Decision Day Looms for St. Alban's Church Development

Campaigners say site should be used for Free School or theatre not flats

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Members of the newly-formed St. Alban's Community Association (SACA) have lodged an objection to plans to convert the disused St. Alban's Church into ten flats and a house. Their alternative plan, which will be discussed by Ealing Council next week, includes the possibility of setting up a Free School for the St. Michael and All Angels church or a community-based theatre group and cafe on the site.

The group ,which claims the support of local celebrities including actor Richard Briers, says there are several ways the site could be used, including mixed-use community development and a cafe. Two Orthodox churches are also believe to be interested in taking over the building.

Ealing Council officials and councillors visited the site on Saturday (November 5th) and SACA called on locals opposed to the development to assemble outside the building on South Parade to voice their opposition. Over 50 people attended and they were given access to the inside of the Church.

Residents inside Church on Saturday - picture by Ian Wylie

A decision on the controversial development is expected to be made at a planning committee meeting at Ealing Town Hall next Wednesday (November 9th). A report by a council official has recommended granting planning permission to the developer, subject to conditions, but the Chiswick-based group, which has collected a petition of 4,500 signatures opposed to the plan, wants the building to be kept for community use.

In their objection to the planning application the SACA groups calls on councillors to resist residential development and engage with the community to develop an alternative use of the church building and site.

Their submission to the Council includes a proposal from Sightline Entertainment to convert the building into a theatre and visual arts venue with a 350-seat auditorium, cafe, rehearsal space for school and youth productions and art exhibitions. The proposal, from Chiswick-based theatre businessman Mark Perry claims such a venue would have a"resounding positive impact" on the local area.

A proposal from St. Michael and All Angels church for a Free School on the site says that the church and its existing buildings offer 1785m of space over two floors and outlying buildings, and an overall scheme could create a school of 12 classrooms of 24 students, including staff offices and facilities. The scheme would incorporate the Caterpillar Montessori Nursery School and give children the opportunity to progress into the new school which would have a special interest in music and dance.

The group already has partnership and location sharing proposals for school playing field utilisation at Dukes Meadow for any potential new academy.

"The outlying building associated with the school should be run as a community café for the popular and frequented common land of Acton Green. This in itself would produce an income stream to assist the school in its vision and aims. It would provide a vital interface with public and encourage members of the community to consider what the school has to offer." says the submission.

St Michael's says it believes it to be a "credible plan' and it is aware of the need for local schooling within the Acton Green area.

St. Alban's, a Victorian red-brick structure which was built in 1888, ceased to be a functioning Church of England parish church in the late 1990s and was then used by evangelical mission the Oak Tree Anglican fellowship, which relocated to Acton in 2006, finding it unsuitable due to the need for renovation and difficult accessibility.

In recent years there has been a growing fashion for former churches to be converted into residential accommodation as the church-going population declines throughout the UK.

The current application before the council is for conversion of the disused church building into ten residential flats and the demolition of the former church hall building and second outbuilding, currently occupied by the Caterpillar Montessori group. This would be replaced with two two-storey' pavilion' type structures, one to provide a replacement nursery school facility and the other a detached house. It is understood there is a contract for sale subject to planning permission between the Church of England and a local developer. In 2006 when the vicarage of St. Alban's was sold it fetched a price of £3.2million, the highest price ever paid for residential property in Chiswick at that time.

The application to convert the building was made last December and a report to be presented to next week's planning committee will recommend the development.

Defending its decision to sell for residential development, the London Diocese issued a statement to Ealing Council explaining that the Church of St. Alban's, one of three in the parish of Acton Green (the others are St. Peter's in Southfield Road, and the All Saints Church Centre in Bollo Bridge Road) was no longer required for worship due to "diminishing attendances".

"The Parish of Acton Green concluded in 1997 that its mission and outreach to the community could be best served by concentrating their resources at St Peter's and All Saints "said the letter from the Diocesan Project Development manager.

"In our view, the existing building has reached the end of its useful life in its current form, and our experience is one of little demand for use of such a facility in the area" according to the church statement. The conversion to residential use has been approved by the London Diocesan Redundant Churches Uses committee and the Advisory Board for Redundant Churches.

Bur SACA, who claim to have the support of the shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Hilary Benn, and local Liberal Democrat councillors,is opposed to using the building for commercial use. The group claims the plan for residential development was made without sufficient prior public consultation and a residential scheme would alter the character of the public area of Acton Green.

The matter was originally due to be discussed at the end of this month by Ealing Council planning committee but the date was brought forward to next week.
According to a council report on the application;

"The proposal is considered to represent an appropriate use of this site which lies within a designated Residential Area and would provide a sustainable re-use of the currently vacant church building and would provide a development at a residential density in accordance with relevant London Plan guidance. The removal and replacement of the existing nursery school buildings, which are identified within the Acton Green Conservation Area Character Appraisal as having a negative impact, would enhance the character and appearance of the conservation area."

The fate of St Alban's church is likely to be seen as a litmus test of the Church of England’s commitment to community values, according to the campaign group.

"Should the Church be selling to the highest bidder in the first place even if it means alienating part of the local community or should it see this as an opportunity to leave a community with a resource for the future. We hope that Ealing Borough Council will help the Church to do the right thing" commented SACA secretary Chris Chauncy.

November 6, 2011