The battle to save Liverpool’s churches
Groups of volunteers are fighting for our decaying houses of God
By Robin Brown
“Mind that pigeon.”
I’m standing on the corpse of the beheaded bird, lying on what remains of the floor of the so-called Welsh Cathedral. The state of the body suggests the presence of a bird of prey lurking in the shattered roof spaces above — and perhaps more besides.
“Any bats in the belfry?” I ask Stephen Yip, who is trying to save the building. He laughs.
“Just one. Cost us five grand!”
Bat surveyors aside, wildlife is the only regular visitor to the Welsh Presbyterian Church these days, following 30 years of dereliction. The building is in an advanced state of decay, with the church open to the elements, much of the roof having been taken down in an attempt to shore up the building 20 years ago. What remains overhead doesn't look long for the world.
Without an urgent injection of funds the latest plan to save the building and create a community resource seems destined to fail. And with it, so will the building.
“I was pushed past the church when I was a baby, I've run past the church, I've pushed my own kids past the church,” says Stephen, now 66, speaking in October. “I've seen it at its peak, and slowly fading into dereliction and almost complete destruction. The church is at the moment in a very, very sad state.”
The architects give it maybe two or three years. But though he may be realistic about the state of the church, Stephen isn’t giving up hope yet. With almost 50 years of running children’s charity KIND (Kids In Need and Distress, which we wrote about last year) behind him — and a surprisingly successful tilt at the mayoralty in May, in which he won over 40% of the final-stage vote, compared to winner Joanne Anderson on just under 60% — he has the track record and charisma of a doer. Perhaps if anyone can rescue the building, it’s him.
Walking around the church it’s clear he has his work cut out. The walls are now largely free-standing while the floor has caved in; towards where the altar once stood is a thicket of bramble and buddleia. The adjoining buildings bear testament to fire and vandalism. To be in the building at all is a risky proposition. A plan to film the BBC’s recent adaptation of The War Of The Worlds came to nothing as the building was deemed too dangerous.
But there are still wonders here, chief among them the rose window in the west wall. Facing towards the river it channels the setting sun beautifully, the odd glass fragment still visible. The spire seems untouched by the seasons (it ensured the building was Liverpool’s tallest when it was completed in 1867; peering up into its infinity is giddying).
Stephen is attempting to to turn the church into a new headquarters for KIND: a community and education facility with cutting-edge environmental architecture and a flexible design to future-proof it. “It will become a model for how you transform older buildings, environmentally and technically,” says Stephen, and most agree the architectural plans for the buildings are impressive and viable.
The church, which is on the Heritage At Risk Register, will house a variety of flexible multi-purpose spaces, a roof garden, cafe and all-weather play area. There is also the aim to engage with the history of the building and provide a beacon for the city’s history of immigration.
“The Welsh were immigrants!” says Stephen. “And they became part of the Liverpool community, like a lot of other immigrants — all of those people have had an effect on Liverpool life. They have added to the mix that is Liverpool: how we teach, how we speak, what we eat.”
In some ways, Stephen’s conception of the new KIND building isn’t far off the church’s original use. “While it was a place of worship, for the Welsh it was like a community centre, an advice centre, a job centre,” he says. “Everything happened in the church.”
Stephen believes he has half the money in assets and commitments (not least from the Heritage Lottery Fund, who have provided Stage One funding to the tune of almost £3m), while more can be raised in fundraising. But there remains a shortfall in the required £10m budget, while VAT will add a huge chunk to the required sum — potentially adding another two million. Options are narrowing.
He is hoping to partner with Liverpool City Council (a similar arrangement brought The Old Library in Stoneycroft to fruition) and has vowed to give the building back to the city upon completion, yet he says the council doesn’t seem interested.
He conveys a mix of frustration and zeal standing amid the ruins of the building, which bears the scars of decades of dereliction. “Have a friend in Jesus,” reads one graffito. Others are less cheery. “Here is a project which would benefit our city as a whole, which would become a community asset,” he tells me. “This is a good news story! And the stories coming out of the council over the last 12 months have not been positive, to be polite about it.”
