Villagers fight development proposal between Titchmarsh and Thrapston as church council makes stand

Income from Glebe land, owned by the church, traditionally paid for members of the clergy

Tuesday, 4th August 2020, 11:30 am

Members of an East Northamptonshire village church council have voted unanimously against a proposal by the Diocese of Peterborough to sell off a development option on 114 acres of nearby farmland that they own.

In mid-July, the nine-strong St Mary's Parochial Church Council (PCC) in Titchmarsh had been informed of the sale of land with a ten-year 'development option' by rector Revd Canon Brian Withington after he had received a letter from the Venerable Gordon Steele, Archdeacon of Oakham, on behalf of the diocese.

At a subsequent emergency meeting on July 19, the PCC voted unanimously to formally object to the diocese’s proposal but it was unable to block the move because of a change in ecclesiastical law that came into force in 2018.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

On Wednesday, July 29, the St Mary’s PCC, Mr Withington, met with Mr Steele, and Michael Appleton from Carter Jonas, the diocese's land agents, to answer questions regarding the scheme.

Stephen Barber, lay-chairman of the Titchmarsh PCC, said: "It will drive a wedge between the village and the church community, and the diocese.

"The diocese is being uncaring and unprincipled. We don't expect a Christian organisation to behave in this way.

"It was an interesting, generally good-tempered meeting, though members of the PCC did explain their position with considerable passion.

The area of glebe land

"Despite an earlier diocese’s briefing largely blaming Covid-19 for the decision to sell the development option, Archdeacon Gordon explained that the main reason for the proposed sale is pursuit of a long-term investment strategy aimed at reducing the diocese’s portfolio of agricultural land.

"Such land yields safe but low returns, and the diocese wants to rebalance its portfolio towards higher return investments.

"Whilst the PCC appreciated the diocese’s dilemma, it was not clear to what extent the sale of a ten-year development option would help resolve the diocese’s short-term cash crisis."

Mr Steele and Mr Appleton were representing the Peterborough Diocesan Board of Finance (PDBF).

The area of glebe land between Titchmarsh and Thrapston's Lazy Acre estate

Mr Barber said: "The PCC questioned the sale and development process and it was clear from the responses that if PDBF decides to confirm its decision to proceed with the sale – and Heads of Terms have been drawn up and are ready to be signed – then church and village will be at the mercy of the civil planning process.

"If and when the option sale is formalised the PDBF will effectively 'wash its hands' concerning the nature of the development.

"The PCC expressed outrage that the diocese has carried out no local consultation and has presented the PCC with what looks like a fait accompli."

Villagers have started an online petition to voice their opposition that has gathered 1,000 names and those who object to the proposal are being asked to send letters to the Bishop of Peterborough The Rt Revd Donald Allister.

The A605 at the bottom of the photograph forms one boundary, with the existing Haldan's Parkway to the right of the picture. The land earmarked for the development reaches up to 'Islington' - a lane leading from Titchmarsh

Mr Barber added: "The proposal is inconsistent with both the Local Plan and broader planning policy.

"They will sit as judge, jury and executioner. The PCC’s formal representations will be considered by PDBF, the same body that is promoting the scheme, and the PCC will have no further right of appeal through church channels.

"So far as the PCC could ascertain, PDBF has taken absolutely no account of the impact on the local church and community. This represents a dereliction of the PDBF’s duty and a failure of pastoral care.

"It isn't as if we are entirely anti business. We sold nine acres of land to Siaca in Halden's Parkway to extend their factory. We agreed to their proposal after looking at the environmental impact."

The PCC’s objections will be considered by the Diocesan Glebe Committee before a final decision on whether to proceed with the option sale is made by the PDBF.

Resident Antar Howarth, who has signed an online petition that will be sent to the Bishop of Peterborough, said: "It's a terrible thing - 114 acres is a footprint that's larger than the village.

The land looking from Thrapston towards Titchmarsh

"They've tried to keep it secret because there will be an outcry. It feels like a terrible betrayal. It goes against everything the church in the village is trying to achieve. If this goes ahead we will lose the church. Titchmarsh will get nothing out of this."

A spokesman from the Diocese of Peterborough said: "The Diocese of Peterborough is committed to supporting the provision of clergy as a means of leading its churches into growth. This presents a great financial challenge, and did so even before the current pandemic. Many sources of income go towards realising this commitment, including the Parish Share paid by our churches, national grants, donations and investments such as Glebe land. The Diocese has a responsibility to make the best possible use of all its assets so that it can continue to support the provision of clergy.

"A proper legal process is being followed to ensure that any representations regarding proposals for Glebe land in Thrapston and Titchmarsh, from their Parochial Church Councils, are given due consideration.

"In the event that this should lead to actual development proposals, the usual civil planning process would apply and any interested parties can comment at that stage."

Message from the editor: Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.

In order for us to continue to provide trusted local news on this free-to-read site, I am asking you to also please purchase a copy of our newspaper.

Our journalists are highly trained and our content is independently regulated by IPSO to some of the highest standards in the world. The dramatic events of 2020 are having a major impact on many of our local valued advertisers and consequently the advertising that we receive. We are now more reliant than ever on you helping us to provide you with news by buying a copy of our newspaper.

St Mary's Church, Titchmarsh