Chief Rabbi appeals over office block plans on ‘doorstep’ of historic synagogue

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Synagogue London
Image credit Louis Berk

The UK’s Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis has appealed directly to the City of London’s Lord Mayor in a bid to prevent a 43-storey office block being built ‘on the doorstep’ of the 17th century Bevis Marks Synagogue.

The Chief Rabbi wrote he is ‘troubled’ by the renewed plans for a tower by the synagogue, which he claimed has the potential ‘to significantly affect the natural light that can reach the building’ with implications for religious practices.

The Chief Rabbi had written to Lord Mayor Alderman Professor Michael Mainelli’s predecessor, Alderman William Russell, in March 2021, raising similar concerns about a previous scheme which was refused by the City.

Hundreds of objections have been filed since developer Welput revealed its new plans for an office block on Bury Street. The proposed tower is a few storeys smaller than the previous application, and is slimmer at the top, to allow more light onto the synagogue.

Submissions opposing the plans have been filed by opponents both within the UK and abroad, with former Lord Mayor Sir Michael Bear among those writing in.

Sir Michael wrote the proposed tower would result in ‘substantial harm’ to the setting of the Grade-I listed synagogue and the wider area, and have a ‘disproportionate negative impact’ on the Jewish community.

NOW READ: Hundreds object to 43-storey office block plans near UK’s oldest synagogue

In his letter to the Lord Mayor, the Chief Rabbi wrote that Bevis Marks, which is the oldest synagogue in the UK in continuous use, is a ‘deeply resonant symbol of the history of British Jewry’.

“In the 320 years since the synagogue was built, the UK Jewish community has become a valued part of the fabric of British society,” he wrote. “Bevis Marks Synagogue was one of the first major synagogues to be constructed following the resettlement of Jews in England in 1656. It has stood as a reminder of that history, and of how much has been achieved since members of the Jewish faith were permitted to return to this country.”

The Chief Rabbi added he is ‘troubled’ by the proposed new development ‘on the doorstep of the synagogue’, which has the potential to significantly impact the natural light reaching the building. There would also be implications for certain religious practices at the synagogue, due to reduced views of the southern exposure sky.

The Chief Rabbi ended by expressing his disappointment that the new Creechurch Conservation Area, approved earlier this year, will not ‘protect Bevis Marks Synagogue from this type of scenario’. “I trust that this can be rectified with some adjustments in the new local plan, ensuring that the synagogue’s southern exposure remains unobstructed.”

Rabbi Shalom Morris of Bevis Marks previously described the application as a ‘grotesque attempt by developers to mislead the British public – they imply that they have satisfied us (which is completely untrue), and they claim a long list of planning benefits (most of which are spurious)’.

A spokesperson for Welput said: “Our Bury Street project seeks to maximise heritage, environmental and public benefits by considering the future use of the entire site. We have a sincere respect for the historic and cultural importance of the area around this site, including Bevis Marks Synagogue, and have developed our proposal with such heritage sites in mind. Most notably, we have meaningfully reduced the height of Bury House and articulated the building at the upper floors with additional steps.

“Welput is committed to stakeholder consultation and has sought to collaborate with many charities, schools and stakeholders, including Bevis Marks Synagogue, throughout the entire process. As part of this, we have submitted detailed reports on this consultation and how it has shaped the submitted proposals. Now that the application is validated, the detailed reports on daylight/sunlight are publicly available.”

A City of London Corporation spokesperson said: “The City of London Corporation has formally approved the local plan for the Square Mile, known as ‘City Plan 2040’, which is undergoing further public engagement and will be followed by a public examination, conducted by an independent Planning Inspector.

“The proposed plan recognises the importance of local heritage assets, such as the Bevis Marks Synagogue and contains measures that seek to give them effective protection. The plan also states that developments should form a positive relationship with the synagogue, without dominating or detracting from its architectural and historic value.”

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