MP urges action on 'eyesore that should be jewel'
By The Bristol Post | Monday, July 23, 2012, 05:00
KINGSWOOD MP Chris Skidmore is urging councillors to start compulsory purchase order proceedings on a tumbled-down site of worldwide importance.
The Whitfield Tabernacle off Kingswood's High Street, is the birthplace of Methodism during the 18th century, a Christian movement which has now spread across the world, particularly the United States.
Mr Skidmore, who has been campaigning for the Grade I listed building to be restored to its former glory, has written to South Gloucestershire Council leader John Calway, urging him to take action.
Mr Skidmore said: "I have previously been in contact with English Heritage about the site, who kindly agreed to a emergency repair grant of £40,000.
"After holding a meeting with the council and the current owners, after initial hopes that the owners might take action to restore the site, it seems that this is no longer possible.
"I am writing to ask therefore that South Gloucestershire Council should consider compulsory purchase of the site and the buildings.
"The tabernacle is on English Heritage's 'at risk' register, and it is clear to me that urgent repair work must take place to make the building stable, and to avoid it falling into a further state of disrepair or even demolition.
"I have come to believe that compulsory purchase of the site is the only option if we are to ensure that the buildings can be preserved for generations and Kingswood's historic legacy protected.
"I passionately believe that the site is currently an eyesore and an embarrassment to Kingswood – when it should be a jewel in Kingswood's crown.
"As the local MP, I would be more than happy to assist in any way I can to help the council.
"As I am sure you are aware, only a few months ago, I raised the issue of the Kingswood Tabernacle in Parliament, and the Tourism Minister John Penrose agreed to meet and discuss how to best ensure that the site is preserved.
"I believe that with compulsory purchase of the site, we can move forward not only with restoring the Tabernacle, but ensuring that the entire site might be opened up to the local community.
"I believe that with the right backing and the council's support, this would be a fantastic opportunity to open a new chapter in Kingswood's long history.
"Mr Calway, leader of the Tory group, responded: "I agree that Kingswood's Whitfield Tabernacle is of significant historical importance and that we should explore, as a council, what realistic options are available in order to safeguard the building. The council now makes decisions through a committee system, which means that all three parties are involved, so a cross-party approach will need to be established if we are to find a way forward."
Labour Councillor Pat Rooney (Woodstock) said they had been actively seeking a solution to the dereliction of the tabernacle for more than a decade.
She welcomed Mr Skidmore's interest in the site and said they were disappointed when it failed to win funding from the BBC's Restoration series which chose sites of national importance for improvements.
She said: "The problem we have always come up against is money. If Mr Skidmore has identified a funding source that will not impact on the council's scarce finances then we would be pleased to know."
"However, local government's finances are considerably stretched thanks to the cuts from national government.
"Locally the Tories' and Lib Dems' budget decisions have left the council needing to find £43 million cuts during the next three years and there are currently important services under threat such as Home Care, Sure Start and Youth Centres.
"We therefore hope that Mr Skidmore can suggest a workable plan and is not simply floating an unattainable scheme in order to gain some publicity and credit."
Lib Dem leader Ruth Davies said she would be interested in setting up a working party to investigate a potential way forward.
Stuart Gaiger, director of the site's owners, PG Development, said: "We submitted a planning application for the tabernacle site which South Gloucestershire Council considered for three and a half years and still failed to determine, leaving us with no alternative but to withdraw it.
"We spent around £250,000 trying to achieve a permission during one of the worst recessions this country has ever known and feel Mr Skidmore would better served directing his attention at the local planners rather than seeking a CPO.
"If the council would like to buy the site we would certainly be willing to sell so all they have to do is to come and talk to us rather than wasting ratepayers' money on a lengthy CPO procedure.
"We have done our best to keep the site safe and secure and have received letters of thanks from local residents with whom we are keeping in touch on a regular basis.
"We have made numerous representations to Mr Skidmore in order to meet with him, however we understand that he is very busy man and was unable to do so."