How a church’s vision for Norbury brought tribulation on its local community


By - Wednesday 29th July, 2015

There’s wailing and gnashing of teeth in Norbury, and little wonder, says Sean Creighton


What would your reaction be to a proposal to build an auditorium to seat 10,000 people, a secondary school, an education centre for mature students, rehabilitation and media centres, a supermarket, a senior citizens’ home and club and small business space on a privately owned former sports ground? Well, your first reaction might be yes please, because at least it’s not just another private housing development.

You might also wonder who is going to build such a wide-ranging, socially useful complex. Well, it’s the Ruach City Church, which owns the former Nat West sports ground in the London Borough of Merton bordering the Norbury area of Croydon and Lambeth.

The church states: ‘We have a vision to build a city complex to house and facilitate various ministry activities and community initiatives’. The media centre will be for its TV and 24 hour Christian radio station, and there will also be a bible institute. It will be a ‘place and space to establish and empower upcoming, like-minded ministries all over the world to continue to promote the gospel in an effective way’. The project goes by the name of City Vision.

I woke up this morning to find an Olympic park planned with no discussion

What consultation has the church had with the communities living around the site? The answer appears to be ‘none’. It has only just started to realise its massive mistake in not undertaking community engagement as a result of a meeting with some local residents on 8th July, which it called at forty-eight hours’ notice. As one resident said: ‘I woke up this morning to find an Olympic park planned without any discussion’.

The meeting was also attended by some residents from the wider area, although local ward councillors were unable to attend because of short notice and other commitments. There was already local anger about the church’s apparent lack of action to have travellers removed from the site between 13th April and 12th May. Travellers had damaged the main site building, made life very difficult for its resident site caretaker and had dumped large qualities of waste. The caretaker and his wife had to be moved out for their own safety and residents described extreme anti-social behaviour.

The legal onus had been on the church to take action. In its explanation of events, it sought to shift blame for delay onto Merton Police. Eventually, under threat of court action and a police operation to move them, the travellers left the site.

The church would not reveal with whom it was in discussions

Ruach Churches purchased the twenty-three acre site in 2011. At the moment the only vehicle access to the site is from the Croydon side. Merton Council is the planning authority but must consult with Croydon and Lambeth because the site borders both.

The church plans to work with an academy school group which would carry out the negotiations with the Department of Education for permission and funding. Because a formal agreement has not yet been reached on the partnership, the church’s leaders would not tell the meeting which group they were in discussions with. Therefore questions as to whether they would sell or lease the site for the school cannot yet be answered.

Aggrieved residents made it clear that church leadership has done damage to itself in their eyes which would take a long time to repair. Scepticism was expressed about the viability of the scheme’s vision, along with fears that if the church did not raise the funds or did not get planning permission, the site would be derelict for years. Concern was also expressed about traffic implications and access to the site.

City Vision will have a major impact for decades

Residents hope it will now be possible to have a constructive dialogue about the plans on an on-going basis. They emphasised the importance of community engagement across borough boundaries. The issue with the travellers was a temporary, albeit a troublesome and frightening problem, but City Vision will have a major impact for decades.

Church leaders apologised for not engaging with the local residents and promised to seek to work constructively with them, through regular up-date reports, discussion with local groups and public meetings. Watch this space…

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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