Poynings: Consistory Court judgement

Poynings: Consistory Court judgement

On 7 December, the SPAB received the judgement of The Worshipful Mark Hill QC, Chancellor of the Diocese of Chichester which ruled that proposals for underfloor heating in the historic heart of Holy Trinity, Poynings, Sussex were not to be permitted.

The case, which has been long-running and hard-won began in 2015 when the parish invited the SPAB to the church to consider the forthcoming proposals for the installation of underfloor heating and a new floor to the South Transept of the church, as well as the installation of a tea point and interpretation panels.

The church is a grade 1 listed, late 14th Century cruciform plan church with central Tower that stands in the foothills of the South Downs. It was rebuilt in the Gothic perpendicular style from a bequest by Sir Michael de Poynings. As such the South Transept is also known as the Poynings Chantry chapel where generations of the De Poynings family are buried. It contains a number of burial monuments that are of high significance as a result of their early date and the story they tell of the history of the church and its founders. Across the chapel’s entrance is a late 14th century screen probably originally part of the rood screen moved here in 1842 or a mid to late 19th century restoration. Given it’s provenance as chantry chapel and the importance of the monuments and the screen, arguably the South Transept is one of the most important and historic spaces within the ancient church.

As with many historic churches the congregation is small in number, with infrequent services and is looking to diversity the activities in the church and open it up to the wider community. Given the large size of the church and the height of the roofs the church becomes too cold in the winter to be used, and the Society fully empathises with the parish’s need for a discrete space which can be heated separately to allow year round use. The Parochial church council who put forward the proposals selected the South Transept as such a space.

As well as being one of the most historic and important spaces in the church, the South Transept is also in a bad state of repair – the ground level outside the church to the south is higher than on the inside which means that moisture is forced through the walls and floor of the church. The floor in the transept is also made up of impermeable clay tiles most likely from the Victorian period which are forcing more moisture into the walls. The burial memorials in the floor are all vulnerable to this moisture, being of a more permeable material, and are all in a friable condition from centuries of wear.

The parishes’ proposals included the introduction of underfloor heating in this space, without remedial repair works to deal with the issue of damp (which will have been making conditions even colder in the Church) and would have instead buried permanently the problem under an impermeable damp proof membrane. Not only would this almost certainly have caused more moisture to travel up the walls of the transept and probably the medieval timber screen, it would have buried the medieval monuments of the founders of the church in perpetuity under a modern floor build-up with no certainty as to what the impact on the monuments would have been and no way of monitoring their condition. In the future, should it have been desirable and possible to remove the new floor, the saturated memorials upon being exposed to air would likely have dried at an accelerated rate and the subsequent damage by salts would likely have been catastrophic. Overall the potential for harm to the fabric of the church in this case was simply to great as to be acceptable.

In addition, the SPAB considers that underfloor heating is not suitable for churches, or parts of churches, which are used only occasionally and knows that with only intermittent use it can actually be a hindrance in that it becomes inefficient and costly. While the parish aims to increase the use of the South Transept they do not know how frequent and regular such use will be and so did not adequately demonstrate the need for such a system that works best if running near constantly. Add to this that the space cannot be enclosed thanks to the medieval screen the SPAB believes that the proposed electric underfloor heating would not have had the beneficial effect on ambient temperature that the Parish had anticipated.

The SPAB sympathises with the church’s dilemma – finding an affordable solution to creating a comfortable space to diversify activities within the church – and are acutely aware that this issue is affecting churches across the country. As such the SPAB seeks, wherever possible to support proposals that ensure the continued use of church buildings in recognition of the fact that without use by regular congregation and visitors these buildings become untenable to maintain and repair. In this case we, and others, suggested a number of different of approaches, such as using the less significant North Transept, adding a small extension to the church or removing some pews and the west end of the church to create a flexible community space, unfortunately none of these were explored by the parish. Given that underfloor heating was unlikely to provide the results the parish wanted whilst simultaneously exacerbating underlying damp issues, and that the proposals would have resulted in the obfuscation of the medieval memorial stones that a visitor today can see and touch and in so doing interpret the history of the church, we felt we must oppose the scheme at Consistory Court.

As a small charity with limited resources it is rare that we become Party Opponents to schemes, preferring to find solutions to the conflict between special interest and the future-proofing of buildings wherever possible. The fact that we were Party Opponents to this scheme illustrates the strength of our conviction that these proposals are a short-term solution to only one of the problems concerning the future use of the church.

The judgement of the Chancellor took into account the technical issues that would arise from the installation of the underfloor heating and was robust in suggesting that the harm to the significance of the building was too great when balanced against the Parish’s need. It also took the Parish to task for not having explored other, less harmful options like those we suggested, and for not having commissioned an options appraisal for the best method of heating the church by a qualified, conservation-experienced building services engineer.

This was an important case for the SPAB and for the wider sector as it knocks on the head the notion that any scheme to make churches more comfortable for the congregation should be allowed on the grounds of public benefit and mission outweighing heritage considerations. It shows that alternative, non-invasive proposals need to be given due consideration and that proper expert assessment is required.

These cases are rare and difficult to win, however, we pursue them as consistory court judgements are added to the body of church case law so where we do succeed and a judgement is made in our favour, the Society is having a tangible impact on the direction of church casework in the future.



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