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Friends Meeting House News

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Information Sections Planning Documents
The first (withdrawn) plans [17/8/07] 1st (withdrawn) Listed Building
The second application set [19/4/08] 1st (withdrawn) New Development
Revised Drawings [10/8/08] Later (Refused) Listed Building
Before the DCC meeting [7/9/08] Later (Refused) New Development
The 10th September DCC [14/9/08] The third Listed Building
The third application [7/12/08] The third New Development

The Third Application

The Committee Meeting

[25/1/09] Watchdog attended and spoke at the meeting, and what follows is our summary of what happened.  Throughout this section we have identified by a numeric symbol [n] our own comments on the events, which you can read in the box on the right by matching numbers.

Around the table were the Chairman, Les Kew and (in alphabetical order) Nicholas Coombes (substituting for Gerry Curran), Paul Crossley, Colin Darracott, Eleanor Jackson, Malcolm Lees, Richard Maybury, Carol Paradise, David Speirs (substituting for John Bull), Brian Webber, Steve Wilcox and John Whittock.

[1]  The clue is in the Officer's Report where the word "congregation" is used.

[2]  This is what was said.  However, later you will see that English Heritage did not agree with this, and the same officer reports this.

[3]  This slide contained an error because on the plan of the current layout, the blind doorway was shown as an opening door.  We noticed, but nobody else seemed to.  Indeed, we were left with the impression that the presentation was simply going through the motions as far as the majority of the Committee were concerned.

[4]  This is how the objection was described.  However in our view, the comments were understated.  Read the full text and make up your own mind.  As a statutory consultee, the Georgian Group's opinion should have carried a lot more weight than the Committee gave it.

[5]  The text of this letter is not yet on-line to the public, and we wait to read the exact words.  However, the role of English Heritage as defined in the Heritage Protection Act is incompatible with the statement made by the case officer.

[6]  We thought that Cllr Coombes had a valid point.  The Chairman's dismissal of it was unprofessional.  We interpreted it as a wish not to let the facts get in the way of a mind already made up.

[7]  Watchdog has been given a full tour of the interior of the building and has photographic evidence that this is completely untrue.  But the case officer does not have to take our word for it.  There is a full set of pictures in the Historical Survey submitted by the applicants which similarly shows a building in good repair, so the case officer clearly either didn't read the documentation, or chose to mislead the Committee.

[8]  Interestingly, when Watchdog said this in their comments on the previous application, the applicants accused us of lying.  Now we know that their desperation was showing.

[9]  Watchdog spoke to Professor Jeater before the meeting and we were told that the Chairman had been officially told this by the Friends before the meeting, so she wasn't dropping a bombshell, just telling them something they already knew.  That explained why none of the Committee looked surprised by the announcement, though it came as a shock to the public gallery.

[10]  This was a very odd thing to say.  The building is Greek Revival style, which the architect William Wilkins was famous for, and there is no hint of Egyptian, inside or out.

[11]  One of the public comments on the planning application revealed that this is also a residential street and deliberate action has been taken by the council in the past to improve the evenings of those living there.  Enlivening the street scene is going to undo all those efforts.  In the daytime however, there is a lot of activity:  the stop for the tour buses in Terrace Walk make sure of that.

[12]  At each Committee meeting, the chairman has a legal advisor sitting at the table, who can be consulted whenever necessary.  It should have been that advisor who evaluated the significance of what had been said, not a planning officer operating outside his remit (because his scope is Major Projects and these applications were outside it).  If there is ever a legal challenge to these committee decisions, the fact that the wrong person gave incorrect advice (see comment [16] below) which may have misled the committee members could be enough to get the decisions revoked.

[13]  Both he and the Committee knew that this was not an unsubstantiated statement, but something that had been formally notified to the Committee chairman before the meeting (see comment [9] above).  Again we interpreted it as a wish not to let the facts get in the way of minds already made up.

[14]  No such vote was moved by any member of the Committee.  They already knew it was true, so they didn't anything checked.  Again we interpreted it as a wish not to let the facts get in the way of minds already made up.  Comment [16] below is what we believe Cllr Coombes should have been advised.

[15]  Cllr Webber is entitled to his opinion and we will not criticise it.  But if he truly believed that a building which the officer's report and Dianne Jeater's speech made clear remains in regular use, needs to be "brought back into use" then he obviously didn't read the papers properly, and if he didn't read the papers properly, how could he make a judgement that took into account all the information available?

