St. Michael le Belfrey, York (II)

On 18 August, de Mestre Ch. handed down the detailed judgment Re St. Michael le Belfrey York [2023] ECC Yor 2 concerning the extensive reordering of the church. An overview was given in the first part of this post. This second part includes extracts from the conclusions to the Duffield questions regarding some of the major components of the petition. The final part considers the overall impact of the proposal and the court’s conclusions.

Removing the existing gallery

The Chancellor concluded that the public benefits that will result from the removal of the Gallery and staircases are far-reaching and powerful. They are sufficient to outweigh the strong presumption against the proposals which arises because they will seriously adversely affect the special character of this grade I building. She was also satisfied, given that serious harm should only ever be permitted, in the case of a building of grade I listing, in exceptional cases, that the nature of the benefits to be derived from the proposed changes in combination with the unique location and important role of this church, mean that this is an exceptional case [73].

However, steps should be taken, so far as possible, to safeguard the historic fabric of the Children’s Pews and the Gothic balustraded staircases and to (continue to) seek to relocate these historic items [7 4]. She therefore imposed a condition that both should be dismantled, recorded and safely stored and that all avenues for their intact relocation be explored. There should also be imaginative documentation, photography and record keeping which does justice to the historical fabric and storytelling elements that will be lost through the removal of the Gallery and staircases [75].

Removing the existing narthex screen

There were clearly evidenced and strong levels of public benefit flowing from the proposed changes to the narthex, and that these changes supported the church in its opportunities for mission. In the judgement of the Chancellor, these public benefits were very strong and operated to rebut the presumption against proposals which adversely affect the special character of a listed building.

Relocating wall memorials

None of the wall memorials, nor the Royal Coat of Arms, is to be lost and only relocation of these items is proposed [95]. In relation to the proposed movements of the memorials and Coat of Arms to their new locations (or any of the proposed relocations considered separately, de Mestre concluded that has historical precedent, will not disadvantage the visibility of the memorials nor prejudice any meaning or significance to specific locations within the church, nor will it otherwise undermine the appearance of the church. Likewise, the proposed adjustment of the railings around the Square Memorial is de minimis in effect and will not impact on the appearance or significance of the memorial or the church [102]. Further conditions on their movement and conservation are included in Annex 1 at (12).

Removing all Nave and Aisle pews

Like the removal of the Gallery and staircases, this represents a radical and permanent interior change, demanding of close scrutiny. The pews that will be lost under these proposals are the imposing, dark oak nave pews by George Fowler Jones, some of which are (unusually) boarded across the piers so that the congregation cannot enter from the aisles. Also, the (relatively more significant) near complete scheme of collegiate aisle pews. It is well recognised by the parish that this will be a damaging change to the Belfrey’s interior on several levels [122, 123]. However,

“[125]. The product of all of the careful deliberation and re-appraisal is that the parish has reluctantly reached the position whereby the only option to avoid significant impingement upon its aims for use of the interior, and to also achieve visual cohesion, is the complete removal of all internal ground floor pewing, with the exception of the retention of the seven loose Medieval benches, and its replacement with stackable wooden chairs”.

The Chancellor concluded that the harm to the church’s significance was likely to be caused by the removal of the pews would be substantial, and therefore needed to be satisfied not only that the level of benefit that flows from the proposed changes is great enough to justify that, but also, given the combination of grade I listing and serious harm, that this is a case of exceptionality [140].

After summarizing the benefits on the unchallenged evidence before her, de Mestre Ch. held that the factors amounted to a level of benefit great enough to justify serious harm by the removal of this historic fabric: “[t[hese benefits represent deeply important progress in the life of this active, growing church. They are also, in my judgment, architecturally appropriate historical steps highlighting continuity of expressions of worship through time” [142].

