An important step was taken this week to preserve a historic church in Walworth, whose owners want to knock it down for a new development that would include flats, as Southwark councillors voted to include the site in a conservation area.
At an occasionally “aggressive” planning meeting on Tuesday evening (November 30), councillors heard from Tim Whitton of the East Street Baptist Church, who, as we reported last week, wants to demolish the nineteenth-century church building and former ‘ragged’ school for poor children, and from members of local heritage group the Walworth Society, who want to block the plans.
All but one of the councillors on the planning committee voted to extend the boundaries of the nearby Walworth Road conservation area to include the church building, in order to stop an application for demolition put in last month by the church owners.
As the church was not in the conservation area and is not listed, its owners were previously able to apply to knock it down without submitting plans for what they would build in its place. Extending the conservation area blocks this possibility.
Before the vote, Pastor Whitton told the committee there were no actual plans to knock the building down before they could put in an application for a replacement – instead the right to demolish was a legal ploy in response to the Walworth Society’s bid to get the church listed.
He said that East Street Baptist Church has been serving its community for over 100 years.
“At the moment our church is made up of people from a variety of different backgrounds and ages – we’re a very ethnically and socially diverse church, and as a church we’re incredibly active in the community, we run a clothes bank, we run youth clubs for all ages with about 40 different kids on a Friday night, a stay and play toddler group. And on a Sunday we have about 150 people across both services we run.
“As a church we support the most vulnerable in the community and do a lot to help. However our building hinders rather than helps us to do this. It’s now very old and dilapidated, it costs thousands of pounds a year to heat and maintain, our roof is leaky and parts of the building are structurally unsafe.”
Pastor Whitton added that the building is “quite cold and uninviting”, and puts people off coming in. “Passers-by thought it was derelict because it was so cold and uninviting,” he said.
There is no money to restore the church, he said – a project that would stretch to hundreds of thousands of pounds. The church has no external funding and is entirely reliant on current and former members of its congregation – many of whom live in poverty, he said – to survive.
Instead Pastor Whitton wants a modern building that would help church members carry out their work more effectively. Building flats with a developer would give the church enough money for a new building.
Pastor Whitton said: “We’re doing our absolute best to serve the community from our old building but we desperately want to do more…
“We want to be able to provide washing and cleaning facilities to the most vulnerable in the community. We want to turn the clothes bank into a clothes and food bank.”
A developer accompanying Pastor Whitton took a more adversarial tone, slamming the Walworth Society’s application to get the building listed without telling the church as “underhand”, adding that “they came into the building under false pretences”.
Committee member Cllr Kath Whittam remarked that this comment was “aggressive” and “a strange way to behave”. A member of the society said at the meeting that they had always been at the church with Pastor Whitton’s knowledge.
Pastor Whitton said that he didn’t want to be “too adversarial with the Walworth Society, they care about heritage and I certainly understand that… the simple truth is though there are two options, there’s restoration of the current building or there is a new build… we are diametrically opposed on that.”
But neither Pastor Whitton nor the developer could provide much assurance as to what the new housing would look like, other than it would probably be a six-storey building. They did not provide any information on how many flats the building would contain, nor on the amount of social housing.
Planners said at the meeting that, although there had been early-stage discussions with Southwark about building council flats on the site several years ago, there was no “live” proposal for council homes at the moment.
Speaking for the Walworth Society, its chair Jeremy Leach told the committee of the historic importance of the building, and cited other local examples of old churches and mission buildings being renovated and restored, rather than knocked down.