Three Methodist chapels in the Dales to be sold after affordable homes bid fails

Three redundant chapels in the Yorkshire Dales are set to be sold on the open market after local Methodists gave up the fight to convert them to affordable homes.

The decision has denied Middleham much-needed new affordable homes
The decision has denied Middleham much-needed new affordable homes

The Methodist Church's property division has refused to sign off projects to turn the old chapels in Bainbridge, Aysgarth and Middleham into rental flats for fear that the schemes would devalue the properties

They claim there needs to be 'greater flexibility' over a Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority planning policy that restricts the awarding of tenancies for new affordable housing to those with strong connections to the local area.

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An online meeting of the North Yorkshire Dales Methodist Circuit on Wednesday voted to sell the Bainbridge, Aysgarth and Middleham chapels 'as soon as possible' after a three-year battle to get the schemes off the ground.

Methodist preacher Geoff Phillips, left, has resigned in protest at the decision

Ninety minutes before the meeting began, the Trustees for Methodist Church Purposes, based in Manchester, had confirmed in an email that they had not resolved the problem within the deadline set by the local circuit, and said the matter would now be passed to the legal division.

Within hours Geoff Phillips, a local preacher, resigned from the circuit and its property committee, saying he would no longer be responsible for monitoring the deteriorating chapel in Bainbridge which is at the centre of the controversy.

“I and other members of the committee had recommended simply returning the deeds and the keys to the TMCP and abrogating all responsibility. In the end the circuit voted to sell this and the other two chapels in Aysgarth and Middleham,” said Mr Phillips, a preacher for more than 20 years.

When the TMCP originally opposed the conversion of the Bainbridge chapel earlier this year, Mr Phillips said he was 'beyond angry' at the suggestion that providing affordable housing could affect the future value of the property.

“If that is the case, then every conversion of every chapel in the country is threatened. Methodism was born out of social action and I am appalled at the total lack of joined-up thinking between the bureaucrats and the members on the ground. There have been so many reports from headquarters highlighting the national housing crisis and asking us what we think the solution might be.

“Instead of just selling off redundant chapels to the highest bidder as we have in the past, a lot has been made of the idea of providing decent homes for local people. Now, instead of supporting initiatives like this, the bureaucrats are talking about ‘unforeseen financial liabilities,’ and blocking the project to the point where it might fail altogether.”

Last year another arm of the Methodist Church made a grant of £78,500 to the project to convert the empty Bainbridge chapel, and Methodist Insurance gave a further £40,000 only in June - after the property division had refused to sign off the project. It had been hailed as a 'blueprint' for chapel conversions throughout the country when the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority granted planning permission, subject to a Section 106 agreement, restricting rental of affordable homes to local people. Next on the list if the Bainbridge conversion had gone ahead were similar schemes at Aysgarth and Middleham.

A grant of £150,000 from Richmondshire District Council, awarded under the government’s community-led housing scheme to the Bainbridge project, stipulating that the homes have to be low-cost and rented in perpetuity may now have to be forfeited.

The circuit has already spent £50,000 on stripping the Bainbridge chapel of asbestos which, according to a report by circuit superintendent the Reverend Melanie Reed, had left the building - unused for three years - vulnerable to water ingress, weather damage, and rapid deterioration.

In a national Methodist Church report last spring, local synods were challenged to identify housing needs in their own area, and asked if redundant church buildings or land could be used to deliver affordable housing.

The saga echoes that surrounding another former ecclesiastical building in Richmondshire, Arkengarthdale C of E Primary School. After the school's closure, the Upper Dales Community Land Trust attempted to secure its purchase for conversion into affordable homes, but the local parochial church council elected instead to sell it to a private bidder who offered the highest price.

In the Arkengarthdale case, the council had also offered £150,000 in support of the scheme, yet the two grants from the affordable homes fund have gone unclaimed because of ongoing disputes.

Mr Phillips added that the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority had extended the signing of the Section 106 agreement until the end of July to give the church a chance to get its act together.

“There is no way it can be changed because the whole point is to support the provision of homes for local people,” he said.

The Methodist Church has been contacted for comment.