[16]  We disagree.  English Heritage made it a planning issue by (we believe wrongly) advising the Committee to decide whether the loss of historic fabric is outweighed by the benefits, and if the sale does not proceed there are no benefits to offset the loss of historic fabric.  Therefore there is no justification whatever for voting for the loss of historic fabric.  Cllr Crossley is entitled to his opinion on the merits of the planning application and we will not criticise it, but the same does not apply to faulty logic.

[17]  We noticed though that the proposer of the motion spoke from a pre-prepared brief.  If there truly was notice being taken of the public's representations, every person around the table would only make their mind up after all the public speakers had made their points, and more flexibility would be given over the duration of these speeches instead of a rigid guillotine.  All the indications are that the way to vote had been decided by each member before the meeting, and they were just going through the motions of listening to the public speakers and the last minute communications from the statutory consultees.

[18]  Here we disagree.  Watchdog undertook to be the eyes and ears of the UNESCO Mission after it left Bath and we have been routinely assessing planning decisions against the aims of the World Heritage Management Plan, the heritage policies in the Local Plan and the guidance in PPG15.  The Mission is due to render their report to the World Heritage Committee in the Spring, and by their cut-off date they will have Watchdog's complete dossier of what has happened in Bath since the Mission visited.  As the Mission expressed a special interest in the Friends Meeting house, our report on these events will be particularly thorough.

[19]  They have only compromised when it suited them.  The Committee had already been told that the applicants would not accept any conditions on the times when the outdoor seating was permitted to be used.

[20]  Using that argument, it would be perfectly acceptable to redevelop the Royal Crescent because there are ample photographs of what it used to look like.  What a ridiculous and irresponsible attitude to take!  PPG15 is very clear:  "There should be a general presumption in favour of the preservation of listed buildings" and "Once lost, listed buildings cannot be replaced; and they can be robbed of their special interest as surely by unsuitable alteration as by outright demolition."

When asked if there were any declarations of interest, Eleanor Jackson said she had a personal, non-prejudicial interest in the building as a place of worship, at which Les Kew expressed surprise that it was a place of worship, which shows how carefully he had read the papers[1].

The presentation from a heritage perspective, which emphasised that the applicants had been prepared to negotiate since the earlier, rejected application, and the claim was made that the character of the building was reflected more closely now.  The mezzanine had been slimmed down, the windows were no longer being extended and the street railings were being retained.  As a result, the design was exciting and more sympathetic[2].

Some slides of the current and planned layouts were shown, but so quickly it was impossible to take in the information shown until Nicholas Coombes complained about the speed, and the screen stopped at the slide of the ground floor[3].

Some last minute updates were announced:
A letter had been received from the Georgian Group who were concerned about the loss of the blind doorway purely for commercial reasons and they would prefer the side doors to be used for access.  They recommended that the Committee should refuse the applications[4]. This was clarified by the case officer as advice not an instruction.
English Heritage had also written expressing their concern about the creation of a door in place of the blind door for operational reasons. They pointed out that the door is a change to the architectural nature of the frontage, but left it to the Committee to decide whether the loss of historic fabric is outweighed by the benefits[5].

The presentation from the change of use asserted that the detail of the doorway is satisfactory, and only the concept of opening it up was debatable. Nicholas Coombes tried to make a point about a deficiency in the design of the doorway, but nobody seemed to understand the significance and Les Kew dismissed it as a mere detail[6]. The presentation finished with a claim that the inside was falling into dilapidation[7].

The Committee was then asked to ignore one of the draft conditions.  The possibility of a condition limiting the time when the outside tables could be used, was unavailable because the applicant refused to agree to it, so the Committee was instructed that if they wanted to have any such limit then they had to vote for refusal.

Then the members of the public who had asked to address the Committee were invited to speak.

Dianne Jeater identified herself as a member of the Religious Society of Friends.  She said that the Friends had not abandoned the building.  They had used it for 150 years, but four years ago they thought to relocate and a museum wanted to buy the building.  However the Friends could not simply sell to the museum.  Their code of practice said they had to put the building on the market and sell to the highest bidder, and in the event that was not the museum but a proposal for a restaurant.  Although the Friends did not want to have it turned into a restaurant, their principles said that they had to keep their word and could not withdraw the offer to sell while someone was offering to buy.  But there was no danger of the building being derelict if the applications were not approved [8].

