The Church Conversion – Pain, Bats, Heritage and Parking
Updated: Aug 9, 2021
I thought I would discuss another project I am currently undertaking, and what with me being a glutton for punishment, I haven’t made things easy for myself. I hope the process so far will help you when you are looking at potential projects for yourself too and dispel some of the fear around working on quirky older buildings. Much like my piece in the last issue, where other people are scared of taking a punt on projects, you’re limiting your competition and likely to nab a bargain…
To give a brief overview of what the project is, and what we’ve done so far, we (myself and JV partner, Simon Folkes) have purchased this former church for £57.5k after some long and drawn out negotiating (the Covid fear factor certainly helped with this one!), and plan to convert the internal space into 5no. apartments. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, it is a Grade II listed building, and is within a conservation area too, just to top it all off. The purchase amount was paid in full by an investor, plus we arranged to borrow some seed money (cash for planning fees, consultants, etc) so all in we have borrowed £65k up until now. We were hoping to get it all sent through planning with us just using the investor funds, but unfortunately the number of consultants we require is quickly eating into that seed fund amount...
We did sneakily fire the proposed scheme into the council for pre-application advice while the purchase was being finalised, just so we had an understanding of what the council were going be funny about and where we would need to spend our time fighting our corner.
The main issues were, and these are what you should look out for yourselves when analysing
potential deals ad when completing similar projects: -
A bat survey - or a bat risk assessment initially – Ecologist.
This is a very common requirement when working on conversion projects (where you’re applying to change from one building use to another), so you should always budget for one, or at least don’t be surprised when the council request one part way through a planning application. The initial assessment should come in at between £500-£1,000, depending on the size of the site.
One important thing to consider is the time of year you’re submitting your planning application too, as if you are outside of the normal survey season for the assessment survey work (typically between April/ May and late-August), your application/ scheme might be sat twiddling its thumbs until you’re allowed to carry out the survey work during the correct season!
This happened with a scheme I worked when I was employed a few years ago. Due to the wording used by our own (paid for) ecologist in the document we submitted to accompany our application “as droppings were found there could be the potential of a maternity roost in the barns”, the council’s ecologist wouldn’t let us proceed with the planning application until the next year, when we could inspect the barns again, more thoroughly, during the next survey season. Of course, the ecologist wanted more money to carry out this extra work, which, after a 6-month delay, found absolutely bot all in the barns, meaning the delay was unnecessary.
Now, imagine if you’d just bought this, or your project using expensive financing, like bridging, and were hit with that delay!!! You’re not going to be able to claim the interest back from the ecology consultant you’d employed either.
A Heritage Statement for the building – Conservation/ Heritage
This is a document that assesses architectural & historical importance of the building, and is the place historically important to the area? As our church is listed, we need to identify what harm we are doing to the building by carrying out the conversion, what could have been avoided, what are we improving by developing the scheme, and what positive contributions are we making to preserve the building.
While on site with the council conservation officer he told us that the building had been put on the “buildings at risk register”, meaning that if someone wasn’t going to find a use for it there was the real danger that it might fall into disrepair and never be saved. Oddly, sometimes it feels as though that is what the conservationists want sometimes though.
It can feel like banging your head against a brick wall, as you want to spend money on a building, albeit while changing the use, modifying, etc, but they’d rather it fell down than be used as you are proposing!!!
Another important document to add to this is a “Schedule of Condition”. This will highlight all the issues and things currently wrong with your building, and let you sell your vision of how your scheme is going to repair them, and return the building to its former glory (or at least give you a chance to argue the trade-off between fixing the place and letting you get away with a few cheeky modifications here and there!)
Amenity/ outlook/ overlooking – Planning Issue
The tight, narrow Barnard Castle streets don’t allow for the usual separation distances required by the planning department when building a new site, so we have to think about how we propose to protect the privacy of the existing residents opposite the site along the street, as well as that of the church’s future occupants (jealous property owners opposite our development peering in to see how awesome our interior finish is!)
