St Helens Church, High Street, Wheathampstead, St Albans, AL4 8AA. Worship Times: 8am, 9:30am, 3.30pm

Future Facilities for St Helen’s Church


Dear Friends,

Many of you will know that for a long time we have been working with members of the Wheathampstead United Church to find a way of working with them to provide the additional accommodation we both need at their old church and hall in Brewhouse Hill which is owned by the United Reformed Church “URC”. There was a lengthy discussion on this project and the possibilities of improving facilities at St Helen’s at our annual meeting in April. Following the promise to review the matter in July the Parochial Church Council “PCC” felt that it would very helpful to seek the current views of members of our church as to the way forward and the extent of the support or otherwise for the options under consideration.

We would very much appreciate your help by reading the summary of the present position below, completing the questionnaire and returning it as soon as possible but not later than 31 August

With many thanks for your help and support on this

With best wishes and prayers

Richard Banham
Rector and PCC Chairman

What is the vision for the URC Project?
For several years, the PCC has sought to provide a church hall.  Unfortunately, planning permission to build in the churchyard was refused in 2013.

Subsequently, the opportunity arose to develop jointly with the URC  their buildings, on Brewhouse Hill, around 250 metres from the church. This site has not been available for use by the wider community since 2011.

The URC premises comprise the former church building, a detached hall and car parking.

The PCC’s vision for the URC is

  • To change the church building into a fitness centre for use by the wider community – cost circa £50,000 to be raised through memberships ;
  • The refurbishment of the hall to create one large multi-purpose room and two smaller meeting rooms with toilets (including disabled access and baby change facilities) and a kitchen for catering purposes – cost circa £500,000 (including professional fees);
  • At a later stage, depending on the success of the fitness centre, the operation of the hall and the ability to raise further funds, there is the option to go on to connect the two buildings with an atrium and refurbish the church to provide additional accommodation for church and community use.

The PCC has set aside £100,000 as initial funds for the project and the remaining costs will have to be met by fundraising from the congregations of both churches, the local community, outside grants etc. The intention is that the day-to-day running of the URC building post-renovation would be met from the income it generates from gym memberships and income from lettings.

The URC Project represents an opportunity to provide a new, centrally located resource for the wider village community, and the two churches. It  would enable the church to increase its mission and outreach work within Wheathampstead.   This opportunity is unlikely to present itself again as the site will probably be sold for housing development if this proposal is not taken forward.

Where are we now with the URC Project?
Non-binding heads of terms have been agreed between the URC and the PCC.   The main points of these are:

  • There would be a formal Building Sharing Agreement with the URC rather like a joint venture  between the two churches to operate the property.
  • The property remains owned by the URC;
  • The project will be run by a Joint Council (6 members from each church);
  • The agreement has a term of 60 years (with the opportunity for early termination by the Joint Council); and
  • The PCC’s investment of £100,000 will be secured by way of a charge on the property so that if the property is sold in future, the £100,000 will be returned.

The next step would be to instruct lawyers to finalise a legally binding agreement.  It is at this point that the PCC would need to commit substantial funds and so the PCC now needs to decide whether to proceed with the URC Project or pursue other ways of improving its facilities, recognising that this opportunity may not present itself again.

Initial costs
To date, the PCC has not expended any monies on the URC Project and the local URC has met its own fees. In order to get to a position where any work can begin on the buildings, approximately £45,000 on legal fees, architect and planner’s fees for feasibility studies and change of use to the fitness centre, will be incurred (a donation of £12,500 has already been made primarily for this purpose).

What is the potential alternative to the URC Project?
An alternative to proceeding with the URC Project is to improve the facilities at St Helen’s itself and to make the space within the church capable of more flexible use. Following our earlier experience, it is thought unlikely that we could obtain approval for a church hall of an acceptable size in the churchyard. Possibilities include :-

  • A small extension to the north door to provide a useful sized lobby, two toilets (including disabled access and baby change facilities) and an area for flowers and some storage etc.
  • Removal of the pews to provide more flexible seating and the ability to use the church for more  activities.  This would necessitate the replacement of the floor and the purchase of a sufficient number of high quality chairs; and
  • The conversion of the existing toilet to extend the current kitchen area and some rearrangement of the vestry area.

Heritage England and the Diocese have commented favourably on a north door extension and planning consent would be needed. We would need to reapply for consent to replace the floor and we believe there is a realistic possibility of obtaining the consents necessary for the further works inside the church.

The estimated costs of all the above work are circa £300,000. A north door extension would address the current poor toilet and kitchen facilities for the benefit of not only regular users of the church, but also visitors to St Helen’s (e.g. for weddings, funerals and baptisms and special services). The replacement of the pews with chairs would enable the church to be used for more parish activities and meetings which would otherwise have to be held in a church hall. We can then make better use of the space we have. These components are part of an overall vision to improve facilities within St Helen’s Church but internal re-ordering is not dependant on completing a north door extension.  The proposed changes to St Helen’s will result in improved facilities for our own use, but they will not increase our capacity to host more than one event at a time.  Nor will they provide benefit to the wider community or open up creative possibilities for mission in the same way as having access to a hall.

How much can the PCC contribute to either project?
The PCC has some resources available for these projects but taking into account its need to maintain the church, and provide funds for things such as improved storage, and alarms the amounts available for these projects is limited. Fund raising will be needed for much of the cost, which includes VAT where appropriate, of either of these projects as outlined above. Plainly we do not have the resources to undertake both projects. Whilst funds for the URC project would be raised more widely from the community, charity and other grants and the congregations, funding for the church improvements is likely to have to come from the congregation and some grant sources.

What now?
We would need to have the congregation’s backing, both practically and financially, to proceed with either project.  Given that the point has now been reached where funds would need to be spent to progress the URC Project, the PCC wishes to gauge the opinion of the congregation on both options.

Please therefore take a minute to let us have your responses to the questionnaire which you can print off at home. Just follow this link: Future Facilities Questionnaire. Alternatively, you may wish to pick up a copy from St Helen’s and St Peter’s Churches.

Please tick and circle your answers to the questions. You may remain anonymous if you wish to do so.