At present the building is used for worship and other uses, and the Friends had looked at some financially viable other uses, and had expressions of interest from dance groups, art exhibitions as a festival venue and various community groups.

Last Saturday the Friends had a meeting to discuss the fact that Cubex no longer wanted to pursue the purchase, and the Friends decided to take the building off the market[9].

Then Watchdog's Chairman spoke.  He emphasised the importance of the architect and the rarity of his architectural style in Bath, and the important community role the building has had throughout its history.  He pointed out that the changes since the previous application merely tinkered round the edges of the previous objections to distract from the unacceptable destruction both internally and externally, and there were concerns about the weight and vibration of the proposed additions causing structural damage.  The applicant's recent listed building conversion in Bristol proved that even a Grade I listed building was treated as just bricks and mortar, effectively destroying the quality of the building, and there is apparently a similar aim in Bath to impose the same corporate style.  Concern was expressed that the unique streetscape of Bath was becoming a clone of any other city, and that is why Watchdog is bringing planning applications such as this to the attention of UNESCO.  The speech finished with a request to refuse permission as required by national and local planning policies.

Joanna Robinson from the Bath Preservation Trust spoke in favour.  She said that the applicants had listened to the BPT concerns and have made substantial changes.  Whilst the BPT regretted the loss of historic fabric, the wooden door retains the solidity of the façade and retains the Egyptian proportions[10]. They would like to see a lighter touch for the railings on the portico but the prominent entrance would enliven the street scene, which was needed for the long term survival[11].  So the proposal to give the building a new life was welcomed, subject to suitable conditions to get the right detailing on the door, access steps and railings. Separate applications would be required for signs and illumination.

The senior planning officer advised [12] that the Committee should not give weight to the news that the building had been taken off the market.  Their duty was to determine the applications as presented. Nicholas Coombes asked for clarification given that English Heritage had invited the Committee to use judgement to balance economic advantage against the destruction of fabric, and if the sale is withdrawn how could he make that judgement.  He was advised that the Planning Authority cannot take note of unsubstantiated statements [13], but they could vote to defer a decision while the facts were checked [14].

Brian Webber thought that the change to a restaurant was an acceptable use, so he was only concerned with whether the changes to the building were justified.  On the previous application he was among those who thought the proposals went too far.  The revised scheme was a reasonable compromise, with a solid door, and the side roofs and the windows kept unchanged.  The building could thus be brought back into use [15], and he moved to support the recommendation to approve.

Paul Crossley seconded the motion.  Whether the Quakers were going to sell the building was not a planning issue [16], but he complemented the public speakers for a well informed public debate[17].  He had had concerns about the earlier application but in this one most of his concerns were answered.  There would be a need to look at the details of the railings and door but they could be made to fit.  The proposal was an imaginative use for the building and gave a good mix in the city centre.  The argument that the World Heritage is at risk is wrong[18].  As many buildings as possible should respect the past but move on into the future.

Eleanor Jackson said that the decision was a delicate balance, but the building had been a place of worship for 150 years and had provided a service to the community in that time.  A restaurant was useful, but community service was also important.  The Masonic building was unique, because most were mid-Victorian and usually had a gothic feel and this building unusually reflects the early history of the Masons.  As such it was important to preserve the blank door and that is why she would oppose the motion.  The applicants had listened and compromised - if only all applicants did as much[19], - but what the Georgian Society said should be given weight.

Nicholas Coombes agreed with Eleanor Jackson.  He was OK with the change of use but thought the sacrifice of the blind door was unnecessary.

Steve Wilcox said he was glad the earlier application was refused.  But this building has to go through change and there would be plenty of photographs of what it used to look like[20].

The voting:

Paul Crossley, Colin Darracott, Les Kew, Malcolm Lees, Richard Maybury, Brian Webber, Steve Wilcox and John Whittock all voted for consent to be given to the Listed Buildingapplication;
Nicholas Coombes, Eleanor Jackson, Carol Paradise and David Speirs voted against.

Nicholas Coombes, Paul Crossley, Colin Darracott, Les Kew, Malcolm Lees, Richard Maybury, Carol Paradise, Brian Webber, Steve Wilcox and John Whittock all voted for permission to be given for the change of use etc;
Eleanor Jackson voted against;
David Speirs abstained.

