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Court orders demolition of 2013 school extension built on consecrated ground


A court has ordered a London school tear down a nursery and community building completed less than six years ago to designs by SCABAL (Studio Cullinan and Buck Architects)

The Court of Arches – the appeal court of the Archbishop of Canterbury and an ecclesiastical authority with planning powers – said the 2013 annexe to Christ Church Primary School on Brick Lane should be removed, as it was built on a consecrated burial ground.

City of London practice SCABAL designed the  £1.5 million extension for the school’s governing body, which acted in association with the London Diocesan Board of Schools and with funding from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

But the project was sited on the burial ground of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Christ Church, Spitalfields. Section 3 of the Disused Burial Grounds Act 1884 makes it unlawful to erect non-worship buildings upon a disused burial ground.

Dean of the Arches Charles George and court chancellors Geoffrey Tattersall and David Pittaway said in a judgement that the school had until 1 February 2029 to remove the nursery building.

According to the judgement, the churchyard was closed for burials in 1859 and the school buildings erected in the early 1870s. A recreation centre was constructed there almost exactly a century later.

After the leisure centre fell into disuse in 2008 and became derelict, Tower Hamlets Council granted permission in 2011 for its demolition and replacement with a 330m² nursery and community centre.

The Court of Arches judgement said errors were made in an application made by church wardens to the Court of Arches for its permission for the project. Incorrect boxes were ticked. Approval was granted and construction began in 2012, completing a year later.

Midway through the construction period, responding to a line of enquiry that began shortly before work started on site, Tower Hamlets Council insisted in a letter that the 1884 Act did not apply to consecrated land. The court described this statement as ’plainly wrong’.

Campaigners persisted and the school was told by their solicitors in March 2013 that it continued with work at its own risk.

A case was eventually brought but in December 2017, acting deputy chancellor of the diocese of London June Rodgers rejected claims for a restoration order, instead granting a ’confirmatory faculty’ – effectively retrospective ecclesiastical planning approval.

Nonetheless an appeal was brought by campaign body Spitalfield Opens Spaces, at which dean George and chancellors Tattersall and Pittaway overturned Rodgers’ decision and granted the restoration order.

‘The conduct of Tower Hamlets was reckless and flagrant,’ said their judgement, adding that the church wardens and rector, as well as London Diocesan Board of Schools, were similarly at fault for not seeking legal advice or a pause on the project after being told the works were unlawful.

London Diocesan Board of Schools chief executive Inigo Woolf praised SCABAL’s role on the ill-fated project.

’The architects designed a building that the planning authorities accepted as being an improvement on the previous building,’ he said. ’We have nothing but praise for the architects responding to the brief they were given.’

The practice has been contacted for comment, as has the school, the church and the council.

SCABAL’s website says the back of the church and school had become ’a patch for shadowy behaviour since the youth centre closed’. 

A Tower Hamlets spokesperson said: ’The council notes the decision of the Arches Court of Canterbury. The council is in discussion with school leaders, the diocese and other partners to agree an appropriate way forward.’


Readers' comments (5)

  • Industry Professional

    Your report suggests to me that the buildings on the site before this new extension should not have been there either. Having been a church warden I am aware of the precarious walk they sometimes have to take to avoid upsetting all sorts of conflicting views. Assuming that those involved were not just plain arrogant or obstinate in ignoring legal advice in 2013, it is a shame that the law cannot sometimes say that, without setting a precedent, in this case the extension can stay but that, when it is no longer fit for purpose or in need of major refurbishment / repair, then it should be demolished and not replaced.

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  • Jandyce v Jandyce with dog collars on and Nimbies to boot? Leave the building where it is until Jan 31 2029 and see which way the wind blows in the next 10 years?!

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  • Hardly Jarndyce and Jarndyce, David...as that was a fictional case in Dicken's 'Bleak House'. It involve a large inheritance that was contested in the Court of Chancery for decades, until the legal costs consumed the entire estate. One of Dicken's inspirations was Jennens and Jennens, which commenced in 1798 and was abandoned in 1915 (117 years later) when the legal fees had exhausted the Jennens' estate of all funds. The moves in mysterious ways.

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  • I wonder if the legal powers of the Court of Arches is matched by similar 'arrangements' for other branches of Christianity, and other religions, or is this an ancient and very special privilege enjoyed solely by the Church of England? A quirk of English law?

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  • Robert, probably has early medieval origins, when much law was canon law, and common law ecclesiastically administered, before the law was secularised by the Inns of Court. The surviving Inns are Lincoln, Inner Temple, Middle Temple and Gray’s. Historically, there were quite a few others, such as Barnard’s Inn and Staple Inn, still reflected in street names in the legal quarter of the great metropolis.

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