As to whether the serious harm should be permitted on an exceptional basis, given the context of the church as a Grade I listed building, she concluded:

“[144]. …the public benefits that will result from the removal of the ground floor pews (excepting the loose benches) are powerful and wide-ranging. They are sufficient to outweigh the strong presumption against the proposals which arises because they will seriously adversely affect the special character of this grade I building. I am also satisfied, given that serious harm should only ever be permitted in the case of a building of grade I listing in exceptional cases, that the nature of the benefits to be derived from the proposed changes, in combination with the unique location and important role of this church, mean that this is such a case”.

Replacing the existing floor

Removal of the pews exposes the floor and the proposal is to replace the current floor and pew platforms with a limecrete floor and underfloor heating. There are serious archaeological considerations for this work and there are ledger stones in the narthex (believed to have been relocated from the nave in the reordering of 1867-68) and the nave which are of local historic interest, although it is not disputed that these stones have all been relocated several times before.

“There is also the mensa stone, thought to be the Medieval mensa of the Minster’s high altar reputedly relocated in 1617. If so…it is one of the most significant altar components in York. The mensa is the oldest in-situ part of the floor and a GPS survey revealed that it may cover a burial vault. As such the mensa is the main area of interest in terms of the flooring. There is no proposal to move the mensa, rather the proposal is to carefully conserve it in situ” [147].

The Chancellor considered, on balance, that “both the inevitable necessity of works to flooring following the removal of pews and the public benefits, in particular the accessibility benefits flowing from the replacement of the floor, outweigh any presumption in favour of retaining the existing floor” [162]. However,

“[163]. As to the mensa stone, given its significance and given the lack of certainty at this stage over the extent of archaeological deposits under the floor (and I note that retention of the mensa stone in situ might be affected by works proposed in relation to installing a full-immersion font, given the greater depth of digging required), it is…appropriate to add a condition that in the event that archaeological issues relating to the stone’s foundations are revealed, or if, for any other reason, retention of the mensa in situ, or in situ conservation, proves impossible or inadvisable, works on the stone shall cease pending further consultation with the DAC”.

Replacing internal lighting

The reordering necessitates the replacement of internal lighting. In response to Duffield question 2, the chancellor observed “[i]t is not possible to retain the status quo given the scale of reordering, nor would it be appropriate to as lighting should complement the interior setting. Accordingly the presumption in favour of leaving things as they stand is rebutted and the lighting proposals are permitted”.

Installing a full immersion baptism pool

Four principle issues were raised at various times in relation to the full immersion font:

  • its location in the nave [179.1]. The parish decided to request that the baptism pool be left in its proposed position in the nave, despite recognizing that this may be a deviation from the basic position under Canon F1. Given that the wording of Canon F1 requires the font to be located as near to the main entrance “as conveniently may be”, the Chancellor considered that the proposed location was, in fact, compliant with Canon law.
  • the position of the oval pedestal font over the immersion font. The CBC requested that this be the normal position for the font bowl, but capable of removal to a fixed location when its presence would interfere with the use of the interior space, [179.2];
  • the potential archaeological impact. The excavation of a pit deep enough to accommodate the full immersion font is the deepest point of below ground-work proposed and introduces the risk of encountering significant archaeological remains, potentially (although this is by no means certain) from as far back as Roman times, [179.3];
  • the final area of contention was the need for full immersion baptism [179.4]. Justifications were considered in [180] to [184].

“The increased opportunities for mission, for reaching others and generating a major new outreach capability for the Belfrey are well evidenced in the materials…These provide very significant public benefits which, in my judgment, strongly outweigh any presumption against the proposals” [184].

Conserving the stained-glass windows

The Belfrey’s collection of windows is thought to be one of the largest of mid-16th century glass in any parish church in England. Albeit not an issue related to Environmentally Protected Glass (EPG), there was a request for clarity regarding the need for tubular heaters at the base of clerestory windows; the evidence indicated problems with down-draughts from the large, single glazed windows in cold weather.

