Bishop's Stortford Town Council welcomes expansion plans for Water Lane United Reformed Church
Town councillors who criticised proposals to raze the United Reformed Church hall in Bishop’s Stortford have welcomed plans for its replacement.
The URC is asking East Herts Council (EHC) for planning permission to extend the main church building in Water Lane to create new community space.
The design impressed members of the town council's planning and development committee after they were addressed by church elder Robert Buss and representatives of Atomik Architecture.
The existing church hall, behind estate agent Mullucks' head office and next to the Waitrose car park, was sold to EHC in 2019 and will be knocked down to provide parking as part of the authority’s plans for its Old River Lane cultural quarter.
Loss of the performance space – home to Laughing Bishops Comedy Club – and community facilities has been widely condemned by opponents of the scheme, particularly after the council revised its £30m arts centre plans to remove a planned 544-seat auditorium and save £14.5m. Instead, the centre will focus on films with five screens.
The URC, formed in 1972 when the Congregational Church in England and Wales united with the Presbyterian Church of England, plans to add a side extension for community use to its grade II listed building, which has been a town centre landmark for more than 150 years.
Mr Buss told the committee: “It’s hard to emphasise how important this is for the church’s future, both for its mission and providing services to the community when the hall goes.”
The land where the hall stands was a gift from gin magnate Sir Walter Gilbey, who donated it as a site for a Sunday school in 1895 but it was not built until 1915. Since then it has been home to groups as varied as Waterside School and Water Lane Theatre Company.
The main church, which opened in 1860, stands on the site of a brick-built chapel from 1767, which in turn replaced a barn. It was designed by architect William Ford Poulton, who was also responsible for the 2,500-seat Westminister Chapel. In 2000, a new slate roof, toilets and a vestry were added as part of a modernisation plan.
The building already hosts more than 30 organisations including church groups, U3A (University of the Third Age), bridge players, Brownies, Cubs and Bishop’s Stortford College Instrumental Group.
Atomik Architecture said blending the new extension into the existing heritage asset had been a challenge.
It said: “The layout has been arranged to provide flexible spaces that can be used by the specific community groups throughout the day. The proposal also creates new office, meeting and storage spaces.
"The addition of a new staircase and lift improves circulation and accessibility, enabling inclusive access which promotes and supports a diverse user group.
“The choice of materials has been carefully considered to achieve an aesthetic that is sensitive and subservient to the existing church."
A rose brick will create a visual bridge between the white stocks of the church and the red facade of surrounding structures like Florence Walk. A landscaped forecourt will be created outside the church for community events.
Cllr Richard Townsend, whose Liberal Democrat party opposes the church hall demolition, said: “I have a very positive viewpoint on what’s being presented here.”
Lib Dem colleague Cllr Bob Taylor believed the development would enhance footfall in the area for traders and added: “It’s a lovely design.”
Conservative Cllr Shane Manning summed up: “I thought this was fantastic.”
As well as the arts centre with a five-screen multiplex, EHC's plans for Old River Lane include the 546-space multi-storey car park under construction at Northgate End. The council's development partner Cityheart is also planning 137 homes, 90 "senior living" apartments, shops, restaurants and offices on the council's Causeway car parks.