Dear RAF Chapel Interested Parties,
In an open letter primarily directed towards the RAF community, Randolph Churchill, great grandson of Winston Churchill and Patron of the BHMM Trust, has accused Rita Radford and myself, David Evans, instigators of the 38 Degrees Petition to Protect the Biggin Hill Memorial Chapel, of deceiving signatories into believing that the entire Chapel is being demolished by the London Borough of Bromley.
The BHMM scheme has many contentious aspects, the demolition of the Vestry, the unacceptable design of the Museum building to replace the Vestry, the closure of the Chapel for over a year, and the loss of the St George’s Room to become part of the Museum, to mention just four. Rather than admit that this is, as stated by Cambridge Professor of Architecture Gavin Stamp, ‘a bad divisive scheme’, the BHMM Trust have influenced Randolph Churchill to make this undignified claim, without providing the reader with any proof. The Petition is rightly named ‘Protect’ the Biggin Hill Chapel – against the plans of the London Borough of Bromley who now own the Chapel and are hell bent on ‘bulldozing’ their scheme through, against the wishes of currently 21,000 + signatories.
When Randolph Churchill’s letter was first brought to our attention on October 3rd, by editors of the Local Press, it coincided with the petition going up by 500 signatures in little more than 24 hours! When asked by the editors to comment about the accusation, I directed them to their own previous articles on the project, which either featured the Trust’s own Architect visualisations, clearly showing the main part of the Chapel unaffected, or my photographs of the Vestry to be demolished. After this there was either no local press coverage or only token articles.
When the petition was first started, I contacted every RAF/Veteran/ Historic Aircraft and Airfield related organisation and all possibly interested individuals I could find, providing them with pictures and information. Some of the earliest signatories included those keeping the name and the aims of the Air Crew Association alive, such as Air Commodore Jack Broughton OBE, and former Biggin Hill Commanding Officer Air Commodore Graham Pitchfork MBE, and they are in no doubt as to the exact details of the Council’s plans. Nor is Air Marshall Sir Baz North KCB OBE MA, who was instrumental in the Chapel retaining its 92 Squadron Standard some 18 months ago, and is now heading the Royal Air Force Association. I sent him a comprehensive package by post, containing information with pictures and subsequently we received a very personal hand written reply. I am sure if Randolph Churchill’s letter had made its way to those distinguished gentlemen and all the others whom I similarly contacted, it would I suspect have been viewed very sceptically! I have also replied to hundreds of emails coming in via the petition, requesting information and photos, and all signatories have received regular emails, updating them on how the situation has sadly progressed. Nowhere have we said or suggested that the entire Chapel is to be demolished, to suggest we have been anything less than transparent is not only nonsense, but bordering on libellous!
Robert Hardman’s article in the Daily Mail on Battle of Britain Day 15th September was very balanced, as were the two items on BBC TV News, which may still be viewed by going to the Downe Village website: www.downe-kent.org.uk When you arrive scroll down.
Every possible opportunity has been taken to show people the BHMM design, as it always ensures more signatories! For example at the recent Biggin Hill Airshow we had large A2 photographs of the Vestry to be demolished and A2 architect visualisations of both the BHMM scheme and the Biggin Hill Battle of Britain Supporters Club museum design. As soon as the attendees viewed the pictures, they took our leaflet and the result we estimate was around 7000 more signatures. I have attached to this email the pictures we used and the leaflet, which I hope you will agree is unambiguous.
In contrast, the BHMM Trust have never had the courage of their convictions and made the top picture of their website their vision of how the Chapel should look in the future. They have always, from day one, two years ago, hidden their intentions behind a photo of how the Chapel looks today, or should I say how it looked until two weeks ago, before the Vestry was demolished and all of the trees and shrubs were removed on the left hand side of the Chapel. Their planning permission allows for the removal of 26 trees and shrubs, regardless of whether they had been planted in memory of a loved one many years ago. This defoliation of the site along with the stark design of the Museum building has resulted in some people making the extreme claim that it will look like a Concentration Camp!
The Planning Permission was only granted on a split decision and it is generally agreed it should have been deferred. We and many others were unhappy with the Council’s planning procedures and quickly applied to the Local Government Ombudsman, requesting he reviewed the case. Eventually we were allocated an Inspector who requested a huge amount of information from the Council by the end of Sept 2017. The Council left it to the very last moment to comply with this and then immediately started to demolish the Vestry! Speaking to many involved with Local Government affairs this has been seen at the very least as incredibly disrespectful to the Inspector. One of the points of contention has been the Council’s unwillingness publicly to acknowledge the status of the Vestry. If you google: Memorial Chapel List Entry No 1391588 you will read in the description of the building a section which starts: ‘the large Chapel to the North’ – this is referring to the Vestry. The Memorial Chapel was comprised of three parts, of which the Vestry was the second largest and externally was the most decorative. Demolition of any part of the Listed Building, regardless of the age of that part, constitutes part demolition of the Listed building. Now the Vestry has been demolished presumably the Chapel will have to be relisted because the building description is incorrect?
