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Westminster Council threatens to take Church of England to court over phone mast plans for Queen's Park church

PUBLISHED: 07:00 12 January 2013

St. Augustine's Church

St. Augustine's Church

Jonathan Goldberg

The Church of England and Westminster Council are at loggerheads over ecclesiastical plans to fit nine mobile phone masts inside the steeple of a church dubbed 'the cathedral of north London'.

St Augustine’s Church, in Kilburn Park Road, Queen’s Park, is at the centre of the row after its vicar decided to rent the bell tower space to mobile operators Vodaphone and O2 for a sum said to be under £15,000.

The move has attracted a storm of criticism from neighbours, who branded the Church’s consulatation a sham and claim the site is far too close to schools, homes and recreation grounds to be safe – but their saving grace may come in the form of a planning technicality.

“Arcane” rules allow churches to avoid applying for planning permission for such installations, but the Church has been told it could face court action by Westminster Council if it doesn’t, as the original wooden louvres will have to be replaced with plastic ones for the masts to work properly.

They were blasted by the council as “an alien intervention” at St Augustine’s, a Grade I-listed structure.

After finding out about the bid “by chance”, Randolph Gardens Residents’ Association director Sylvia Dibble has gathered more than 360 signatures against the plans, prompting Westminster Council to formally object.

Its planning sub-committee resolved the replacement louvres would “materially affect the appearance of the building” and told the Diocese of London it would consider pursuing an injunction if unauthorised works began.

Ms Dibble said residents and even neighbouring schools were not informed by the church of its plans, which were discovered by a chance sighting of “a small notice posted on the church door half the size of an A4 sheet in the middle of August, when all the schools were away”.

She said: “We are not against mobile phones in principal, but the sheer number of antennae, nine in a highly populated area, just makes it an unsuitable site. There are already 10 in the area; when do you get to saturation point?

“The extraordinary fact is that the church is only going to get £13,000 for these nine masts.

“On the other hand we are not against the church. It is one of the most beautiful in London, in the same category as St Martin-In-The-Fields. But we don’t want to be victims of this church surviving.”

A nursing home and four schools are all in close proximity of the bell tower, said Ms Dibble, alongside countless homes.

Maida Vale councillor Alastair Moss, who spoke on behalf of objectors at the planning meeting, said the Church had shown “utter disregard for what numerous residents and local schools said; that they didn’t want these masts around them,” adding: “It is meant to be a church for the community.”

The secretive and “arcane” planning process for churches only “added insult to injury”, he said. “There has been an awful lot of behaviour in this that I would not expect from the established Church. I’m not ignorant of the fact the Church needs money and I have got every sympathy for them. We are hopeful that they will see sense a the Bishop of London level.”

Churches within the Diocese of London apply to its consistory court for permission to install phone masts, and an independent chancellor decides whether to grant permission.

A spokesman for the Diocese of London said its chancellor “has received and noted” Westminster’s objection, adding: “The chancellor, as independent judge of the consistory court, will take all relevant submissions and aspects of the case into account and a decision is expected this month.”

The spokesman added that “all proper procedure” had been followed by the parochial church council, who had liaised with the congregation about the plans since March 2012.

It said a “formal consultation process was carried out locally” by mast installers New Edge Telecommunications and consultants GVA Grimley, who contacted the council, local schools and ward councillors.

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