Charing Palace

News update – October 2019

It’s some time since we last sent you an update on the progress of the Charing Palace Project, however, much work has been going on behind the scenes and the Trust is now at the stage that…

It’s Time For Hard Decisions

  • Our work towards restoring and reviving part of the Palace site for open-access community use is at an impasse.
  • We can only bring about the vision of a restored former great hall (the Palace barn) as a focus for community activities in the heart of Charing, with the cooperation of Spitalfields Trust who have an option to purchase the Palace site.
  • Our initial work on viability, completed with the support of specialist heritage consultants and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Architectural Heritage Fund, was necessary to show that our proposals are viable in the long term.
  • However, before we can apply for further funding necessary to develop more detailed proposals, we must be able to demonstrate that, when the time comes, we will be able to acquire the relevant part of the Palace site.
  • Therefore, on the strength of our favourable viability study and project plan, we have twice approached Spitalfields requesting a meeting to explore options that would lead to us acquiring the freehold or leasehold of the barn and adjacent land for the benefit of the community. On both occasions Spitalfields have stated that they do not wish to engage with us at this time.
  • On completing the restoration of the Gatehouse, Spitalfields are leaving Charing with the stated intention of returning in three years to continue working on the Palace building-by-building for residential purposes.
  • There is, therefore, no immediate prospect of being able to put the Palace barn at the centre of the community – nor will there be for at least another three years.
  • Spitalfields have however left open the prospect of some community use of the Palace barn at some undefined later date.

The question we face is should we continue our work in the uncertain hope that Spitalfields leaving the door open will lead to some future agreement with them or, should we stop our efforts and dissolve the Trust – another lost opportunity for the village.

Bearing in mind the age of the current trustees, to continue the project for a further three years will require some fresh trustees to come on board and help. If, after reading this you would like to be involved and continue the project please contact the Trust Secretary (contact details at the end of this Update).

A Reminder Of How Our Trust Came To Be Formed

  • Charing’s former Archbishop’s Palace is regarded as a uniquely important heritage asset, providing a window into 1200 years of English history.
  • Since being taken into Royal hands at the time of the Reformation its fortunes have been mixed and its once substantial structures have suffered decay.
  • The plight of the Palace fabric has been of increasing concern to the Charing community over the last 20 years – concerted community campaigns in 2004 and 2008 to ‘save our palace’ for the community gained a fair degree of traction but fell short of success.
  • This longstanding vision was given fresh impetus in 2015 when it became the preferred option of the three presented to the community in what is commonly known as the Drury Report, commissioned jointly by Ashford Borough Council and Historic England to identify means by which the Palace might be best protected to be enjoyed and appreciated by future generations.
  • The Drury Report presented a route map for how best this community aspiration might be achieved and its sponsors said: “over to you”.
  • Encouraged by Historic England, Ashford Borough Council and Charing Parish Council a ‘call to arms’ went out for volunteers to make it happen.
  • In the autumn of 2015, a core group of twelve volunteers from within the Charing Community – each with different skill sets drawn from their professional careers – set out to follow the ‘Drury Route Map’ to make the ‘Charing Palace Project’ a reality.
  • The group’s terms of reference were duly endorsed by Charing Parish Council who were content with the expertise of the project team that had been assembled.
  • In the spring of 2016, round table and bipartite face-to-face meetings with the authors of the Drury Report, Spitalfields Trust, Historic England, Ashford Borough Council and Charing Parish Council encouraged the group that progress was possible.
    Further encouragement that a revived Palace with public access at the centre of the community was something Charing residents wanted was confirmed by the strong endorsement it received in villagers’ responses to the Neighbourhood Plan questionnaire asking what priorities the villagers had for our community.
    On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 was regarded not important and 5 as very important, open access for everyone had an average score of 4.1, community facilities 4.0 and private ownership 2.0.
  • By the Summer of 2016 the Charing Palace Trust was registered as a charity.

Our Progress

  • For the past three years we’ve sought – through public meetings, presentations and publicity – to increase public awareness, both locally and more widely, of the Trust’s aims, the Palace’s unique significance, its current plight and the potential that a restored Palace offers to ensure its future and the part it could play in a thriving Charing.
  • We’ve formed strong alliances with tourism, archaeological and educational bodies.
  • We’ve achieved financial support from individuals who share our ambition.
  • We’ve received grants from the Heritage Lottery and Architectural Heritage Funds to undertake the professional studies needed to give greater shape to our plans and test that what we are seeking to do is both feasible and financially viable in the long term.
  • The resulting studies have helped us refine our plans reducing them from the ‘site wide’ proposals originally envisaged in the Drury Report. They show that a limited scale project focussed on the revival of the Barn, supported by additional community facilities in the empty and concreted over Eastern Court and part of the grounds, has the potential to be a viable and sustainable proposition. As well as open community access it is planned to provide additional parking and accommodation for walkers, supporting tourism and increasing footfall in the village high street.
  • We’ve received funding to support our educational activities from Ashford Borough Council as a body and our local ABC and Kent County Council members and from the Godinton Trust.
  • Our education programme has made young members of the Charing community aware of the Palace and sought to generate interest in local history.
  • We couldn’t have made any of the progress we have without the generous donations and support in kind we’ve received from members of the community, the previous project team, our partners, businesses and our top-flight legal advisors.
  • But, most of all, our successes could not have been achieved without the fantastic support of our volunteers, who combined have to date committed well over 5,700 hours of their time, energy and enthusiasm to bring it about – equivalent to 807 working days – and every second without financial reward.

