Public Inquiry Into St. Alban's Church Adjourns
Community and church groups attended the hearing in Ealing
The Public Inquiry into the proposed residential development of St. Alban's church on Acton Green Common has been adjourned to a date yet to be fixed.
The adjournment followed three days of evidence at Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing during which a number of groups who wish to retain the site for community use, stated their case for opposition to residential development.
The Inquiry will resume at a date to be fixed by the Planning Inspectorate when the developer, Alistair Dias, of Oaktree Court (Ltd), will give the remaining evidence in support of the application. The next hearing is expected to address issues relating to the section 106 payment to Ealing Council, the amount of which is being contested by Mr. Dias.
Ealing Council had understood that an amount of £2.1 million had been agreed as recommended by its advisers, Savills, but the developer had said he was only recently made aware of this report, and rejected it, offering a sum of £177,000 instead.
Chris Chauncy, secretary of St Alban’s (W4) Community Association (‘SACA’), said after the hearing: “The Inspector can surely have been left in no doubt as to the local demand for community space, the value of this particular site that has been in community use for 146 years, and the alternative viable, sustainable and appropriate community uses for it to meet local and wider needs. We hope that the Church of England is able to free itself from any remaining obligation to permit a residential scheme so that it too can fully support and engage in community development of this unique site.”
The Inquiry had heard from the Ealing Council officer responsible for the application, Mr. Peter Lee, that following the unanimous decision of the Planning Committee on 25 th July last year to refer the application back to officers to further investigate community use of the site and the section 106 offer made, the Council had concluded that it could not support the residential planning application.
Under cross-examination by Mr Timothy Comyn for the developer who referred to the two earlier reports that the officer had issued supporting the application, Mr Lee explained that the Council had changed its mind following its review and further investigation of the alternative community proposals. In view of its conclusion that there were appropriate, sustainable alternatives, including church and school options that did not require planning permission, the Council felt that it could not support residential development of the site.
A series of witnesses gave evidence against the application, nine called by the St Alban’s (W4) Community Association and six further interested parties. These included representatives of three Christian churches that made representations pleading for the church to be retained for Christian worship. All wanted to take forward bids to acquire the site.
Simon Abdel-Nour, secretary of the Antiochian Orthodox Society explained that, given the opportunity, the church would like to acquire the site to use the church for itself and redevelop the southern half of the site for a nursery school, a church and community hall and other community uses.
Steve Mouradian, architect and member of the sub-committee of the Armenian Church looking into acquiring the site explained how valuable the site would be for their community that had a strong presence locally, but no place of worship. Although they had been looking for a suitable site in the area for some years, they had only learned about the St. Alban’s site in July last year.
Development of the site by the Armenian Church would include facilities available to the wider local community and redevelop the southern part of the site to replace the temporary buildings and include a nursery school. The existing Caterpillar Montessori Nursery School would be welcome to stay.
The Rt Rev BishopVahan Hovhanessian confirmed that if planning permission for residential development was refused and the Church of England was no longer bound by its contract for residential development, then the Church of England had explained that it would reconsider its own needs for the site and if it did not itself require the site for Anglican Christian worship, would offer it to other Christian Churches, including the Armenian Church. Only if the site was not required by any of those churches would the church be offered first for other community uses and then, if no suitable community use could be found, for other uses.
Dr Tamara Dragadze explained how another Christian Russian Orthodox Church was desperately in need of a place of worship after the confiscation of its property. The Russian Orthodox Cathedral in London was controversially taken over by the Moscow authorities in 2006. The congregation that had left the church following what they saw as the confiscation of their property had since been seeking premises of its own and would welcome the opportunity to bid for St Alban’s as its new church. They would also be prepared to work with others and the wider local community to acquire the site. When they also had learnt that the church might no longer be required by the Church of England several years previously, they had also been told that it was not available.
Representatives of SiteLine Entertainments, Paul Vick, architect and Mark (‘Fred’) Perry explained their project for a theatre and visual arts and community centre on the site. They explained the attraction of the unique community location and the popularity and demand for such facilities outside central London and how this particular part of West London was an ideal location for such a facility. Paul Vick explained its value to the local community and how it would help to meet local community demands without calling upon government funding. Fred Perry explained his involvement in the development of the nearby small Tabard Theatre, the desire to provide a larger venue locally and the financial viability of the project.
Gerald McGregor presented the option of an Anglican free school on the site and how it would go some way towards meeting the pressing demand for school places locally. The local catchment area for such a small primary school would mean a limited and manageable road transport impact and a real benefit to the local community. The school would work well alongside a nursery school and Mr McGregor would welcome the existing Caterpillar Montessori Nursery School. Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, had just changed the rules for free school applications to make it easier for groups without finalised premises to get approval and funding.
Steve Flynn of Acton Community Forum referred to the desperate need for community facilities in the area around the St Alban’s site and explained how the Forum would be willing to work with any of the groups interested in the site in order to support community development and maximise benefit to the local community.
Other speakers made representations relating to the heritage and conservation issues involved, the need for community facilities in this area of Ealing and urging that the residential proposal was finally rejected to make way for valuable community development..
Cllr Harvey Rose expressed the local Councillors’ support for keeping St Alban’s as a community facility and explained the pressures on community space and the local needs.
Colin Bastin , chair of SACA referred to the strong local support for much needed community use of the site demonstrated by the petition that had collected 4,894 signatures, names and addresses, the overwhelming support for continued community use and the need to allow the projects for community use of the site to go forward to meet local and wider demands.
After all objectors had been heard, the Inquiry heard from Laurence Haward, school secretary for Caterpillar Montessori Nursery, the co-applicant for planning permission for this mostly residential scheme. Answering questions put by Chris Chauncy, Laurence Haward explained that his wife, Melanie Haward owned the Nursery and that they were approached by developers Alistair Dias and Paul Higgs in 2007. They had been offered a stake in the project including the option to purchase or rent one of the two matching ‘pavilion’ style buildings to be built on the south side of the church. Laurence Haward refuse to disclose details of the agreement that Caterpillar had reached with the developer save to say that it gave Caterpillar exclusive rights to the proposed new building.
The Inquiry was adjourned following Laurence Haward’s evidence. It would resume at a date to be fixed by the Planning Inspectorate when Alistair Dias would give the remaining evidence in support of the application and issues relating to the section 106 payment would be addressed. The Council reiterated at the hearing that it had understood the developer to have been prepared to offer the full £2.1 million recommended by its advisors, Savills, in July last year. Now the developer claimed that it had only recently seen the Savills report, rejected its findings and was prepared to offer only £117,000 towards off-site affordable housing if residential development was permitted at all.
The St. Alban's Community Association (SACA) which is seeking to have the site retained for community use, was granted Rule Six status, giving it the ability to put forward its own case for opposing the application, to bring its own evidence and ask questions.
The developers of the site, who are seeking permission to be granted to convert the disused church at South Parade into ten residential flats and two two-storey buildings are Oaktree Court (Bedford Park) Ltd, a company set up for the purpose of developing the site.
February 6, 2013