For the life of me I cannot see how anyone can say that by demolishing the Vestry, which was built to blend seamlessly with the rest of the Chapel, and then replacing it with a characterless, stark, flat-roofed block of a building, returns the Chapel to how Winston Churchill would have recognised it in 1951. One thing is for sure that as an amateur bricklayer he would have appreciated the craftsmanship of the Vestry, I very much doubt he would appreciate the design of the BHMM building!
This inappropriate, unpopular scheme is being financed by the public via the Heritage Lottery Fund to the tune of nearly £2 million pounds. During a long phone conversation with the Head of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Stuart Hobley, I pressed him to confirm or deny whether he described the BHMM scheme as ‘exemplary’ and he would not say, but directed me towards his Press Statement which I have found on the internet and it does not use that word. However the word ‘exemplary’ occurs in the Planning Application documents written by the Council in its application to itself, and is regularly heaped on the design by the Council and its Trust since then. I would say this is a case of ‘self praise’ which I was always told was no recommendation. Rita and I have made a Freedom of Information Act request for all the documentation relating to this grant in an attempt to ascertain why the Funds Committee were in favour of this plan which is so disliked by the public, who contributed the funds! A month later we have still received nothing!
Randolph Churchill also claims that the Church Community supports the plans, no sir, they do not! The Archdeacon Paul Wright does as a member of the Trust, but I say he pretty much speaks for himself. If Randolph Churchill and Paul Wright had been at the Battle of Britain Service at the Chapel on the 17th Sept (the last service for over a year) they would have witnessed the distress these plans have caused, with members of the Choir leaving the Chapel with tears running down their faces, vowing to never sing in the Chapel again if this scheme goes ahead. I can only remember Paul Wright ministering at the Chapel once and I have never witnessed Randolph Churchill actually being there, although I am prepared to be corrected in both cases. However, what I will say for certain is that for a Trust member Paul Wright’s knowledge of the Chapel has been minimal, so much so that I have taken upon myself on three occasions to deliver information to him directly at his Archdeaconry in Chislehurst. Rita spoke on the phone to Randolph Churchill nine months ago and emails were exchanged, and he was equally in the dark and kept saying to her (rather than answering her points) that she needed to talk the Trust’s Vice Chairman who would have all the information.
With no services for over a year and the loss of the facilities provided by both the Vestry (demolished) and the St George’s Room (designation changed to become part of the Museum) the fear is that the congregation will drift away and worship will eventually cease. This has always been the concern of Chapel stalwart, former Air Crew Selection Centre Commanding Officer, Air Commodore John ‘Tinkle’ Bell OBE. His opposition to the plans has always been centred around the need to keep the Chapel a ‘Living Church’.
As for the ‘Friends’ of the Chapel, this has a membership of around 100, many of whom are elderly and do not have computers or internet connections. Some are overseas and I would say that some even now are not fully aware as to what is occurring. When the Planning Application was first submitted, as a member I wrote to the Chairman requesting an early ‘special’ AGM and a vote on the plan, as this was the biggest issue concerning the Chapel since its inception. He refused and at the regular AGM after the St George’s Day Service on the 23rd April 2017, he started the meeting by saying he was not having any discussions on the matter and that he, and I suppose a Committee, had made the decision to support the plans and that was that. Despite his assertion that there would be no discussion, he had invited two Trust members to defend the scheme from the ‘Friends’ members, but neither of them had any response to the elderly gentleman of whom we tell in the petition statement, and who left all three absolutely speechless, the Chairman resorted then to immediately closing the meeting.
We know many members have signed the Petition because they have told us so, or we have seen their names on the Petition list. More proof that this is a bad divisive plan and as a consequence of all this both Rita and I have been barred from the ‘Friends’ by the Chairman.
Much play has been made by the Trust concerning the need to close the Chapel for essential repairs, but viewing the Trust’s own business plan shows that there really is only minimal work to be done and certainly nothing requiring closure for over a year, for example the ‘hoo-ha’ over the asbestos that there is in the Chapel. I asked the Curator of the Chapel for the past twenty years about this and it turns out to be the relatively ‘safe’ concrete asbestos sheet material that is on the underside of the radiator shelves. I could have replaced the shelves myself free of charge and if I could not have done the job in a couple of days I would have considered myself a failure!
Finally, Randolph Churchill makes the statement that the Chapel will remain free to enter (no – not all of it !) as if this were some kind of concession and also claims that Veterans support the scheme. I think I will leave the closing words to a most erudite Veteran, who in a personal letter to Randolph Churchill, pleads for a Museum design that is supported by the public and – ‘which truly reflects the noble history of RAF Biggin Hill’ – and tells him the truth, that this BHMM Museum scheme has little grass roots support and is – ‘vacuous and ill-conceived’.
David R Evans and Rita C Radford