Gift of St Bernard's can bring 'new life' to Toxteth community

By Simon Hart

When building work begins this next month on the conversion of a former Catholic Church in Toxteth into affordable housing, Liverpool Archdiocese will be blazing a trail that other church bodies would be wise to follow.

These are the words of Rev Shannon Ledbetter, chair and founder of Housing People, Building Communities (HPBC), the Liverpool-based housing charity which between now and the end of 2019 will be turning the long-disused St Bernard’s Catholic Church and adjacent land on Kingsley Road into 16 new homes. HPBC was given the site as a gift from the Archdiocese and received planning permission in November for the project, which will involve creating 11 affordable three-storey townhouses as well as a detached house within the grounds and four two-bedroom apartments.

‘It really hinges on the generosity of the Catholic Church, which is breaking new ground nationally,’ said Rev Ledbetter, praising the Archdiocese for its support and forward-thinking attitude. ‘I know there’s a movement to try to get churches doing what Liverpool Archdiocese has done already. It’s like “Blue Peter” – here’s one we prepared earlier and let everybody else get on the same page and build more affordable housing and create cohesive communities.’

The St Bernard’s project is the continuation of a valuable community-building programme undertaken by HPBC in the Toxteth district of the city. The church sits adjacent to Alt Street where the organisation has already built 32 low-cost homes on a 2.2-acre site that it received from Liverpool Archdiocese in 2002.

‘When the Archdiocese gifted the land originally, that was the first development in L8 since the riots,’ Rev Ledbetter explained. ‘Developers were hesitant to come into the area but our community-building model was perfect because it began to bring people together. The model engaged people from backgrounds from all over the world – literally thousands of people who came together and we’ve created a large community of thirty-two houses.’

She is not exaggerating about the scale of the community effort involved. These are homes created through a combination of self-build, volunteering and corporate philanthropy. And, literally, it might be said, with the sweat of those who will live in them. Thanks to the concept of ‘sweat equity’ the future owners can contribute 500 hours’ work in exchange for a cash deposit of £10,000 on the cost of their homes.

‘There’ll be 250 hours put in by the family or individuals who will move in and 250 can be claimed by family and friends,’ Rev Ledbetter elaborated. ‘For example, we’ve had people whose church groups have come in and volunteered, or young couples whose parents have come and helped. It also means everybody is working and getting to know each other before they move in.’

Indeed, help comes from far and wide. HPBC estimates that 12,000 volunteers from all walks of life played their part in the Alt Street project. This included help from local businesses, students from Liverpool Community College, Hugh Baird College and Liverpool University, and even members of the armed forces via the Military Aid to the Civilian Community initiative.

On the proposals for St Bernard’s Church, the Archbishop of Liverpool, Malcolm McMahon, said: ‘Having seen what an excellent job HPBC has made of redeveloping the old school site next door, the charity was the natural choice to take on this much-loved church. The building has been falling into disrepair and we can think of nothing better than to see it permanently preserved and brought back into vibrant use as part of a community-led, low-cost housing development.’

Liza Parry, HPBC’s chief executive, added: ‘Our charity has always prioritised making homes truly affordable for families on lower incomes.’

Designed by Pugin & Pugin, St Bernard’s Church was built in 1901 and is Gothic in style. While not listed, it is one of the few surviving Victorian buildings on the street and both the charity and its chosen architect, Ainsley Gommon, have worked closely with planning and conservation officers from Liverpool City Council.

It is hoped that features such as stained glass windows will be retained, as well as the archways that formed the arcade of the nave. A stone turret in the front of the building will create a spiral staircase in one of the planned townhouses. Ainsley Gommon has also worked hard to ensure that wherever possible, large feature windows are not split by internal floors.

‘We will retain all the integrity and the features of the church itself,’ said Rev Ledbetter. The first step in the development will be the planned demolition this month of the church hall. A later addition to the church building, it is now structurally unsound and will make way for a new detached house, though the neighbouring presbytery will remain.

The presbytery is home to Father Peter Morgan, who was priest at St Bernard’s until the church closed in 2012, when the parish was combined with St Anne’s in Edge Hill. Father Peter said of the plans: ‘What an extraordinary and imaginative design. This church building teemed with life for over 100 years. Now there will be new life, new energy – a new community.’

Community is a key word for Rev Ledbetter, who was previously a lecturer at Liverpool Hope University. She launched the organisation, originally called Liverpool Habitat for Humanity on 11 September 2001 – the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks – during a special ceremony of ‘harmony and conciliation’ on the balcony of the Liver Buildings.

The completion of the 32 homes on Alt Street led to HPBC receiving the Judges’ Special Award at the 2017 NWPAs – the awards for excellence in the northwest property industry – at the Lutyens Crypt in the Metropolitan Cathedral last October. Reflecting on that award, Rev Ledbetter cited the importance of the support of Liverpool City Council and the city’s Catholic community, especially Lord David Alton, the charity’s patron.

She continued: ‘I felt like there was a great need for affordable housing in Liverpool and I thought the nature of Liverpudlians was well suited to embracing the model of community self-build. ‘We’ve completed 32 homes and there have been eight babies born since our families moved in so we’re creating a community that’s expanding.’

And it is a diverse community too. ‘It’s not just a case study. It shows what thousands of people can do when they are working towards a common goal and with the additional sixteen houses, we’ll have created forty-eight homes for people from all kinds of different backgrounds – different faiths, cultures, socio-economic groups, ages. It creates a healthy environment.’

On the forthcoming challenge she added: ‘Once again, our home partners will be involved in helping to shape the very homes they will live in and those of their neighbours. As well as opportunities to work on construction, home partners, volunteers and trainees can help us with marketing, administration and other tasks. We are so grateful to the Archdiocese and believe this project will be a lasting legacy to the common good for the people of Liverpool.’