KIND is working with the Merseyside Buildings Preservation Trust (MBPT), which bought the building for a pound from the council a few years back and has also played a role in planning how to save the similarly stuck-in-development-hell Wellington Rooms. Chairman Bill Maynard previously worked at Liverpool City Council for 17 years (“a life sentence, right?”) and subsequently for the developer Urban Splash.
As a seasoned campaigner, Bill has a good sense of what he is saying both on and off the record, all helped along by an avuncular north-east voice and disinclination to mince words. He says a cocktail of austerity, local crisis and national turmoil has not helped the case of the Welsh church.
The planning permission for the church has been with the planning officer since January, says Bill, speaking in October, “going round and round in circles for no good reason.” He says following Joe Anderson’s resignation the council are “like rabbits caught in the headlights of a car. It's like the place has ground to a bloody halt.”
Both Stephen and Bill were optimistic about their chances of attracting cash from the government’s Levelling Up Fund, but after spending time and money submitting the relevant applications, were dismayed that the entirety of the £22m available went to Tate Liverpool, National Museums Liverpool and a new music attraction on the water front.
“We were gutted not to have been included in the Levelling Up fund bid,” says Bill. “It left us high and dry. I wouldn't mind if the scheme was rubbish, but it's a great scheme, which needs to be supported. It will be great for Liverpool, it will be great for the church.”
Neither MBPT nor KIND, having already committed £160,000 between them, are able to divert any more money on the project. Bill says the council has sunk £400,000 of taxpayer’s cash to retain and maintain the church, including a “half-arsed” job of trying to protect the roof with plastic sheeting, yet won’t commit anything to renovating it.
“I've spent time [with KIND] delivering food parcels — that's the sort of stuff we should be doing, not wasting money on planners and bureaucrats,” he breaks off to apologise for swearing.
Working with Urban Splash, Bill was involved in projects to successfully renovate buildings such as St Peter’s Church (now Alma De Cuba — Liverpool's “most spectacular restaurant and bar”), Liverpool Collegiate School in Everton and the Matchworks in Garston. While he admits those buildings were regenerated in a different financial environment, he believes that there are still innovative ways to save Liverpool’s buildings, but it can only come with imagination and investment.
“None of it means anything if you can't raise the money and the scale of resources required to save these old buildings is astronomical.”
Bill and Stephen will now look to where the projected £4m shortfall might be made up. A letter to Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, asking him to explore additional funding options is still unanswered. Bill also met with the council in early December, in what might be a final roll of the dice for the church. Stephen, who says he is disillusioned with the situation, did not attend.
There is, perhaps, another source of hope, from the most unlikely of circumstances, just down the road: a building whose parlous physical state might seem comparable to the Welsh church — and is now thriving.
“When we got involved the church was just a derelict ruin,” says Kate Jones, who heads the Community Interest Company that now runs St Luke’s Bombed-Out Church, the gutted remains of which are, conversely, one of the loveliest spots in Liverpool city centre. Destroyed during a bombing raid in WWII, the building was maintained as a war memorial but more recently has found a variety of different uses.
St Bride’s Church, off Catharine Street, puts on some religious services there but essentially the Bombed-Out Church is a secular community hub, hosting Halloween events, gigs, film nights and much more. Kate says that St Luke’s can be a useful template for how churches can find new life. After all, if you can turn a building that burned to the ground into a successful shared space, surely you can do it for a building that’s still intact?
“Unfortunately, sometimes it's just more cost-effective to turn old churches into flats,” she says, “but when that happens you lose a bit of area where people just like to go and contemplate, you lose access to a space that people don't have to pay for.”
At any one time there are up to a dozen of churches listed for sale on the Church of England website — most of which will undergo a change of use to turn them into holiday lets or private apartments. Liverpool is no different. Over 2021 several have been listed for sale, including the United Reformed Church in Blundellsands, with its towers, turrets and “domed timber ceiling and a herringbone floor”. Others have gone already. St John’s Church in Waterloo sold at auction in 2018 for £130,000, with planning permission for six homes — though it’s current state suggests a more permanent change of use may be imminent. St James’ in West Derby has found another life — it’s now owned by the Indian Orthodox Church.
