Belfast Telegraph

Church in unholy row over modernisation

by Natalie Gorman

A society dedicated to preserving significant buildings has accused former environment minister Edwin Poots of “using his influence to interfere” in a planning application in Dundonald.

The Ulster Architectural Heritage Society (UAHS) reacted angrily to the contents of documents it obtained last month that relate to Dundonald Presbyterian Church’s planning application to completely demolish its 172-year old-building — the contents of which UAHS says, “clearly lay out Mr Poots’ ongoing attempts to belittle the importance of the building”.

In the documents released to UAHS, a letter from Dundonald Presbyterian Church states the decision by the NI Environment Agency to list the church has been held back at the instigation of Michael Coulter, the |director of its Historic Building Unit “after his meeting with Minister Wilson and Minister Poots’ subsequent concurrence”.

The Department of the Environment confirmed to the Community Telegraph last Friday that “it has not yet finalised its decision on the church’s listing”.

UAHS spokeswoman Rita Harkin told the Community Telegraph: “We are greatly alarmed at the minister's interference in the assessment of the planning application involving demolition of Dundonald Presbyterian Church.

“It is highly inappropriate that Edwin Poots has attempted to facilitate its demolition by undermining his own department's designations, designed to protect our fragile built heritage, and his staff who have been endeavouring to apply the relevant planning policy.”

In a meeting held in January this year between planning officers, NIEA, Mr Poots and DUP MP Jim Shannon, Mr Poots was noted as having said: “Civil servants must understand that demolition of the old church to facilitate a project of community value is acceptable.”

He also said the church building was “of little quality” and said “its removal could enhance the area of townscape character”.

However, this is directly at odds with NIEA’s official response to the church’s planning proposal.

In response to reading the full minutes of this meeting, Ms Harkin added: “We trust that the professional planning officers will not buckle under the pressure placed upon them, and will continue to defend this distinctive church.

“The gothic church of 1839 is recognised as being a key feature |of the draft Dundonald Area of Townscape Character and critical to the setting of the listed school alongside.”

‘Our right to worship is of greater merit than protecting an old building’

It has “been a seven-year battle” for the committee of Dundonald Presbyterian Church to create a new place of worship for its members.

In 2009, the church submitted its proposals for a new £2.8m church building and accompanying hall designed by Kennedy Fitzgerald & Associates — the architects behind the award-winning FE McWilliam Arts Centre in Banbridge.

Mr Drew Donaldson, a church representative, said: “The project has been running for seven years. The cost of fixing the old building is prohibitive and there has been considerable expenditure incurred to date.

“The listing of the church is of little merit. The congregation’s right to worship is greater than the need to preserve an old building.”

Philip Taylor, congregational secretary, said they interpret NI Environment Agency’s Historic Buildings Unit’s formal objection against the planning application as “an attempt to sabotage”.

Castlereagh East council candidate Tommy Jeffers, who avidly supports the church’s wishes for a new building, told the Community Telegraph: “I am behind the need for a new building 100%.

“What I have been told by church members is that the cost of retaining and renovating the current church would be astronomical, double the cost of the current project and just not feasible.”

Speaking yesterday, Mr Poots said: “I have been asked to take an interest in this application by the church. From what they tell me, they are speaking on behalf of their community, so I feel it is in the public interest to put forward their case of the benefits their proposals contain.”

Councillor ‘shocked’ by move

Castlereagh councillors voted against the listing of Dundonald Presbyterian Church when it came before council — but one councillor says she was under the impression the church wanted to renovate, not demolish the local landmark.

Dundonald Presbyterian Church sought the council’s help to object to the listing after they received an advance notice of listing from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency’s Historic Buildings unit in 2007. Council members voted (bar one abstention) to send a letter of objection.

At the time, Alliance councillor Geraldine Rice sought further clarification about the condition of the church building before casting her vote.

The council minutes record that a church representative confirmed that “the church building no longer complied with present-day safety recommendations but that improvements could be made to bring it in line with current regulations.”

The minutes also state that the representatives made clear their plans to demolish.

However, speaking last Monday, Mrs Rice said: “It is a shock to me to only find out today that a planning application has been submitted to demolish the church.

“When representatives from Dundonald Presbyterian Church made their presentation to us nothing at all was mentioned to demolish the building.

“What I recall clearly is that we were being asked to object to the church’s listing so that the church could be renovated and refurbished — not demolished.”

UUP Castlereagh council candidate Michael Copeland said: “I have always believed that the rights of those who own a building are paramount and I totally I respect the right of people to have a suitable place to worship. I am also a well-known advocate of retaining the character of old church and other buildings that form our built heritage.

“I would therefore be very unsure in offering unqualified support to any planning application that would see any building demolished, without the accepted and lawful process having run to its conclusion.

“The minister could be in danger of being seen as interfering. Mr Poots must not be seen as blurring or directing this process. The primary question as I see it asks: “Is this building of historical and or architectural signifance” — that judgment is solely the responsibility of the NIEA’s Historical Building Unit. It is from this judgment that everything else must flow.”

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