A CONTROVERSIAL application to change the use of a church to an office space was approved this evening by Bury Council’s planning committee.

Residents of the Bailey Street area in Prestwich came out in force to fight an application to change the use of Heaton Park Congregation Church from a church to an office for a housing organisation, but were told their concerns were a case of mistaken identity.

Residents voiced their concerns that the applicant, Bridge-it Enterprises, would bring numbers of homeless, ex-offenders and drug users to the neighbourhood because of the organisation’s work in rehousing homeless people and reintegrating ex-offenders into society.

A representative of the applicant, however, argued that the residents were wrong in their fears on a technicality, saying that the work to rehouse homeless people was not carried out by Bridge-it Enterprises, but by a sister group, Bridge-it Housing.

Resident Vanessa Brockbank spoke on behalf of the locals opposing the application, highlighting safeguarding concerns.

She said: “The business will not add anything economic or social to the area.

“There are three children’s nurseries, three primary schools less than half a mile away, and three high schools less than a mile away.

“Residents have not been assured that clients will not be dropping in. There have been no assurances that clients will not just turn up and congregate if they are in crisis and ultimately sleep rough.

“We are a close community and feel it will change the demographics of the area.”

Emma McCarthy, defending the application, said that these concerns were misdirected: “It’s a huge misunderstanding by the local residents.

“Bridge-it Housing do provide supported accommodation for vulnerable adults, this is not the company that is buying Heaton Park Church. Bridge-it Enterprises is a company that buys property and rent property out. It’s completely separate, no visitors that are vulnerable, that are ex-offenders, that sleep rough.”

Instead, Ms McCarthy argued the company would only be undertaking administrative work at the premises with five office workers.

Holyrood ward Councillor Tim Pickstone said it was “a real shame” that there had not been more information sent by the applicant to the residents to make the intentions for the premises clear.

He said: “That building is at the heart of the community and it’s a shame that we have got to this stage before new information has been provided.”

Confusion over names aside, councillors also agreed with other concerns voiced by Ms Brockbank, adding changing the property to a commercial use would be unfit for a “close-knit”, “lovely” neighbourhood and bring increased traffic problems to the area due to limited parking space and already congested roads.

Ms Brockbank said that Metrolink users already parked in the road and the situation would only be worsened by the increase in workers needing parking space.

Cllr Pickstone said: “The area suffers quite significantly from parking congestion. The parking issue is spreading into this exclusively residential area. Offices are not suitable for this tight-knit, very lovely residential area.”

Councillor Jackie Harris, a member of the planning committee, took issue with the applicant saying that the business could not find other suitable premises, saying she did not believe Bridge-it Enterprises’ claim that it could not find appropriate buildings in the north of Greater Manchester.

In an attempt to abate residents’ fear, the application was amended to include assurances that the building would only be used for office workers, rather than former offenders or homeless clients that Bridge-it Housing works with.

Cllr Tony Cummings was among the committee members who supported the application, saying the effect of the office on the neighbourhood would “negligible”.

However, tensions were clear as the application was passed to residents’ shock. Despite fierce opposition from both residents and councillors alike, the application passed with the amendment six to four votes.

A hum of complaints and even one raised voice were heard as residents who populated the public area left the meeting.