Published: 08 October 2010
by JOSH LOEB
A BITTER war of words has erupted after one of Westminster’s most prominent conservationist groups was threatened with eviction from a historic church in Soho.
Soho Society members have been told they will have to leave St Anne’s Church in Dean Street because its lease has expired.
The group have been based in the church tower for 30 years and helped restore the building which was bombed in the Blitz.
Now the church rector has warned the Society he can no longer guarantee a knock-down rent and must “maximise full market value” for the space.
In a statement, Father David Gilmore said: “The Soho Society’s licence has ended and they must be treated like all other tenants, and in line with all other leases. Unfortunately, their historic connection with the church and the community, while valuable, does not remove them from this process.”
A public notice has already appeared outside the church advertising plans for “redecoration works to the interior of the tower”.
Members of the Society fear the “very future of the Society is at stake” and the church’s plans will transform a “community centre into a grim fiefdom”.
Matthew Bennett, who chairs the Society’s environment and planning group, said he was “shocked and angry”.
In a letter to Society members, Mr Bennett – who helped “shovel pigeon mess” during a voluntary clean-up of the church in the 1970s – wrote: “I am now told that space in a corridor which is also a fire escape somewhere in the rectory might be offered as an alternative.
“I have been told that there have been negotiations for some weeks but these have been ‘in confidence’. How have we got to such a sorry state with so little open debate?”
On Wednesday, Father Gilmore and the Society issued a joint statement that did little to quell fears that eviction was imminent.
It said: “St Anne’s Church and the Soho Society have strong links from the inception of the Soho Society and sterling work has been undertaken by many involved with the Society for the good of Soho. The Parochial Church Council values the relationship, however as trustees of the Church, the PCC has a duty fulfil its charitable obligations and in the spirit of the Charities Act, must maximise full market value for lettings or the sale of lands that are held in trust or lands that would be held in trust.
“As licences under faculty (an ecclesiastical type of lease) have ended the PCC has sought to achieve a marketable rent for all tenants, and the Soho Society must be treated like all other tenants and in line with all other leases. No tenant has the right of perpetuity within law for their accommodation and certain types of ecclesiastical property are exempt from the Landlords and Tenants Act.”
Just hours later, Soho Society chairwoman Fiona Rhys-Jenkins Bailey contacted the West End Extra to say she had retracted her approval for the statement.
Father Gilmore said he stood by it and accused the Society of “manipulation”. Society members David Bieda, Joan Martyr, Mandana Ruane and David Gleeson have called for “frank disclosure” of the church’s plans. Ms Rhys-Jenkins Bailey said negotiations with Father Gilmore were “ongoing and delicate”.
She added: “We’ve got some members who are very upset about this and who don’t think we are working hard enough at this, but we are. The negotiations are delicate but the fact that we are talking is a good thing.”
Members of the Society have now called for an Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM).