The Environment Secretary has stepped into a dispute between Westminster Cathedral and local residents. Timothy Elphick reports.
A CHAUFFEUR'S cottage, built in 1912, is at the heart of a row which has set the authorities at Westminster Cathedral and local residents at odds, and which some claim could decide the very future of the cathedral's Choir School.
The planning application by Westminster Cathedral to demolish the chauffeur's house and build on the site at 46 Francis Street, just to the east of the cathedral, now looks likely to be "called in" for a final decision by the Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment.
Michael Heseltine's department took over the case only minutes before it was to be put before the planning subcommittee of the Westminster City Council earlier this month.
A spokesman for the Secretary of State said that this had been done to allow Mr Hese!tine time to examine the issues surrounding what had become a local controversy.
His department must now consider whether the cathedral's application for planning permission, which was to have been recommended for approval by Westminster Council planning officers, should be dealt with at ministerial level or returned to the local authority.
The cathedral's plans for the site include the building of four new classrooms for the Westminster Cathedral Choir School as well as administrative accommodation for the diocesan education service and the social and pastoral action body. There would also be two studio flats and three twobedroomed apartments for cathedral staff and priests, together with an underground car-park for 35 cars.
John Gibbs, financial secretary to the Westminster archdiocese, described as "essential" the choir school's need to relieve the pressure of space caused by the increase in the number of pupils from the 30 originally envisaged to the 90 students currently enrolled. And the diocesan services at present housed outside the cathedral precinct needed to be within reach of the cardinal's office, he said.
"The choir school needs these clas4rooms for new science laboratories and as places where the boys can practise their music," Mr Gibbs said. "Music is central to the activity of the school but at the moment there are pianos on landings and in corridors and the pupils rehearse for their music lessons in shoe-cupboards," he explained.
But the objections of those who have pitted themselves against the cathedral's plans have concentrated on the proposed destruction of the chauffeur's cottage and the adverse effect the four-storey building could have on views of parts of the cathedral complex.
Graeme Clark of English Heritage, the government's commission for the conservation of historic buildings, said that his organisation's main concern was that the cathedral vista from the south, from Francis Street itself, would be "seriously impaired". Westminster Cathedral was a grade I listed building and it would be a serious mistake to "destroy that view for all time", he argued.
But Mr Clark also pointed out that the chauffeur's house had been a listed building. And although it had been delisted only three years after its elevation to Grade 11 status in 1987, English Heritage regarded the house, which comprises a small flat over a garage, as being an important "early example of a building to accommodate a car". The cottage was designed by the successor to the cathedral's architect John Francis Bentley, J A Marshall.
Richard Holder, architectural advisor to the Victorian Society, said that he was "worried" by the apparent change of mind which had led the former Secretary of State for the Environment, Catholic Chris Patten, to delist the Edwardian chauffeur's cottage. It had not been altered since it was added to the "list", and the minister's action, which made the granting of planning permission for the site more likely, represented an erosion of the protection supposedly afforded to historic buildings by conservation areas and the listing procedure, he said. But the idea put forward by the former director of London's Victoria and Albert Museum, Sir Roy Strong, who has a flat In Morpeth Terrace, opposite the proposed development, that the new building would be "a marker for the subsequent, piecemeal development of the whole of the (Westminster Cathedral) conservation area" was dismissed by Mr Gibbs.
Mr Gibbs stressed that Cardinal Hume had made clear from the outset that the remainder of the site alongside the cathedral would be left as the playground for the Choir School. The new building was designed to keep the school alive by providing new teaching quarters, he said. And to destroy the school's recreation area would be counterproductive.
Mr Gibbs stressed that every effort had been made by the project architects, Roger Carpenter, Kerr and O'Hara, to ensure that the new building would be sympathetic to Bentley's original design for the cathedral. "It will be of red brick interlaced with Portland stone so as to fit in well," he said.
In a letter to the Times last week the vice-chair of the governors of the Choir School, Dr John Rae, echoed Mr Gibbs' claim that the project was necessary for the survival of the school. He said that without the extra pupils the school had taken in recent years it "would have closed and the musical heritage of the cathedral would have been lost. The new building is the only way in which desperately needed space can be provided."
And Dr Rae urged earlier correspondents to the Times, including Lavender Patten, the wife of the former Secretary of State for the Environment and residents of the flats in Morpeth Terrace, "not to pretend that there is nothing at stake but a 'multi-purpose building'."
A decision on whether or not the new cathedral buildings will see the light of day, at the cost of the chauffeur's cottage, will probably now rest with Mr Heseltine. The minister must weigh the balance between an unremarkable, pebble-dashed cottage and some infringement to the view of the cathedral from the back, and a new building which would help keep the life of the cathedral and its Choir School on the up.