Is the building right for development too?? Will it make a nice place to live, or is it going to be a dark, depressing place that will affect the future occupant’s wellbeing?!
Environmental Health – Planning Issue
Is the building’s previous use, or are any previous or remaining activities around the site, going to have a negative impact on the future occupants of your building? This could be relevant if the area has heavy commercial or industrial uses. Smells from takeaway ducting or extracts. Noise from factories. Proximity to railways or major roads. Do you need to put tin foil around your head because there’s a planned 5G antennae on your roof!?
Parking… Planning Issue
Always a biggie on every planning application, or if it isn’t an issue for the council due to the sustainable location of the property (near bus, train or other transport routes, near the town centre, etc), you can bet that the local residents will highlight a lack of parking in their comments to your application – likely via an objection. For our development, basically, we have none! We are in a very sustainable location though, being set just off the main High Street in the town, with plenty of council run carparks within the immediate area, so I will ensure this is highlighted in the planning consultants accompanying documents supporting our scheme.
After we had the initial responses from the council with our Pre-Application Advice, erm, Application, we then arranged a site meeting with the council’s conservation officer, planning officer (both who worked on this pre-app). We went in mob-handed with our own planning consultant, heritage consultant, Simon & myself too.
This tactic I would recommend for your own projects, if you’re carrying out this kind of thing, as I feel it impresses the council and you come across as a professional developer. It also means that everyone can discuss the scheme, layout and the potential issues in each other's own language, rather than me just pushing my luck with changes or ideas that would wind the other parties up! In our case, the result was a very, very good meeting.
Although we will have to make amendments to the original set of plans we produced, the council were on board with the idea of the conversion, the number of units, and even saw that what we were carrying out is sympathetic to the building, safeguarding it for the future. We’re even allowed to pretty much strip out the whole inside of the building, as it’s been knocked about that much already that there isn’t really much worth saving!!
What we do need to save and work into the newest proposals though is the posts which are holding up the former balcony. Not the end of the world, as I’ve even decided to save the balcony and have it as an Instagram-able feature with the ground floor flats.
Some other things for you to consider or watch out for when carrying out this type of work… Firstly, make sure you employ consultants who are prepared to fight your corner and support your scheme. One heritage consultant we approached said that there was no way he could right something that would support what we were proposing, but as we’d need a heritage statement, he’d still be able to write that (even though it would say we were harming the building) and charge us £1,750 for the privilege. No thanks, mate! Our second consultant clearly had other ideas about what could happen to the building, as she said that there wasn’t an issue!!! Imagine if you’d only asked one consultant and then pulled out of the project as you thought it was a non-starter.
Another thing is to never trust what the vendor says without written proof, or even trust any drawing work that they may have had produced before your purchase! When we were going through the drawn-out purchasing process, the vendor on multiple occasions told us that he had approached the council regarding the conversion and that it was pretty much like “pushing at an open door”. They’d accept anything. Although we seem to have got to where we wanted to be, the council certainly didn’t just roll over and let us do what we wanted.
The vendor had also had some plans produced by another local designer, but they’d only been able to produce 1 bed units, rather than a mixture of 1 and 2 bed apartments. We wonder if this had meant that the vendor hadn’t been able to make the scheme stack for themselves, so that’s why they were getting rid of it?? It turned out that the plans were inaccurate and had the building drawn much smaller than it was in reality when I checked it! Their loss was our gain, I guess! Always take a laser measuring device with you!
This property started life at the £90k mark, with us finally securing it at £57.5k, quite a saving! Like my last article, it’s the ability to find problems to solve that saved us a packet, sprinkled with a little bit of vision about how the property could turn out. We’re going to be using this property as Serviced Accommodation/ Holiday Lets too, so having knowledge of other strategies, other than simply developing the flats for the standard rental market, meant we have more options available to make the project viable.