Fight over future of historic Walworth church slated for demolition

Kit Heren (20 November, 2021)

The East Street Baptist Church wants to knock down the building and build flats and a new church

50155East Street Baptist Church (Walworth Society)

A Walworth community group is protesting plans by a local church in the area to knock down their historic place of worship for flats and a new church.

The East Street Baptist Church submitted a planning application to demolish its nineteenth-century building earlier this month. As things stand, because the church is not listed and not part of a conservation area, it can be knocked down without a plan submitted for its replacement.

But Southwark Council planners have now recommended that the nearby Walworth Road conservation area be expanded “with immediate effect” to include the “recognised local landmarks” – which would mean that the church would have to get full planning permission to go ahead with the demolition.

If the conservation area were not extended, the council would have just 28 days to consider the application from the time it went in – November 9 – after which the church could be knocked down if the local authority had not made a decision.

Tim Whitton, the pastor of the East Street Baptist Church, told the News that the money that goes on the upkeep of the old building would be better spent on its outreach programmes in the local community. He added that the “austere” church was not welcoming to outsiders.

“The building is very old and swallows money,” he said. “The roof is leaky, there are damp issues… we had a service a few years ago when I was preaching and we had a power cut in the middle of the service. All of these big problems swallow a lot of our time and a lot of money.

“We could use that money to serve in the local community, rather than trying to sustain an old building.

“The second thing is this building is not the most welcoming place – it’s kind of dark and austere. We want to be a church where anyone from any background feels like they can be welcomed – we want to be warm and friendly, instead of this intimidating and scary place, which it can be unless you are used to coming into a church.”

But the Walworth Society, which promotes the heritage of the local area, objects to the plans and has submitted an application to Historic England to get the building listed – which could prevent the church from being knocked down. Historic England said it could not provide an exact timeframe for when a decision would be made on the listing.

The society said that the church contains “a wealth of social, cultural and architectural significance”. They said it was a strong example of a nineteenth-century inner city Christian mission outpost that didn’t belong to an existing parish, and is one of two that still survive in the area, alongside the younger Pembroke College Mission.

Jeremy Leach, the society’s chair, said that the group was “extremely supportive” of the church’s community work in Walworth and that they understand the church’s need for a suitable building. No one in the Walworth Society is a member of the church’s congregation, two society members said.

Mr Leach added: “The church building has an amazing history originally as the home for one of earliest ragged schools in the area and later as the Mission and Church. This history is coupled with its important location as a landmark that has stood at the corner of East Street and Portland Street for almost 150 years.

“There are a number of examples in our area of updating and refurbishing historic buildings so that they can work well for the organisations that use them and retain the history and character that so benefits the local area. We hope that this can be the future for this historic building too.”

Society members added that the church is intact and repairable, inside and out. But Pastor Whitton said the cost of refurbishment would likely stretch to hundreds of thousands of pounds – far out of reach of the church’s budget.

The Walworth Society said they also objected to the fact that the church had not submitted detailed plans for what it would do with the site after it demolished the church – which is within its rights, given that the church is not currently listed or in a conservation area.

Pastor Whitton said that details had not been fully fleshed out, but there could be as many as 80 new flats on site. The exact mix of housing tenure is  also still to be decided, but Pastor Whitton said it was very likely to include at least some private homes to make the plan viable for a developer.

He added: “We’re a church in the heart of the community, we’re all local people. I grew up the other side of Burgess Park, we’re concerned about gentrification in the area. We don’t want to be in a situation where we’re relegating poorer people to the sidelines…

“We’re Christians, we want to do the right thing legally as much as anything else.”

The church’s planning application says that demolition would be scheduled from January 3 next year. But Pastor Whitton said this was just to secure the right to knock down the building.

“It’s not just unlikely we would be able to demolish it then, there’s no chance – unless the Lord answers our prayers,” he said.

To have your say by commenting on the application, click here and enter application number 21/AP/3888.

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