Housing developer's plan to remove gravestones from Yorkshire village churchyard 'sacrilegious and distasteful'

Church and council leaders have been told a housing developer’s plan to remove gravestones from an early Victorian churchyard without moving the bodies would be “vaguely sacrilegious and a little distasteful”.

Dozens of residents in the Great Fencote area north of Leeming Bar have objected to Ian Shipley’s proposal to convert the early Victorian St Andrew’s Church in the village into a three-bedroom home, ahead of Hambleton Council’s planning committee considering the scheme on Thursday.

The church was formally closed for worship in 2019 after it was agreed the Diocese of Leeds should to focus its resources on managing the Grade II-listed St Marys Church in nearby Kirkby Fleetham.

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The owners of the church and site, the Diocese and the Church Commissioners for England, have since agreed to sell the property to Mr Shipley, subject to him gaining planning approval.

St Andrew's Church, Great FencoteSt Andrew's Church, Great Fencote
St Andrew's Church, Great Fencote

In planning documents submitted to the authority Mr Shipley states to create a reasonable access for safe, off-street parking and an appropriate storage and energy centre, it will be necessary to relocate “a small number of headstones to a suitable visible location” where they can continue to be viewed.

He wrote the headstones that would be moved all dated from around 1850 and were “several generations removed from anyone living today” and that access would continue to be granted to anyone wishing to visiting the affected graves provided advanced notice was given.

However, Kirby Fleetham with Fencotes Parish Council has raised concerns the community has not been consulted by the Diocese over the plans to remove headstones ahead of the planning application being considered.

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Nevertheless, the proposal to appropriate the church and part of the churchyard to residential use, along with the necessary relocation of a few headstones, is the subject of a separate statutory period of public consultation under the provisions of the Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011.

In response to the proposals, Kirkby Fleetham and Fencotes Local History Group said the construction of the driveway would see the destruction of the garden of rest for cremated remains, an area including remains from people who died in 2006, 2007 and 2013.

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Numerous residents said while they supported plans to convert the church, they strongly objected to building over graves, dubbing it “desecration”.

One resident stated: “It seems vaguely sacrilegious and a little distasteful to think that you could patio over family graves and build a conservatory on top.

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“I understand that people now worship money and profit at the expense of memory and more respectful humanist sensibilities, but surely the old village heritage should be respected rather than sell them off to people wealthy enough to build a quirky home of which to tell their friends.”

Other residents said the planned “removal of headstones and the building of a driveway, car parking spaces, turning circle and energy hub over the bodies of our community’s ancestors” was unacceptable.

One stated: “I find this quite destressing you would be visiting your loved ones ashes with paving over and a car parked on top. From an early age I was taught it was disrespectful to walk over a grave and still to date I walk round graves, so how can it be acceptable to move headstones and build over graves.”

Recommending the scheme be granted, planning officers said the gravestones issue was subject to a robust legal proceess outside of the planning authority’s jurisdiction.

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They added the proposed conversion of the church to a home would make effective and efficient use of land, protect and enhance the high quality natural and historic environment whilst facilitating development in a way that respects and strengthens the distinctive character of the landscape.