The Church of England, responsible for over 16,000 churches across the United Kingdom (there are barely 5,000 combined Catholic churches, mosques, synagogues and temples), is only too aware of the looming problem of churches with falling congregations, hastened by Covid. It recently drew up a report that called for “faster processes” that would allow for closing, or even demolishing, churches.
The report has alarmed those who want to protect the buildings as public spaces. Organisations such as the Friends of Friendless Churches (who share wonderful photos and stories from the churches they restore on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) and Churches Conservation Trust (CCT) step in to save old places of worship where they can. The CCT own Old Christ Church in Waterloo, described as a “hauntingly romantic landmark for sailors”.
While the building is now in the hands of CCT, the Friends of Old Christ Church have been responsible for bringing the church back to life with a series of events from model railway shows to beer festivals and laser displays. A search in Google Maps throws up a bemusing image of cats, lined up in cages there for a best-in-show event. As a venue it’s nothing if not eclectic.
John Bramham, one of the Friends, buys me a cup of tea from the cafe area as The Shadows’ Apache rings around the glorious church. Visitors are milling around to take in the annual art exhibition, but the artists have got a fight on their hands to compare to the surroundings.
John says the Friends had valuable help from Sefton CVS, but looking around it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that Christ Church would be a difficult proposition if it weren't for the dedication of a small group of people, most of whom are retired. When the church was saved it was at risk of demolition, the land potentially to be sold to developers. John gestures around the church.
“I first visited the church on a Heritage Open Day — it was only open about twice a year. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was inside. But I thought it would fall into decay again — we had to find a use for it.” By staging events, the church is now financially self-sufficient. The stained glass at the west end has just been repaired and the marbled sandstone evokes raspberry ripple.
The wood crosshatch floor where the pews once stood is something of a marvel too. Resident odd-job man Tommy supervised the Friends taking them up, repairing and replacing them. “It took three years,” says John, who says the church “wouldn't be what it is” without Tommy.
But he’s worried about the future. Some volunteers haven’t returned after Covid and John is finding it difficult to motivate some of the 20-odd volunteers the church needs to run — and with further churches falling into redundancy he believes more and more responsibility will fall on the shoulders of small groups of volunteers. “It’s getting to the stage where churches have to rely on contributions from the public. There are so many charities looking for money that buildings find it hard to get a look in. It’s going to be down to the local communities to look after them.”
John is phlegmatic about the work he’s put into the church. “It's just something you do when you retire — when you leave work you need to find something to focus on.” He shrugs. “This is what I settled on.”
Just occasionally churches get a new lease of life as places of worship. St James’ in Toxteth ended up in the hands of the Church Conservation Trust when the Church of England divested itself of the building in 1974. But when more housing in the area meant a rise in local population, the Diocese reactivated the church in 2010.
The House of Good report, commissioned in 2020 by the National Churches Trust, says churches provide vital services, such as food banks and credit unions, in a time of austerity and crises such as the Covid pandemic. It also claims the economic value of church buildings to the UK is worth around £55bn and for every one pound invested in a church, £16 is returned. The 2021 update argues that with the Levelling Up agenda a government priority, the inner-city locations of many churches make them vital cogs in the effort to rebalance society more fairly.
There’s no shortage. The Welsh Presbyterian Church, Christ Church and St Luke’s are just three examples, yet even the future of two out of three seems far from assured. More of Liverpool’s churches are struggling on with dwindling congregations — and cash. The time is ticking to find uses for them, the country’s “biggest, most plentiful, most beautiful buildings,” according to Simon Jenkins, author of England's Thousand Best Churches.
But they’re more than that, much more. What unites these buildings is not so much their form as their use, their value. What if the bricks and stone of churches weren’t simply the pillars that held up the buildings, but the foundations of communities throughout Liverpool again?
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