It was proposed to activate tubular heaters in cold weather and create an upward convection current to combat the downward cold air current, thus avoiding the condensation problem. The beneficial effects of this part of the proposals means that any harm caused by the appearance of their installation is negligible and the ordinary presumption in favour of the status quo is readily rebutted (questions 1 and 2 of Duffield) [190].

The introduction of EPG is likely to alter the external appearance of the stained glass windows. However, the expert stained glass conservator, supported by the DAC Adviser, has carefully selected the particular form of EPG specified for the Belfrey because it allows the windows to be read well internally [194].

The Chancellor was satisfied that the introduction of EPG was not only recommended for the protection of such an important collection of glass by the expert conservators and DAC (in both cases very strongly), but also acknowledged as an important form of protection in national guidance produced by HE and international guidance produced by the Corpus Vitrearum [201]. This provided very clear justification for the introduction of EPG and for the repair and conservation work to the windows in general [202].

Introducing vestry, meeting rooms, kitchenette and WC facilities in 12 Minster Yard

12 Minster Yard is owned by York Minster and is currently used as the Belfrey’s offices. It falls outwith the faculty jurisdiction, but there is a rectangular shaped section between the Belfrey and 12 Minster Yard (immediately behind the reredos and a “hidden “door at the east end) which does fall within the court’s jurisdiction and forms part of the proposals for change to 12 Minster Yard, including the introduction of a vestry, meeting rooms, a kitchenette and WC facilities [204].

Creation of new facilities in the rectangular area in question as part of the renovation and redesign of 12 Minster Yard, including toilets, vestry etc brings a number of significant advantages to the Belfrey…These benefits strongly rebut the presumption in favour of “leaving things as they are” and the Chancellor concluded that this aspect of the works should be permitted [206].

Installing air source heat pumps

It is proposed to replace the existing heating system and to power new underfloor heating from air source heat pumps, to be installed within a metal clad enclosure to the south east corner of Number 12 Minster Yard, largely hidden from Minster Yard views. The noise of the heat pump and its visual impact have been agreed with the Local Authority and York Minster as being acceptable. Supplementary heating is to be provided by radiators around the walls, powered by modular gas boilers located in the same place as the existing boiler. These will be fitted with a cascade control system and with an automatic change over switch, which will ensure that the minimum boiler power necessary will be used when the boilers are engaged, therefore using less gas, and that there is a stand-by capacity in the event of one boiler failing and ensuring that the life of the boilers will be extended by varying the lead boiler.

Consideration was given to the installation of photovoltaic solar panels but this was rejected on the basis of the significant amount of carbon released during their manufacture, a.k.a. “embedded carbon” to distinguish it from “operational carbon”. However, the decision to consider solar panel options is to be kept under review [210].

“The proposed new bivalent system using air source heat pumps will…reduce carbon emissions. In doing so it works towards achieving a net zero carbon target in a pragmatic way and is in line with the thorough Sustainability Statement produced by the architects” [211].

Given the inadequacy of the current heating system and the environmental benefits that will result from reduced carbon emissions under the proposed new system, de Mestre Ch. concluded that the ordinary presumption (of retaining the status quo) is readily rebutted in this case. Accordingly, she permitted the installation of the heating elements [214].

Annex 1 includes specific conditions in relation to the heating and electricity supply, (12) to (16).

Re-covering the roof

This will included inter alia the replacement of existing lead roof finishes with code 8 lead sheeting on a new ventilated and insulated build up Code 8 Lead [1]. One condition of the grant of a faculty [Annex 1]

“(18). Roof replacement works are to be conducted under cover of an architectural watching brief which shall ensure that historic fabric from the roof will be preserved. In particular, any existing lead from the 1700s identified with signatures and handprints shall be carefully removed, recorded and set aside for exhibiting to the public”.


[1]. Code 8 Lead is a type of lead that is 3.55mm thick and has a mass of 40.26kg/m2.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "St. Michael le Belfrey, York (II)" in Law & Religion UK, 5 September 2023,


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