Eastern City Cluster has failed to take into account the importance and extreme sensitivity of this Grade I listed synagogue,” he said.
“It represents the unique historic connection between the Jewish community and Britain, and plays such a vital role in London’s heritage. Not only will light be blocked, on which the building depends for ambiance, spirituality, and atmosphere, but the very foundations will be at risk. Yet the Jewish community’s British heritage is treated by the planners and developers as just another building.”
The chair of Bevis Marks Synagogue, Jonathan Solomons, said that the City Corporation had no comprehensive framework in place to identify heritage features of outstanding importance within or near the cluster. He described the applications as “riding roughshod over cultural sensitivities”, and the Corporation’s approach as “piecemeal and opportunistic”.
More than 1000 letters of objection have been submitted. The synagogue wants the decision — due to be announced on 5 October — to be given to the Secretary of State.