Britain’s oldest synagogue, Bevis Marks, has warned of a potential fresh threat to its historic character from local building developments.
Leaders of the grade-1 listed building, which is more than 300 years old, believed a conservation area approved by the City of London Corporation only a few weeks ago would throw a protective ring around it.
But now supporters of the synagogue believe a City of London plan, which is to go out for public consultation in spring, will undermine the protection by allowing tall buildings to be built too close.
The corporation’s latest move brought an angry response from the synagogue’s rabbi, Shalom Morris, who said: “We are shocked that the City of London is attempting to erode the synagogue’s protections.”
In a statement issued by the Board of Deputies, he denounced the proposals as “an abuse of power and a breach of our community’s trust”.
In 2021, the City of London rejected plans for a new 48-storey development at nearby 31 Bury Street, which the synagogue feared would block out the sunlight that it receives.
Developers have since posted a plan for a 43-storey building on the same site which the JC understands has been submitted to the corporation.
While the City of London plan has proposed a protective boundary around the synagogue, Bevis Marks supporters believe it has been too narrowly drawn.
Bevis Marks Synagogue is a national treasure and the City should be working out how to protect it better
Rabbi Morris said: ”Clearly they [the City of London] aren’t happy about the previous planning refusal or the new conservation area boundary, and so they are attempting to change the planning rules to bring about their desired result.”
Sir Michael Bear, former Lord Mayor, said: “Bevis Marks Synagogue is a national treasure and the City should be working out how to protect it better, not, as is the case here, to diminish it. Questions need to be asked as to what is motivating this approach.”
Professor Abigail Green, of Oxford University, who is a specialist on British Jewish heritage, said: “The City’s attempt to narrowly define the synagogue’s setting demonstrates their lack of understanding of Jewish history, religion and culture.
“Even when presented with this information, they chose to disregard it. Bevis Marks Synagogue is British Jewry’s most important house of worship and, as such, it warrants robust protections.”
A spokesperson for the corporation said its new City Plan 2040 “recognises the importance of Bevis Marks Synagogue”, containing “measures that seek to give appropriate protection to the synagogue”.
These measures included “the establishment of a new ‘immediate setting’ area, where development proposals should preserve and, where possible, enhance the elements of setting that contribute to its significance”, the spokesperson said.
“The plan also states that developments should form a positive relationship with the synagogue without dominating or detracting from its architectural and historic value.”
The plan would “be subject to public engagement in late spring followed by an examination in public, conducted by an independent planning Inspector later this year".
A letter in Tuesday’s Telegraph signed by historians Sir Simon Schama and Simon Sebag Montefiore as well as writer Howard Jacobson among others, accused the City’s plan of paying ‘lip service” to the protection of the synagogue.