A group of concerned supporters of Bevis Marks Synagogue, Europe’s oldest continuously functioning synagogue, has accused the City of London of “moving the goalposts” in a new draft plan relating to tall buildings in conservation areas.
After a “massive public campaign” to protect Bevis Marks, which is a Grade One listed building, from being overshadowed by a proposed skyscraper tower block, the planning committee of the City of London had a change of heart. In 2021 it refused planning permission for a building at 31 Bury Street. Bevis Marks supporters breathed a sigh of relief.
Now, however, the synagogue says that “only weeks after adopting a new conservation area around Bevis Marks Synagogue, the City of London is proposing a new Local Plan that will undermine the protections afforded by that decision.
If adopted, the City’s new local plan will no longer bar tall buildings in conservation areas, a policy that if retained will prevent new developments from overshadowing the Grade 1 listed synagogue”.
In a letter published on Tuesday in the Daily Telegraph, supporters — headed by former London Lord Mayor Sir Michael Bear, and including such influential names as Professor Sir Simon Schama, writers Simon Sebag Montefiore and Howard Jacobson, and a raft of historians and peers — warn that the new draft Local Plan pays “lip service to protecting Bevis Marks, but the setting excludes 31 Bury Street, and the clause preventing tall buildings in conservation areas has quietly been removed”.
The writers say that “the City’s failure to consider the religious and cultural dimensions of the synagogue will cause outrage”.
The owners of 31 Bury Street have submitted plans for “a new very tall tower on their site”. It would have the same effect as the previous tower which was refused planning permission — overshadowing the Bevis Marks courtyard and “blocking so much sunlight that the congregation would struggle to hold services.”
On Wednesday (Jan 31), the City’s planning and transportation committee is due to vote on whether to send the current local plan draft to consultation. Bevis Marks Synagogue is calling on members to refuse to do so unless several amendments are first adopted.
Shalom Morris, rabbi of Bevis Marks Synagogue, said: “We are shocked that the City of London is attempting to erode the synagogue’s protections and acting in such an underhanded manner. Clearly they aren’t happy about the previous planning refusal or the new conservation area boundary, and so they are attempting to change the planning rules to bring about their desired result. This is an abuse of power and a breach of our community’s trust.”
Sir Michael Bear said: “Bevis Marks Synagogue is a national treasure and the City should be working out how to protect it better, not, as is the case here, to diminish it. Questions need to be asked as to what is motivating this approach.”
Professor Abigail Green, professor of modern European history at Oxford University, added: “The City’s attempt to narrowly define the synagogue’s setting demonstrates their lack of understanding of Jewish history, religion and culture. Even when presented with this information, they chose to disregard it. Bevis Marks Synagogue is British Jewry’s most important house of worship and as such it warrants robust protections.”
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