The Committee Brief

[18/1/09]  The agenda for the DCC of 21st January 2009 is now available, and the Friends Meeting House applications are the first ones to be considered.  The Officers Report is on-line, and it makes curious reading.

It reports that Cllr Gazzard has expressed his support, and yet his support letter does not appear among the on-line documents for either of the applications.  According to the report, Cllr Gazzard thinks the external changes "enhance the suitability of the premises for its new life as a prestige restaurant."  What a pity then that the internal changes destroy the usability of the building for any purposes apart from those that follow the house style of Brasserie Blanc, which is in reality merely a restaurant chain with a penchant for spoiling listed buildings.  Whilst Cllr Gazzard worries "that we don’t end up with another empty and near derelict 'unusual' building" his support for the application virtually guarantees that such will be the fate of the building if Brasserie Blanc is not a commercial success (and the level of business of the Bristol branch of that chain is not reassuring), because it will cost too much to unwreck the interior for anybody else to want the building afterwards.  But the oddest quote of that section of the report is Cllr Gazzard's reference to "the original; short term, features":  When did features that have survived for 150 years become short term?  We are left wondering if Cllr Gazzard has been misquoted, or whether in his mind a "prestige restaurant" completely blinds him to reality.

Even more curious is the assertion that planning approval would be given in accordance with Policy BH2 when that policy requires the council to "preserve any feature of special architectural or historic interest which the building may possess".  Similarly, the Listed building recommendation for consent states that "the Council considers that the proposals ... will preserve the building, and its features of special architectural or historic interest".  The English Heritage listing text makes special reference to "The elegant, CORRECT Greek façade" (our emphasis) and "The interior, in particular the impressive top-lit Great Room, retains its C19 decorative schemes".  The correct Greek facade will be ruined by a flight of steps, and the C19 decorative scheme will be destroyed by an entrance lobby and gigantic modern mezzanine.  What are we to conclude from these discrepancies?  That the case officers don't know what is in the council's own planning policies and the listings of the listed buildings, or that they deliberately lied in their recommendations, either of their own volition or under instruction?  For we can see no rational way of reaching their recommendations, given the facts.

The Officers Report identifies quite correctly that "the primary consideration is the duty placed on the Council under S16 of the Listed Buildings Act to have special regard to the desirability of preserving the building or its setting or any features of special architectural or historic interest which it possess".  It then recognises "The scheme still includes the controversial proposal to convert the existing blind (solid stone) door beneath the portico into an useable doorway".  S16 of the Listed Buildings Act has been tested and clarified in the courts (it is referred to as "the Steinberg principle" in case law) which states that the requirement to pay 'special attention' to the appearance should be the first consideration, overriding any benefit that may be functional.  In admitting the conversion of the doorway is controversial, and then making the statements "the design of the proposed steps would depart from the classical temple template" and "the loss of the blind door will reduce the distinctive sense of place" the case officer should be fully aware that the legal precedent requires him to recommend refusal, yet he has not done that.  So we are bringing the case law to his attention in the hope that he might reconsider the currently indefensible recommendation.

The report also claims that Bath Heritage Watchdog had not commented on the proposal.  This is simply untrue.  You can read the Watchdog comments on our Comments page.  Some of them are also on-line on the full application document set (along with a few other comments from members of the public that were not mentioned in the report).

What should happen now is that a supplementary report should be written just before the DCC meeting, with the recommendations changed to Refuse.  We recognise, from the spate of recent legally incorrect planning decisions that the concept of doing what the legislation requires is almost extinct in this council, so won't hold our breath!  We will, however, attend the meeting and take notes of the discussion and voting, to relay to the UNESCO Mission as we promised them we would.

The Applications

[7/12/08]  Two new planning applications (08/04446/FUL and 08/04447/LBA) have been raised, as we predicted to the UNESCO Mission when we met them.  There are some changes to the second application:  the windows are no longer being lowered, the railings are being retained (though they now sport anachronistic dwarf lamp standards), the side roofs are being left in their current profile, but the ventilation plant is now being embedded into the main roof with inlets and outlet on the south roof, and the "Friends Meeting House" on the portico is being retained, but not much else is changed from the second application.