But It’s Not Been Plain Sailing

  • If we’re to achieve our ambitions, we must have the cooperation of Spitalfields Trust. They have an agreement with the current owner that gives them the option to purchase the entire site. They had this agreement in place at the time of the Drury Report and have since extended it. Without Spitalfields’ cooperation, allowing us to join in this agreement in some way, we cannot make progress.
  • We would like to work in partnership with Spitalfields and benefit from their skills and experience in heritage restoration, but:
    • they prefer the flexibility of working independently
    • they have never worked in partnership before, and
    • they are not prepared to enter into a competitive tender exercise for the restoration whereas we would be obliged, as users of public funding, to seek competitive tenders.
  • Nevertheless, we have taken comfort from the written assurances we’ve received from Spitalfields that:
    • “Our trustees are delighted that there may be a future for some part of the complex in community use, and that there is a group of local residents which is keen to carry this vision forward.” (letter of 17 February 2017),
      and, notwithstanding their commitment to independence, their trustees’ advice to us that:
    • “This doesn’t however mean that the CPP [sic] can’t own and work on part of the site and the Spitalfields Trust own and work on another part of the site.” (letter of 14 April 2017)
      and most recently:
    • “if the end use of the Great Hall involves community use this would be welcomed.” (email of 01 May 2019)
  • The main issue we’ve faced throughout is the essential ‘chicken-and-egg’ position we find ourselves in.
    Spitalfields have stated they will only consider talking seriously with us: “once CPP have raised or obtained in promissory form, the large funds required, both buying and repairing the site. At this time a full set of architect’s drawings of all the buildings, with the proposals and proposed new uses and alterations, including any new build proposed by CPP, would be needed to evaluate its future.” (Letter of 14 April 2017).
    However, we can’t realistically seek the serious promissory funding to bring this about from any source without first being able to show that we have a legal interest in the site – and Spitalfields’ agreement to our being able to participate in their ‘option to purchase’ the site in some way is essential to this. They hold the key.
  • Most disappointing personally to all involved in the Trust is that the more success we’ve achieved and the more progress we’ve made, the more a concerted campaign of misinformation has been waged against us and our activities from some quarters in the community:
    • It started softly by emphasising that we have no background in heritage restoration. True, but those in our group do have high level experience in managing large scale multi-million-pound projects.
      We also know our limitations and, as we have already, we would always appoint heritage professionals to undertake the work; our task would be to raise the finance.
    • Then there were efforts to impugn the integrity of the Trustees: we were said to have lied in grant applications and put trust funds to frivolous entertainment.
      Both untrue and easily disproven.
    • Some of those in organisations which entered into alliance with us have been subjected to false claims as to our bona fides and verbally abused.
    • Some of our volunteers have been subjected to repeated bullying.
    • Throughout we have sought to rise above this and let our actions
      talk for us, but it risks distracting us from our purpose.
  • At the same time, those bodies with the power to help us, that encouraged us at the outset, have not stepped-up to support us when push comes to shove:
    • Charing Parish Council has disavowed us, declined to offer us any grant funding and meanwhile is pursuing the development of alternative community facilities outside of the historic centre of the village.
    • In its most recent draft, the forthcoming Neighbourhood Plan would seem to contain scant reference to the high level of community support given to the project in Charing residents’ responses to the Neighbourhood Plan priorities questionnaire of May 2017.
    • Now that we have defined the scope of our project and shown it to be both achievable and viable in the long term, Spitalfields have twice rejected requests from us for face-to-face meetings with their trustees to explore where we might find common ground.
    • Historic England’s priority is the preservation of the barn not public access or community use. They recognise the reality of the current situation (Spitalfields have an option to purchase, we do not) and are more inclined to put public funds behind Spitalfields’ private residential plan than to put energy into supporting our plan for community use with public access.

So, What Now Are Our Options?
We are clearly at a point of decision.

In stark terms, the choice is between:

  • Giving up on our ambitions, winding up the Trust and transferring our funds to another trust with similar objectives to ours;
    or,
  • Continuing our educational activities to keep the Palace front of public mind while we wait 3 or more years to discover whether Spitalfields, on their return to Charing, consider us and the community to be their best means to solve ‘the problem of the barn’.

The Trustees are reluctant to ‘give up’ on the Palace but, if the project is to be revived with full energy in 3+ years, it will require ‘new blood’ coming on board to take it forward. The six current Trustees are all retired from their working lives and getting no younger. In a further three years we won’t have the capacity we have now.

While we appreciate that everyone has different priorities, demanding careers and family commitments, are any of you prepared to step into the breach and join us now to continue the Trust’s work?

The immediate demands upon you won’t be great, given that there is little prospect of the Palace’s future being decided before Spitalfields’ return from Wales, but should the opportunity then arise to achieve our objectives, it will need resilience, no little skill, great energy and boundless enthusiasm to bring it about.

If nobody is prepared to come forward, we see little alternative to winding up the Trust.

If like us you’re a brave soul with a passion for the Palace – what it is and what it might be – and are prepared to commit to its future, please contact the Trust Secretary by email at info@charingpalace.org before the end of November 2019.