Thursday, 31 March 2011


This article appears in today's Leicester Mercury:
For sale: one historic church - guide price £250,000 to £750,000
It’s a striking example of gothic Victorian architecture , and part of the legacy of a world-famous designer. Yet it is disused, falling into disrepair and up for sale. Adam Wakelin reports
St Saviour's Church used to have its name stuck on the front in plastic letters. Many have now fallen off or been stolen. It is ST VIOU S C CH now. Oddly appropriate, perhaps. A gibberish sign for a boarded-up building that doesn't make much sense around here any more. Not as it is, anyway.
Assistant surveyor Joe Welch, of Andrew Granger & Co, is sliding back the last of the heavy bolts on a side door when the Mercury arrives for a viewing.
Inside, the temperature drops like a brick. It's cold enough to stiffen a line of washing, even on a sunny day like this one. Boards nailed across the windows to deter vandals keep the interior in darkness.
Joe goes to switch on the lights. When they come on, it is easy to see why the building is Grade II* listed. Standard estate agent blurb doesn't begin to do somewhere like this justice.
That's probably why Andrew Granger & Co hasn't bothered with it. The building's sale brochure sets aside superlatives and sticks to thefacts:
A large Victorian gothic church designed by architect Sir George Gilbert Scott; red brick with a stone spire and slate roof, built in 1875-77, the last and largest church of the man who built the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras and the Albert Memorial. To be sold as a job lot with the next door neighbourhood centre, a former school. Guide price: £250,000 to £750,000.
"We want to focus on the fact that here is a fantastic opportunity to acquire a wonderful piece of Leicester's heritage and really bring it back into use," says Joe.
Doing that comes with all manner of complications – and it tells the story of just how difficult it is to stop some of Leicestershire's best buildings falling empty and derelict.
You don't have to be religious to be awed by a building like St Saviour's. Inside and out, the sheer size of the place is enough to draw a gasp.
It really is magnificent, a muscular monument to Christianity that has towered over everything else in this corner of Highfields for more than 130 years.
The building is big in thought and deed. Four rows of long pews stretch into the distance, lolly stick-small in Gilbert Scott's cavernous space. Once, 1,000 worshippers flocked here to be spiritually uplifted and consoled, and they were comfortably accommodated.
Not any more. St Saviour's has been closed for six years. The last time it was anything like full must have been decades ago.
Most of the fixtures and fittings have been stripped out, removed to stop them being burned or smashed by vandals who used to break in before the building was made more secure.
A few things remain. You can see how its congregation fell away in the framed Christening lists that still hang on one wall. In the 1970s there were five or six new names being added every month. By the early 90s, there would be one. Often not even that.
But St Saviour's was on borrowed time even as its mortar began to dry. Leicester's religious impulse was already beginning to wane.
As early as the 1890s, Church of England attendance began a slow but inexorable decline.
The veil-wearers and men with beards walking past the building today tell you what happened next without saying a word.
Religion again thrives around St Saviour's. There is no shortage of believers in Highfields, but this is now an overwhelmingly Muslim area.
In 2005, the church was closed. Three years later, Leicester City Council decided not to renew its lease on the nearby neighbourhood centre. It too was boarded up. Leaving the buildings to rot was never an option. But what do you do with them?
The Diocese of Leicester, along with Andrew Granger & Co, has been working on that for several years.
There are more than 300 CofE churches in Leicestershire. They form some of the county's finest architecture, yet some are ruinously expensive to repair and maintain as congregations dwindle.
The decision to close a church is never taken lightly, says Andrew Roberts, acting secretary for the Diocese of Leicester.
Sometimes, though, there is no other option. Selling a building is better than letting it fall down.
Six city and county churches are on the market or under offer: St Saviour's, St Peter's Church in Belgrave, St Gabriel's Church off Gipsy Lane, St Paul's Church in Kirby Road, St Peter's Church in Saxby and St James' Church, Snibston in Coalville.
Selling those properties is a lot more complicated than you might think.
St Saviour's Church, like many of the others, is a listed building.
Neither English Heritage nor the local planning authority will allow a development that compromises its character or architectural integrity. Even something as basic as removing the pews will have to be justified.
Then there are the Church Commissioners who have to be satisfied.
They handle the sale of the building on behalf of the diocese – and they have to be assured it will be put to good use.
It would not be deemed appropriate, for example, to turn a church into a pub or betting shop, says Mr Roberts.
And there lies the conundrum. In St Saviour's you have beautiful, historic Christian building in an area that's nice enough, but not particularly upwardly mobile or wonderfully served by transport links.
Nothing is an easy fit with Gilbert Scott's grand gothic vision.
The estate agents and the diocese have attracted some criticism for allowing the building to stand empty for so long.
But making a quick sale then seeing it fall through because the buyer got bogged down in planning problems would not have been sensible, says Joe.
To prevent that, they have worked with English Heritage and Leicester City Council to develop a planning brief for the church and neighbourhood centre. This outlines potential future uses of the buildings and provides general guidance on acceptable alterations.
Options for the church include: keeping it as a place of worship; turning it into a community centre, creche or day nursery; creating an art gallery or museum; or using it as an educational or medical centre.
It could also be converted into offices, flats or even a hotel – although any residential conversion will be challenging due to the difficulties of sub-dividing the building without compromising its architectural integrity.
Would an upmarket hotel or swanky apartments work in Highfields?
It's hard to see how.
"It's one of those buildings where we'll have to let the market decide what to do with it," says Joe.
Anyone interested in making a bid has to do so before July 1. The best options will go forward to be developed further.
The asking price of between £250,000 and £750,000 reflects the different uses to which the building could be put.
The Church Commissioners won't let the building be sold for a song, but cash won't be the only consideration. A third of the proceeds will go to the Churches Conservation Trust, which looks after closed churches, and the remainder will go to funding social and community work.
The first preference is often to retain a church for a denomination of Christian worship, says Mr Roberts. If that's not possible, then they would probably like to see at least some of the site put to community use.
Perhaps the old school could accommodate something more commercial, and the church could be opened up to benefit local residents.
"It is finding the right balance to make the site work in a social and commercial sense," he says. "Sometimes you get schemes that are residential conversions and they are sympathetic. No-one likes selling churches, but you can't just let them fall down. It is about finding an appropriate use for them."

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