Front elevationThere is still a plan to insert a huge and unsightly mezzanine into the interior, by knocking substantial holes into the historic fabric of the walls to hold the girders.  There are still plans to ruin the symmetry of the frontage by modifying one side entrance staircase but not the other.  There are still plans to mount the heat exchangers on the rear of the building, to mar any photos of the Grade I listed Ralph Allen's Town House.  There are still plans to make the blind central doorway, which had such great significance in the Wilkins design ("the way to enlightenment is not obvious"), into an opening door, and running steps down into the street from it.  There are still plans to pipe ventilation through additional holes in the historic fabric.  Whether the lanterns will be affected in time by the vibration from the plant alongside them is not mentioned.

Watchdog believes that there is still far too much damage done to the historic fabric, and will object again.  We note that Brasserie Blanc claim to be respectful of listed buildings, but visitors to their establishment in Cabot's Circus will be appalled by the contempt that was shown to the interior of that historic Grade I listed Quakers Friars building, and a similar cavalier attitude is being shown to the Friends Meeting House.   One thing is certain, that if planning permission is granted and the restaurant is not a long term success, it would cost a huge amount of money to restore the building to its current unspoiled state.  So these changes are going to be irreversible, and the Wilkins proportioned interior will be gone forever.

We will be updating the UNESCO Mission on these new plans as we promised, because although their visit is finished, they are not due to submit their report on Bath until next Spring, and a planning decision is likely to be made before then.

 

The Second Application

Development Control Committee

This description of events includes Watchdog comments in blue interspersed where appropriate.

New[14/9/08]  On 10th September the Development Control Committee discussed both the full and listed building applications.  The Senior Conservation Officer's presentation was detailed, and of necessity he had to bring to the committee's attention the revised drawings that had arrived so recently that there had been no opportunity for the public to comment on them, especially the montages that had been manipulated to omit the service runs from the internal view of the building.  [If Watchdog had seen the drawings in time to comment on them, we would also have pointed out that the external view omits all means of draining water from the roof, and the internal view omits any method of illumination after dark.]  He also brought to the committee's attention a letter from the Georgian Group, a statutory consultee, which objected strongly to some features of the design, aligning themselves with English Heritage, Bath Preservation Trust and Watchdog, all of which made similar objections.

There were three presentations from the public against the scheme (Bath Preservation Trust, Watchdog, and a member of the public) and a representative for Brasserie Blanc spoke in favour, claiming that the company has experience of sympathetically converting listed buildings [but you only have to look at all the anachronistic stainless steel in Quakers Friars in Bristol to see how little sympathy they had for that Grade I listed building].  Then followed an unacceptable criticism of the Senior Conservation Officer accusing him of not being open to compromise [yet the only compromise being offered was a change of paint colour when the real issue was the scale of damage to the listed building], which rather proved beyond any doubt that Brasserie Blanc really don't care for any features of any listed building if they get in the way of their ambitions.

Cllr Gazzard then spoke about how the clientele of Brasserie Blanc would have a natural policing effect on the area, [which was really rather puzzling because in reality they would either be inside or arriving and leaving in small numbers rather earlier than the time when the area experiences problems. We did not understand the point of this speech].

Cllr Webber proposed a motion to agree with the officers recommendation and refuse that applications, because the alterations went too far.  This was seconded.  Then followed a general discussion.

