Doomed church saved for young people

PLANS to transform a condemned church into a thriving youth centre have been revealed.

St John's United Reformed Church, in London Road, looks set to become the second Bexhill church saved from demolition within a month, following talks begun in Feburary between Rother District and East Sussex County Councillor Michael Ensor and the Rev Andrew Berry.

Three weeks ago Church Commissioners withdrew plans to knock down St Barnabas Church, Cantelupe Road, after a vocal campaign from the congregation, local residents and national groups such as the Victorian Society.

The future of St John's is dependent on Cllr Ensor closing negotiations over the lease, due to be signed on September 29.

If all goes to plan, Bexhill will gain a valuable hub for teenagers and young people, including a drop-in centre, open stage for band practice sessions and music and film screenings.

The design encompasses the Victoria Hall, behind the sanctuary, which would be used for activites such as climbing, basketball, music concerts and plays.

Cllr Ensor said: "I've had so many ideas over the years, wanting to do a thing like this, and for some reason or another it doesn't happen.

"I'm trying to fill the gap. Schools do a fantastic job for their age groups, and the DLWP have got great connections with schools. But after that, and outside school, what is there for young people to do?

"It's a big question. I've been asking it at both County and Rother. There's a big hole, and let's see if we as a society can support the young people of our town."

The congregation of St John's migrated to the town's second United Reformed Church, St George's in Cantelupe Road, following a damaged boiler, dwindling attendance and mounting maintenance costs in 2007.

A long consultation ended with the URC Synod being granted planning permission to raze St John's, replacing it with 14 apartments and underground car parking. St George's would also be sold.

The funds raised would pay for a new church, octagonal in design, with offices surrounding a ground floor sanctuary on the grassy area in front of St George's in Cantelupe Road.

The congregation would be about 200.

However, the arrival of the two churches on the market last September coincided with the property slump, and no buyer was found.

Alan Greenhalgh, secretary of the Bexhill United Reform Church, said: "We were very disappointed when the whole thing fell through, as you can imagine.

"But we're now pleased that at least it's going to be taken over by a Christian youth outlet centre for young people.

"We're quite happy about that. It's also taken the problem of selling St John's church off our hands. If it was derelict it could have been a problem.

"It's a good and inspiring project for the town and we wish him every success with it."

Cllr Ensor is a known advocate of local youth services. Organiser of annual Christian rock festival Edgyfest, in Edgerton Park, he has used his position within the local authority to remind council colleagues that the 8,000 teenagers in Bexhil and Rother have "a significant lack of socialising opportunities after 8pm".

His plans, at this stage, are being undertaken as a personal venture. Although he would not reveal how much money he will invest, it is likely to be a large sum considering the property, gas and electrical surveys he has commissioned, and the alterations he plans to the body of the church and hall.

These include:

- Removing the pulpit and pews from the sanctuary and installing comfy cinema seats to create a theatre or cinema area.

- Rennovating a small lounge into a "common room area" aimed at 16 and 17yr olds.

- Remodelling the kitchen and toilets, and improving the building's disabled access.

- Repairing roof leaks and damp.

Alan Greenhalgh spoke of a five year waiver of lease rental as a supportive gesture, and Cllr Ensor will seek Youth Opportunity Funding as well as sponsorship, patronage, donations and volunteers from other churches.

Guy Morfett, property officer for the United Reformed church, controls the 250 odd buildings belonging to the Church's southern synod and is in the final stages of negotiations with Cllr Ensor.

He said: "We think it's an excellent idea and we hope it will fulfill a need within the town. We have a redundant building and we are pleased to be involved in this venture.

"We have a building, there is a need, we can't use it at the current time and we're pleased to make it avaliable in this way. There is a cost to Michael, and it saves us spending money, so we're waiving rental charges for five years.

"It's not something we do every day of the week but we thought in this case it would be the right thing to do."

The centre, which will be a Christian initiative, is likely to be run on a membership basis under a young persons' management committee.

Michael said: "I believe it will fit into the requirements of the schools consortium and they will want to use the premises for youth activities.

"There is generally recognised need for a venue for young people to go to that is safe, dry, and warm, and we have support from the Police, from YDS and from Bexhill Schools Consortium for this need."