By Betsy Everett
Plans to transform a Dales chapel into two affordable homes to rent — hailed as a blueprint for empty chapels throughout the country —might never materialise despite attracting grants of more than a quarter of a million pounds.
While one arm of the Methodist Church made a contribution last year of £78,500 to the project to convert the empty Bainbridge chapel, and Methodist Insurance gave a grant of £40,000 only last week, the headquarters’ property division has refused to sign off the project for fear planning rules might devalue the building.
They have asked members of the North Yorkshire Dales Methodist Circuit to seek “greater flexibility” in the national park’s 106 agreement which restricts rental of the planned two-bedroom flats to local people: an impossible ask, say circuit members.
The property division has also expressed fears that a grant of £150,000 from Richmondshire District Council, awarded under the government’s community-led housing scheme, stipulates that the homes have to be low-cost and rented “in perpetuity.”
Local preacher Geoff Phillips, a member of the circuit’s property committee, said he was “beyond angry” at the suggestion that providing affordable housing could affect the future value of the property.
“If that is the case, then every conversion of every chapel in the country is threatened. Methodism was born out of social action and I am appalled at the total lack of joined-up thinking between the bureaucrats and the members on the ground.
“There have been so many reports from headquarters highlighting the national housing crisis and asking us what we think the solution might be.
“We have a solution in Bainbridge which isn’t just about two flats to rent, but is supposed to be a blueprint for the rest of country. Instead of just selling off redundant chapels to the highest bidder as we have in the past, a lot has been made of the idea of providing decent homes for local people.
“Now, instead of supporting initiatives like this, the bureaucrats are talking about ‘unforeseen financial liabilities,’ and blocking the project to the point where it might fail altogether.”
Mr Phillips says the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority had extended the signing of the section 106 agreement until the end of July to give the church chance to get its act together.
“They have been brilliant. But there is no way it can be changed because the whole point is to support the provision of homes for local people,” says Mr Phillips.
Circuit administrator, Julie Greenslade, says the £78,500 grant – repayment of a levy on the sale of local churches – and the £40,000 from Methodist Insurance, could be clawed back if the project can’t be completed. The district council grant, less £25,000 already spent, may also be lost if the money isn’t used in time.
“The Methodist Church will look really bad if this can’t go ahead and we have to sell it. Their whole ethos has been about finding new ways for the church to be present in communities through social action, when the buildings can’t be sustained for worship,” she said.
The circuit has already spent £50,000 on stripping the building of asbestos which, according to a report by circuit superintendent the Revd Melanie Reed, has left the church, empty now for three years, vulnerable to water ingress, weather damage, and “rapid deterioration.”
There is a possibility the building could be sold to a not-for-profit housing association, but this has so far not been a fruitful line of enquiry.
In a Methodist Church report last spring, “Responding to the Housing and Homelessness Crisis,” local synods were challenged o identify housing needs in their own area, and asked: “Are there ways in which your churches might provide affordable housing, perhaps by redeveloping redundant buildings or excess land?” The report criticised the “increasingly commercial culture around house building,” which offered “few incentives to build genuinely affordable housing necessary to cope with the current shortage.”
In a statement Mrs Reed said: “Navigating through the complex legalities takes time and relies on advice and reports from independent professional bodies whose services have been severely restricted due to the Covid 19 lockdown. Social justice has always been at the heart of the Methodist people and, with guidance from the Methodist Church’s legal team, the circuit is continuing to work through the finer details of this project.”