• Cllr Veal was concerned about any work carried out in the area until the extent of the Roman Baths had been determined.  [This seemed inappropriate for a planning application which was entirely contained within the existing footprint of a long established building].
• Cllr Jackson spoke from personal knowledge saying that the proposals would destroy this wonderful space and that it should be in community use.
• Cllr Paradise said that this area needed this type of vibrant brand and it should be supported.
• Cllr Crossley agreed saying although some of the proposal went too far he could live with it.
• Cllr Curran said he had no objection to people eating on the pavement and if the problem was parked cars and traffic then the easiest solution was to remove the cars [which rather misses the point that the pavement is for pedestrians; and also the type of customers who would be most likely to use Brasserie Blanc in the evenings would probably go elsewhere if there was no access by taxi].
• Cllr Darracott accused the Senior Conservation Officer of using every trivial excuse to block it [which shows how little respect Cllr Darracott has for the professionals in English Heritage and the Georgian Society whose reasons were far from trivial].  He went on to claim that buildings had to move forward and if this was the price we had to pay, so be it because this was only a Grade II listed building and not Grade I [but then he voted for the bar coded power station behind the Grade I listed Holburne museum, so would it being Grade I have made any difference to him?  It is this attitude that anything is acceptable provided the applicant has money or fame that is causing UNESCO so much concern over how Bath is being cared for].
• Cllr Veal spoke next.  Instead of discussing the applications on the agenda he criticised Bath Heritage Watchdog, until he was interrupted by Cllr Crossley who pointed out that our chairman had made a positive contribution to the debate.  [We have broad shoulders and a thick skin, but we did appreciate the support].
• Cllr Darracott said that this showed Bath in its most backward archaeological mode and because this was largely due to the case officers presentation and report, it should be ignored as it only reflected his opinion.  When he was reminded that this opinion was emphatically shared by the Georgian Group, English Heritage, Bath Preservation Trust and Bath Heritage Watchdog, he insisted that the interruption should be struck of the minutes.  [Nevertheless,  planning officers should not be expected to put up with unjustified abuse from an opinionated councillor on the committee, so we quote it here - in bold.  It was a very valid point, and Local Plan Policies and National Planning Guidelines all prove Cllr Darracott wrong].

It looks as though we missed an abstention hand. The minutes show the votes as 7-4 with 1 abstention and 7-3 with 2 abstentions.

At the vote 08/02282/FUL was refused 7-4 and 08/02283/LBA was refused 7-3 with 1 abstention.

Cllrs Crossley, Darracott and Paradise voted to approve both; Cllr Curran voted for the full application and abstained from the listed building vote.  Everybody else voted to reject both, and Cllr Webber's motion was carried.

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[7/9/08]  September 10th is the date that the planning applications for the Friends Meeting House goes before the DCC.  The case officers have prepared a very thorough brief arguing for refusal, a recommendation that Watchdog wholeheartedly supports.  This is a very distinctive building, and despite the comment from English Heritage that the interior has undergone various alterations, Watchdog has compared the early design plans with a site visit inside the building, and discovered that most of them are easily reversible, with later non-structural walls able to be removed and bricked up doorways able to be reopened.  This is substantially an unspoiled listed building, inside and out.

Watchdog has also been in touch with the Society of Friends and has been assured that there is no intention of abandoning the building if planning permission is refused, so Cllr Gazzard's alarmist calls not to allow it to become derelict are misplaced and can be ignored.  We wonder too how he can describe a building that has survived as designed for 190 years as "short term features", and point out that the listed building legislation does not recognise the value of change, emphasising that where possible listed buildings should be reused for the purpose for which it was built, which is as a community hall.

So we will be watching the outcome of the voting with interest.  We have been asked by UNESCO to alert them to planning decisions that their mission to Bath should take into account, and the level of destruction to a unique building that would follow if permission is granted is undoubtedly something that they would be interested in.

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Amended drawings

[10/8/08]  Some new drawings (dated 25 July) have been lodged on the Listed Building application so there is a risk that public comments made before that date could be discounted, so it would be wise to repeat any comments that have been made that are unaffected by the revised drawings.  The drawings themselves are mainly concerned with where the ventilation ducts and air conditioning pipes will run, but they also reveal where the "Builders Work Holes" will be made to get these fittings through the structural walls, holes which were not shown in the original drawings.  Other than that, the design remains as originally proposed.

Seen from the AbbeyRecently, the Abbey tower was opened to visitors, so we went up to take a look.  And we discovered that the Friends Meeting House can be seen clearly from that viewpoint.  So now we know that any alterations to the exterior of the building will be highly visible to those who take advantage of the view from the Abbey, and will be preserved for posterity in very many photographs.

As our picture shows, the clean lines and the unadorned simplicity apart from the roof lanterns make this building stand out.  When the sun moves round, the character of the side roofs also comes to the fore.  And our researches have discovered an engraving dated 1818 that shows the windows glazed, so it is possible that although Wilkins designed the frontage with blind windows, it was constructed with real windows and those currently in place are originals (construction lasted from 1817 to 1819).  If that is the case, then there can be no justification for enlarging them on the grounds that they were a later addition.

Finally, we have discovered that the row of shops on the opposite side of the street to the Friends Meeting House are by the same architect and they were designed as a group.  This makes it even more important that there are no major changes to the front of the building, because that would destroy the group value of the street.

