The building where Sunderland Jews once worshipped now stands blighted by drug dealers, arsonists and metal thieves. There are swastikas around its ark, daubed by illegal ravers who partied in the Grade II listed building.
Built in 1928, the synagogue is a reminder of a community that was once 1,500-strong. English Heritage and Jewish Heritage list it as an “at risk” place of worship. The congregation it served has dwindled to just 20. The building was sold in 2006 and resold in 2009, since when it has remained empty and decaying with a failing roof.
Pre-planning negotiations between its latest owner George Fraser — a local property developer who hopes to preserve the exterior and convert it into 12 luxury apartments — and Sunderland City Council have failed to reach agreement. The major stumbling block has been its listed status.
Mr Fraser has overseen the conversion of the former synagogue’s adjoining cheder building into residential homes. However, he claims that having spent £180,000 preserving the main synagogue, he can spend no more.
“It was full of drug-takers, squatters. There was fly-tipping, and not just rubbish, things like asbestos,” he reported. “There were rave parties in the main synagogue hall and squatters lived in the caretaker’s accommodation. I’ve put in new fences, CCTV and protect it with security guards. But the roof is leaking now.
“The council has tried every which way to make it difficult for me to develop the building. It stands there until the day it drops to bits.”
In a lengthy statement, Sunderland City Council cabinet secretary Councillor Mel Spedding, who is responsible for planning strategy, said the authority was committed to preserving the city’s cultural heritage, including the former synagogue. But he added: “We feel that redeveloping the interior space of the former synagogue for residential apartments is inappropriate and we have never received a planning application for this type of conversion.
“We are always happy to talk to the owner of this listed building to discuss its future and would invite him or the property consultant to contact us directly again.”
Former synagogue and city council leader Charles Slater, 84, questioned if listing the synagogue had been a good idea. “There is only one problem — it’s a listed building — which Jewish Heritage campaigned for.
“I couldn’t argue that it is the city’s last remaining Jewish heritage, but there is now no use for it.
“It brings me to question why heritage protects a building no one wants.”
Jewish Heritage’s Dr Sharman Kadish denied that her organisation had been directly involved in the listing of the synagogue and accused the council of being remiss in not finding a more suitable use for it, such as another religious congregation taking it over.
“When a building has been redundant, listing can cause a problem in finding a new use,” she said. “Any listing has to be done in a strategic way, which was not done with Sunderland.
“As a last resort, it is better to turn the shul into flats than letting it fall to pieces. Its interior has been plundered, the aron kodesh [ark] was smashed. It has been been pretty awful.”