Public Meeting: Victoria Road Funeral Chapel
Our hastily arranged public meeting, held on 23rd October, attracted a fair number of non-members of The Farnborough Society, which demonstrated the affection in which the chapel is held locally.
Chairman Peter Hurst gave a PowerPoint presentation outlining the story of how RBC approached TFS in 2014 with a scheme to restore the chapel and convert it into a columbarium. RBC had been trying to find a way to secure its future for many years and had devised a plan that necessitated a community group applying for grant-funding unavailable to a local authority.
TFS agreed to head up the project, recognising that this was a much-loved, attractive, locally rare Victorian funeral chapel, in a highly visible town centre location, but sadly neglected and becoming structurally unsound. The columbarium would generate sufficient income to pay for the upkeep of the building, as well as providing local residents with a much-needed facility (confirmed by Bereavement Services and local funeral directors) right in the town centre, easily accessible by public transport for elderly and disabled people.
TFS was confident of securing the funding because the building was entirely original, historically and architecturally interesting, and because all the documentation relating to its design and construction survives.
However, a condition of the application to the Garfield Weston Fund was to demonstrate community fundraising, and TFS undertook to raise £10,000, a target we did in fact reach by organising two Heritage Open Days, a Chapel Fundraising Evening and two Graveyard Walks. A £500 donation from Cooperative Funeralcare, plus £5000 match-funding agreed by the TAG Environmental Fund took us over the line. This money was to be used for a secure card-entry system.
The fire occurred shortly before our second Heritage Open Day, which was already organised, and after which we were planning to move ahead with our grant applications. We made the decision to go ahead with the event believing that the chapel would be rebuilt under an insurance claim but that our contribution would still be necessary.
As we know, the insurance was invalidated, though a payment of £10,000 has now been made. Recognising that the fault for the invalidation lay entirely with RBC, Andrew Lloyd publicly gave his assurance on several occasions that the chapel would be rebuilt.
However, TFS began to feel that RBC was unwilling or unable to keep that commitment, when the figure of £250,000 put forward as the likely cost of reconstruction, which seemed very high. A highly-qualified surveyor agreed that it seemed high and offered to help TFS, free of charge, by producing a detailed estimate. Unfortunately, due to matters beyond our control, it was many months before the estimate was forthcoming, and contrary to our expectations, it was close to the figure RBC had suggested. It should be noted that this estimate is for restoration of a high standard, using appropriate materials for authenticity.
The next development, which came as a complete shock, was the report that went to Cabinet on 19th October seeking approval to spend £44,000 to re-roof the chapel, to stabilise and weatherproof the building, and providing a two-year window in which to determine the future of the building, in one of two ways:
No other options were put forward, or apparently considered. Nor did TFS have any prior knowledge of the proposals. The first we knew of this was when the agenda for the Cabinet meeting was published, the item presented by the Cabinet Member for Corporate, who had had no prior involvement in the matter. Until this time, Barbara Hurst had responsibility for the chapel in the Cabinet work schedule and she was unaware that it had been reassigned or of the proposals being put forward.
Cabinet agreed to the proposals (subject to call-in), though the information provided did not set out the background fully or point out the impossibility of TFS taking on such a project. It was therefore a fait accompli, set to deliver a dwelling.
Following this summery of events, comments and questions were invited from the audience, and it was immediately clear that there was a great deal of anger directed towards RBC. Quite frankly, our audience were incensed:
It is fair to say that there was a palpable sense of moral outrage among our audience.
Overall, the consensus was that TFS and the people who have supported their campaign have been treated very shabbily by RBC, and that the proposals agreed by the Cabinet should be re-examined. It was felt that RBC is honour-bound to deliver the columbarium. If unable to justify the total cost, at the very least, some resource should be put into exploring alternative means of delivery through partnership working. Some of the options suggested for exploration were:
On behalf of all those who have supported The Farnborough Society’s campaign to restore the Victoria Road funeral chapel and convert it into a columbarium, demonstrating with their donations how much the building means to them and to the town, we urge RBC to urgently reconsider this misguided decision.