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[20/7/08]  Two new planning applications have been lodged: 08/02282/FUL and 08/02283/LBA.  These revive the concept of converting the Friends Meeting house into a restaurant only this time there is a specific operator providing the user requirement.

existing frontageThe Society of Friends kindly allowed Watchdog  to examine their research into the history of their Meeting House and to study the interior of the building.  It allowed us to understand the symbolism of the building's design.  So we now understand that the blind doorway in the front needed to be blind because "the way to enlightenment is not always obvious".  We know that the roofs on the wings are the shape and angle that they are in order to illuminate particular areas of the interior through the skylights fitted for that purpose. And we understand that despite the claim in the planning documentation that the Society can no longer afford the building and maintenance costs, this is untrue:  but the legislation under which the Society operates requires them to place the property on the open market in order to permit a change of use.

The LanternThe design concept of the planning application is similar  to the earlier, withdrawn, application in a number of respects but there are some marked differences such as making an entrance in the centre of the frontage, removing the railings from the street boundary and adding glazed balconies to make room for outdoor seating whilst preventing customers from falling off the raised areas, and providing a large mezzanine for additional table space inside.

Watchdog has now examined the application and whilst we have no concerns about reusing the building as a restaurant (although with the wealth of architectural detail in the building, like the lantern pictured, what a wonderful location it would be for the Building of Bath Museum!).  But we think that this application is far less sympathetic to the listed building than the earlier, withdrawn, application, and we will object on the grounds of damage to the historic fabric.

Sketch of MezzanineThe mezzanine floor which now forms a significant feature inside rather than just being a restoration of an earlier feature,  installed by the Baptists between the Masons selling the building and the Society of Friends (also known as Quakers) buying it.   This enormous mezzanine (more than three times the size of the earlier one) will put an huge load on the fabric of the building because it has no vertical supports to take the very substantial weight.  The girder structure in the sketch on the right requires a significant intrusion into original walls in order to mount it,  and those walls are currently in their original condition.  We remain unconvinced of the wisdom of putting a glazed balcony on the mezzanine with air spaced steps up to it, which will make anybody wearing a skirt hesitant to use the balcony, and there appears to be no thought given to the impact of a fire in the kitchen on the diners immediately above.

proposed frontageThe decision to place the plant room in an enlarged roof adversely changes the roofline, and destroys the historic fabric of the downward illumination from the original roof.  The decision to run the kitchen flue alongside the chimney will require the removal of the historic timbers below the roof space, and it will intrude into every photograph of the eastern lantern.  The new front door and steps changes the entire style of the front elevation and destroys its historic associations, as does the removal of the railings.  The wheelchair hoist and the redesign of the steps alongside it destroys the symmetry of the frontage.

The planning documents claim that the windows should be enlarged because they are currently not aesthetically correct.  Well, we have had a good look, and in our opinion, from the inside of the building they are in exactly the right place and exactly the right size.  Clearly although Wilkins designed them as blind windows, he nevertheless positioned and sized them as though they were real windows.  The idea of  a pair of "six over nine" windows sitting directly on a dado simply does not work in the interior.  Nor does a doorway and entrance lobby breaking into the dado:  in the previous application, this was a third window to match the other two, and this would have been reasonably acceptable inside.  The building is so close to its original design at the moment that we think it should be Grade II*, and the level of destruction proposed is unacceptable because it is so unspoilt.

We also believe that the number of places proposed for the outdoor seating will bring a real likelihood of encroachment onto the pavement, either by diners pushing their chairs back or by waiting staff carrying hot food taking the easiest route to the tables.  Given that the pavement is very narrow and is much busier than the planning application suggests with a steady stream of passers-by moving between the tour bus stop in Terrace Walk and the Abbey Churchyard, the scope for accidents is high unless the railings are retained.

Many of these deficiencies could be avoided.  But the operator has chosen to position the kitchen on the ground floor instead of in the basement (which the earlier application proposed), and therefore needs a mezzanine large enough to replace the space occupied by the kitchen, and a means of getting the flue outside the building.  That decision need not have been made.  It is also possible to apply for an exemption for a listed building instead of installing a wheelchair hoist.  There is no necessity to place the air circulation plant in a roof space either.  The building has seven sizeable vaults, all left unused.  Unfortunately, this is yet another example of a corporate style being adhered to in a location where it is unsuitable.  This is a listed building in a conservation area in a World Heritage Site, and the corporate style should be scrapped in favour of a sympathetic reuse of the building and the minimum damage to the historic fabric.  That fabric, once damaged to the extent proposed, cannot easily be returned to its original state.  Supposing Brasserie Blanc does not attract the level of trade that it hopes, and the restaurant closes.  Where would the money come from to repair all the damage it caused in order to open?

