As part of Plunkett’s ambition to support more community businesses to set up in active places of worship we are delighted to announce the first group in County Durham to benefit from a grant, thanks to our programme of support funded by Benefact Trust.

In July Plunkett travelled to Peterlee in County Durham to support the town council with some work looking at whether the key to a sustainable future for one of their historic buildings lies in community ownership.

Whilst out and about talking to members of the Peterlee community and people from the villages surrounding the town, we heard about a project in nearby Easington Colliery where a new community owned business was taking on the lease of the Methodist Chapel to run a number of services for the local community.

A conversation with County Councillor Angela Surtees, who is leading the project, soon followed and last month we were delighted to offer the group a grant using funding from Benefact Trust, to support their early-stage work to get up and running.

Returning to Peterlee in September, we met Angela in Easington to see the project first hand and hear more about its history and the vision for the future. The chapel is a large, imposing red brick building sitting on the main road that runs through the colliery down the hill towards the sea. To one side is its mature, sloping garden, flanked by a small carpark. Easington itself is an area of high deprivation, hit hard by the closure of the local pit in the early 1990s. Despite being used for worship every other week by a small but loyal congregation, who had been visiting the chapel for most of their lives, Angela explained that the building was declared at risk in 2022 and it seemed likely that it would follow the path of the Catholic church and the Salvation Army church, both of which are permanently closed.

Keen to keep the chapel open for worship for the local congregation and use the space inside and outside the building for activities that will benefit the wider community, Angela has driven forward the early stages of a project to transform the building into what will be known as ‘The Welcome Centre’, run by a Charitable Community Benefit Society called ‘Focus Easington’.

Plans for the Welcome Centre see the chapel being sympathetically modernised to become an accessible, multifunctional community space offering regular worship plus youth provision, a lunch club, employability sessions, health and well-being sessions and a community owned laundrette. A community larder which could include cooking lessons as well as packages of healthy ingredients that can be made into family meals is being considered, as are rooms that can be rented as meeting spaces for community groups or local businesses whilst generating income to ensure the Centre remains sustainable.

Focus Easington have found enormous support from the community for the work they are planning. Currently they have secured around 45% of the funding needed to get the project off the ground. Local joiners, electricians and plasterers have offered their time for free. The PCC awarded a grant of £10,000 towards the youth provision, and the nearby Church of England church will host the youth club and lunch club currently provided in the Chapel until the initial building work is completed.

Final formalities around the lease to the building are currently taking place and once it is in place work will begin to make improvements to the building, following an energy efficiency assessment. For example, the oil-fired heating will be replaced with a gas supply, so the hub can provide a warm space for the community and congregation over the winter. New toilets, a kitchen and an accessible shower will follow. Angela estimates that once the initial building work is completed they will be able to double the number of users of the Centre’s facilities within twelve months and Plunkett looks forward to returning to see the transformation and the impact it is having on the Easington community.

Angela said “Supporting people in the current climate with, providing youth provision, maintaining worship for some older people are all priorities, along with many more. If my energy is focused into negotiating a lease and get funding for building repairs then that’s what I will do, this building will go a long way to supporting all those people and more. We don’t have much in Easington and we have to fight for everything we do get. Resilience is important but caring costs nothing. The Welcome Centre will be a place for everyone.”

If you are considering setting up a community owned business in an active Christian place of worship and would like to access free support and business advice, or to find out how to access a development grant (available until December 2023) for your project, please call us on 01993 630 022 or email

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