Historic church badly hit in fire set for conversion into homes

MULTI-MILLION pound plans to develop a historic West Yorkshire church by turning it into 18 flats and four houses have been recommended for approval.

St Mary’s in the Wood – Morley’s oldest church – was gutted by a blaze in June 2010 just as plans were advanced to transform the building into a luxury hotel and restaurant.

The current church was built in 1878 and is a large stone-built Victorian structure, but a place of worship has stood on the site for almost 1,000 years, the original being mentioned in the Domesday Book.

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A grade-II listed building, its tower housed the famous Pancake Bell which it is believed originally came from Kirkstall Abbey.

Despite the church’s interesting history it fell into disuse and was sold in 2008 to developer and former Leeds magistrate, Graham Butterworth.

However, his plans for a hotel and restaurant generated considerable local opposition. The graveyard contains more than 500 graves dating from the 17th century until the 1970s, reflecting much of the town’s social history.

Now, Sandmile (Gibraltar) Ltd is said to be ready to spend £2,783,500 on the scheme at Commercial Street, though, bizarrely, a report by planners says the sales revenue will only generate £2,803,000 offering only a miniscule profit.

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The report says: “The applicant has set out that despite the limited profit this scheme represents an acceptable risk to them.

“At the present time the site is a liability for the applicant. This scheme represents an opportunity to realize at least some financial return for the applicant.

“Due to the constraints that exist at the site (the listed church and graveyard and protected trees) there is only a limited scope to achieve a development that is acceptable in planning terms that generates a reasonable profit.”

Chris Austin, a lead architect of Brewster Bye, said: “We have struggled with a very complicated application within a listed building.

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“The land has very little or no value, there was a disastrous fire. There are dangers. This is a significant building in Morley. We think this scheme is realistic.” The proposal aims to rebuild and change the use of the former church which has a nonconformist history stretching back 360 years.

To this end it is proposed to “introduce a new roof that will maintain the original eaves and ridge lines of the church but will inset balconies into the roof to enable the formation of flats within the roof space.”

The report adds that “the proposal alongside the new rebuilding and change of use of the listed church proposes the building of four new properties on Greenfield land within the curtilage of a listed building. It is the applicant’s contention that without this part of the development the scheme would be financially unviable.”

Ward councillor Neil Dawson said: “The proposal is certainly an improvement on the previous application to turn it into a hotel.

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“It will bring it back into effective use and I have no objection to the plans. I understand the church was one of the first five Wesleyan churches in the UK.”

The Victorian Society strongly support the application and only four letters of objection have been received. These complain that the development will harm local wildlife, that it is not sympathetic and that Morley already has enough flats and surrounding properties are currently empty.

Moreover, it is alleged that it will “exacerbate existing water and sewer problems” and the area’s appearance will be altered “in that the graveyard will now be lit.”

Morley Town Council support the principle of the development. However, planners say the existing building has a negative impact on the character and appearance of the conservation area and its demolition is considered acceptable.

Listed building consent is recommended subject to conditions. Leeds Council’s plans panel east will debate the matter on Thursday.