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Moving into the 21st century . . .

08 April 2022

. . . is not an easy process when it comes to building plans, William Apedaile found

Visualisation showing the proposed extension behind the memorial garden of St George’s, Jesmond

Visualisation showing the proposed extension behind the memorial garden of St George’s, Jesmond

ST GEORGE’s, Jesmond, in Newcastle, is a Grade I Listed church, consecrated in 1888, and almost untouched since. Almost every internal surface is decorated; it is fully “pewed”, and has no service facilities. The Grade II Listed church hall of the same date has a later extension. Frequent internal remodelling of the hall leaves it still unfit for its purpose, with very poor sound separation and difficult access between the three rooms. Lavatory facilities — the only ones on site — are minimal.

In 2010, the Vicar wrote a Statement of Need about the lack of facilities in the church. In January 2015, after a number of consultations with the congregation, a plan was agreed to an extension accessible through the original north-west door. Overwhelming opinion was that any future planning must include the whole site.

The plan involves building on the edge of the memorial garden, where the ashes of some parishioners are buried. The site is also constricted by the north wall of the church, and the north boundary of the church land. Nevertheless, the design accommodates a meeting room, lavatory facilities, a kitchen, playroom, and storage. The hall design provides two rooms separated by a kitchen and lavatory facilities. A glazed extension to the front of the original extension would provide more spacious access, as well as visual access to the green.

The advice of the Archdeacon was sought, in December 2015. Accompanied by a panel from the DAC, he made two very helpful site visits in early 2016. He commended the design, saying that “The extension must make a statement that St George’s was moving into the 21st century.”

After further design work, Historic England, the Victorian Society, and all the local amenity groups were consulted throughout 2016. The design of the church extension had very strong support throughout, particularly from the Church Buildings Council. A small change to the design of the hall then gained unanimous support for the design.

OUR first attempt to meet the local planning department (LPA), in August 2016, failed. After we showed preliminary layouts without comment, Applications for Planning and Listed Building consents for the Whole Site Plan were submitted in June 2017. Conservation issues were raised by officers, but two meetings, in late 2017, proved abortive.

After prolonged delays, a Section 106 Undertaking was agreed for the impact on the boundary trees, and the church extension was approved by the LPA in March 2019. The faculty application for the extension was submitted in May 2019. There were only 14 objections, from the congregation. The Chancellor twice issued further Directions, and finally issued his judgment approving the church extension in April 2020.

The story of the church hall is much too complex to tell here; suffice it to say that, after rejection of our plans in August 2018, largely because of the proposed glazed extension, an appeal to the planning inspectorate (PINS) was rejected, and, with a modest redesign, we finally gained P&LB approvals in February 2021.

This was a wretched process, undoubtedly complicated by the listed-building system, but also by consistent problems with the LPA and then the PINS. On the church hall, the subjective opinions of the LPA officers, supported by the planning inspector at the hearing, were all in direct contradiction of the views of all the amenity groups mentioned above. Furthermore, there were no objections from the general public, or even from the congregation.

The LPA’s delays with the supposed tree problem delayed our faculty application by five months.

In a Christian congregation, however, we are only too well aware of “motes and beams”. An element of blame also rests with ongoing dissent throughout the project, which reached its climax in the 14 objections to the faculty application. A key issue was the impact of the church extension on the memorial garden, despite the congregation’s choice of that location. These mostly emotional objections were impossible to counter by two volunteers without any clerical leadership, and prolonged the faculty process by months and incurred a fee of approximately £4000.

WHAT lessons can we learn from this project?
1. Insist on an early meeting with the LPA to ensure their understanding of the needs and to determine potential difficulties.

2. Serious internal dissent has to be resolved before starting the project in earnest.

3. The leadership of the project must be clear.

4. The internal decision-making process needs to be quick and efficient

Two of us, with occasional essential support from others, have spent thousands of hours, over six years, using our professional skills voluntarily on this project. It was not our job to convince the congregation — or, indeed the dissidents — of the need for the project. Such volunteer effort is difficult to justify without the wholehearted support of the congregation and the church leadership. I no longer worship at St George’s.

This story demonstrates the vital importance of bishops’ and the General Synod’s being fully aware of the great difficulties that churches can face as they try to drag themselves into the 21st century, both in terms of ministry in the community and also the new eco strategy.

Dr William Apedaile chaired the Whole Site Steering Group for the planning works at St George’s, Jesmond, in Newcastle diocese.

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