Hall fireplaceAn unexpected find

While we were looking round the interior, we spotted two very interesting fireplaces.  The one in the current Library appears to be older than the building itself, so is a very early example of recycling.  The other, pictured on the right, is in the main hall (and would be retained in public view according to the planning application).

Aside from the evidence that this was clearly designed for the building because the decoration reflects the motifs on the nearby door panels, we spotted the name on the backplate.

Hall fireplace detailThis fireplace was manufactured by Stothert & Co, Iron Founders, in the time before Mr Pitt joined the company.

We also discovered that all the premises which back on to the access area alongside The Huntsman (eg Sally Lunn, The Huntsman, the Friends Meeting House etc) have a right to use it.  Which must cast some doubt on the validity of the planning decision to allow The Huntsman to place their sign over the gate leading into it.

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The Previous Applications

[19/4/08]  On 4th April 2008, the confirmation that the listed building application was withdrawn appeared on the council website.  Subsequently (but backdated to 1st April) the full application was withdrawn.

We were in favour of these plans and will keep a watch for any replacement applications.

Earlier News

The plans were revised following an objection from Bath Preservation Trust to the enlargement of the windows at the front. The windows will now be retained at the current size and position. The committee is happy with that change.

The Bath Preservation Trust is also objecting to the wheelchair access mechanism, claiming that it spoils the symmetry of the building. Whilst the committee has some sympathy with the BPT position on this, the fact remains that any future use of the building is going to have to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act, and apart from putting in two wheelchair facilities to maintain symmetry, some form of compromise is inevitable.  The remainder of the planning application shows that the architects have considerable sympathy for the character of the building, so the committee is content at this stage to allow architect and BPT to find common ground. It is unlikely that the committee will be dissatisfied with the outcome so nothing needs to be done other than to watch and wait.

Background

The Friends Meeting House in York Street is now the subject of two planning applications, a Listed Building application (07/02512/LBA) and a development application (07/02510/FUL). These seek planning permission to convert the currently disused building into a restaurant.

It has clearly proved difficult to find a suitable buyer for this building in the past, as it had been unsuccessfully offered for sale for some time before being taken off the market in 1980.

The applicants are a Conservation Architect and a Building Historian. Their plans are for a sympathetic conversion with the building's period features preserved. The committee likes what is planned.

Friends Meeting HouseThe Friends Meeting House in York Street, Bath is a Grade II Listed Building. Built as a Freemasons' Hall (1817-1819), the architect was William Wilkins (who designed Nelson's Column). This is his last surviving major building in Bath after his other more famous Bath building, the Lower Assembly Rooms (on what is now known as "Bog Island"), burned down and was demolished.

The building was used for a short while as a venue for art exhibitions after the Freemasons stopped using it in 1823 and leased it for other purposes, before being converted to a nonconformist chapel and then finally the freehold was sold, becoming the Friends Meeting House in 1872. It was used as such for about a century, undergoing a restoration in the 1980s, during which a part of the basement was made into the caretaker's flat. The charity "MIND" used the remainder of the basement for some time, while the ground floor has more recently been used  for book fairs, and Christmas Market stalls.

The Application

Interior viewThe application proposes to convert the ground floor into a restaurant with the kitchen and support facilities in the basement.  Modern styled additions are primarily to comply with current disabled access and health and safety legislation.

As far as possible, the building is being restored to how William Wilkins designed the building (including rebuilding his mezzanine balcony which was removed in 1979), but the additional windows that were installed after the freemasons stopped using the building have been retained.  The Masonic hall was lit solely by the roof lanterns for reasons of secrecy, but this level of lighting proved inadequate for the subsequent chapel use, so Wilkins's original blind windows were opened up and sash windows installed.

This conversion is well thought out, is entirely in keeping with the design and history of the listed building, and the committee supports this planning application.  It is a perfect example of how an unused part of Bath's heritage can be adapted for modern use without destroying its dignity. 

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