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Jewellery Quarter businesses unhappy at plans for Jesus Army drop-in centre

Website: Birmingham Post
Date: 23/09/2011
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Business leaders are threatening to leave Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter because of plans by a controversial religious group to open a drop-in centre and place of worship in a former office building.

Church group The Jesus Army has submitted a scheme to redevelop the former office block in Lionel Street, near St Paul's Square, into a centre, including a walk-in facility for sex workers, drug addicts and asylum seekers.

Chris Booth, chairman of the Jewellery Quarter Association Heritage and Regeneration group, said local businesses were concerned about the potential impact on the area.

He said: “At least a dozen business owners have said they will leave the immediate area if planning consent is granted to the Jesus Army. This area will be blighted.”

He claimed there was also opposition to the plans from various councillors and police.

“The safety of residents and customers at nearby restaurants and other entertainment venues is paramount and this could be jeopardised if the centre is allowed to open,” he said.

Mr Booth was backed by local businessman Tim Horwitch-Smith, of LMM Ltd, based in Cornwall Buildings, next to the proposed centre.

He said: “In light of the council's plan to invest huge amounts of money to create a gateway to the Jewellery Quarter, the proposed location for the centre does nothing to enhance the area, which includes the city's only genuine Georgian Square. It's a complete contradiction to the rest of the area.”

Another objector, Tony Haran, added: “It is the demographic of potential clients that the Jesus Army is targeting that is causing the concern for many residents.

“When the planning application was submitted there were over 50 objections, mainly from residents who were concerned over the issues of safety.

"There has recently been a spate of beggars causing a nuisance in St Paul's Square which the police worked hard to eradicate.

"However, it is felt that the addition of the Jesus Army centre will require more police to patrol the surrounding streets, canals and public places.

“I have tried not to labour on the loss of value to business owners, however, this is very serious. If an area is blighted then there will be a significant effect on the value of property and business assets.”

It is thought the Jesus Army paid almost £1 million to buy the Lionel Street premises.

The application to change the use of the site from offices to a place of worship, drop-in centre and cafe has been submitted to Birmingham City Council by the Jesus Army Charitable Trust.

Plans indicate that more than 200 worshippers would attend the centre with 60 volunteers and an increasing number of staff as the centre becomes busier.

An application was submitted to Birmingham City Council in June, which was deferred. A public consultation period ends next month.

The group is part of the Jesus Fellowship or New Creation Christian Church, founded in 1969.

It now has 3,500 members in 24 congregations across the UK. It also operates an estimated 70 properties, including several in Birmingham and the West Midlands.

The organisation behind the Jesus Army is also said to be involved with several business concerns, including other religious groups like the House of Goodness, a property empire, a health food chain, a firm of solicitors and other commercial enterprises.

It has around £14 million in assets and an annual turnover of more than £20 million.

All of the property, income, and capital donated by members, together with land, assets and income of the various Jesus Army businesses, is owned, held and administered by the Jesus Fellowship Community Trust, which is behind the Birmingham planning application.

Army members frequently stage high-profile recruitment campaigns of mainly young people in public places. Birmingham's Broad Street is regularly targeted by members keen to increase its presence in the city.

But there have been frequent allegations that the Jesus Army operates as a cult. It has been criticised by former members and other more conventional church groups for its “authoritarian-style of leadership” amid claims members were put under pressure to commit to life-long celibacy and hand over their material possessions.

However, John Campbell, a spokesman for the Jesus Army, denied the group was a cult.

“That is a very serious allegation,” he said. “But we are a Christian Church and are recognised by other church leaders. People are free to come and go of their own free will and we seek to do good in the community.”

He did not deny that some of its members chose a celibate lifestyle or handed all their cash and possessions to the organisations.

“That is an option that exists in many religious groups,” he said.

Mr Campbell said the centre would improve the Lionel Street and he forecast that fellow residents and businesses in the area would welcome the Jesus Army when it moved into the premises.

“Everyone will be welcome to drop-in. There has been too much scaremongering and nimbyism,” he said.

A spokesman for the council said it could not comment on current applications.