The Queen, the vicar, the bell-tower and the £800,000 black hole

When the Queen's ex-chaplain proposed building a glass bell-tower in the heart of Basildon, his parishioners rejoiced. When the tower materialised, their spirits soared. Then they started. The bills! The bills!
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The glass bell-tower stands 95ft high. Reputedly a European architectural first, it was to have been a proud, solitary monument to the millennium – and a confidence boost for Basildon, much-mocked Essex's most ridiculed town. But this week, the tower's eight bells – six of which date back to the Middle Ages – hung silent and still on the third floor of the transparent, eight-sided tower dreamt up by the flamboyant former local vicar, Canon Lionel Webber, the 65-year-old one-time chaplain to the Queen.

Apart from a defiant peal on Millennium Night – after an act of trespass, according to the tower's contract builders, John Mowlem – the bells have, in fact, been silent since the tower was opened in March 1999 by the Queen. Her Majesty had made her first visit to Basildon out of fondness for the car-loving vicar, who is also a former chaplain of the British Racing Drivers' Club and hence a regular blesser of the racing circuits at Silverstone and Goodwood. His office was filled with miniature Ferraris, and his Alfa Romeo bore the jaunty number plate, J3 REV.

What the Queen did not know was that Mr Webber, the tower's fundraiser- in-chief, had yet to pay Mowlem's £500,000 bill and that, despite three years of fund raising, he had no money to do so. No one – including the 12-member parochial church council (PCC) at Mr Webber's church, St Martin of Tours – was aware that the coffers were empty. Two million pounds of cheques had bounced before Mowlem revealed, in October last year, that it had instigated legal action against St Martin's shocked PCC, of which Mr Webber was chairman. This week Mowlem's legal efforts to recover the money continued. The outstanding bill has now risen to £700,000, with interest. Mr Webber, who retired in January, is also now at the centre of a police investigation into alleged irregularities in church finances, as well as the subject of a separate internal Church of England inquiry.

"In a hundred years' this will be remembered as Webber's Folly," said Peter Reid, the chairman of St Martin's PCC, as we gazed at the tower, trapped behind a high perimeter fence, whose gate is secured with a heavy padlock and chain. The tower's internal spiral staircase is still wrapped in protective plastic. Ugly weeds – now two feet high – have sprouted around the structure's base.

Many in Basildon already call it a folly. Mr Reid has not seen his former vicar since March, when Mr Webber returned briefly to the vicarage with two police cars in tow. When the officers left, they were weighed down by documents. It seemed an ignominious end to Mr Webber's grand, ambitious project to give the modern, belfry-less St Martin a place to hang the ancient bells it had been gifted long ago.

Until his fall from grace, at the end of a distinguished 40-year career in the church, Mr Webber was "Mr Basildon", the town's largest and jolliest character and, despite his royal connections, a man of the people who boasted of his humble roots. Mr Webber was also a cameo performer in The Daily Telegraph's breezy motor-racing reports, where he was nicknamed "Loose Canon", and where he once described a ride in a sports car as "like driving with your trousers down". John Potter, the Labour leader of Basildon council, says: "He was a breath of fresh air when he came here 20-odd years ago. And he did plenty for Basildon, which is why this is all so sad."

Basildon is divided over the financial scandal, to say nothing of the excruciating civic embarrassment is has caused. Some hope the police will lay fraud charges against Mr Webber, while others – even those who judge the vicar to have behaved very badly – accept his claims under oral examination at the Royal Courts of Justice in London earlier this month that although he misled Mowlem with the bouncing cheques, he has not personally profited from the financial mess. Mr Webber told the court that potential sponsors of the bell-tower had "promised the earth" but had failed to deliver, and suggested that his sin was not dishonesty but "stupidity and naivety".

After months of painful revelations – during which even the most loyal PCC members lost hope that Lionel would make it all right – the parochial council and Mr Webber are now utterly estranged. The PCC members are mostly retired. The oldest is 82. And they have spent many sleepless nights worrying that they might be personally liable for the £700,000 tower debt and a clutch of smaller claims – totalling tens of thousands of pounds – from other creditors who have since emerged with bills and loans that they say Mr Webber failed to pay.

"We had no idea until September last year that we owed any money to anyone," says Mr Reid, with a wry smile. The news about the tower bill was broken by a senior diocese member at a meeting to discuss Mr Webber's retirement. PCC members had been asking Mr Webber for months why the tower was still fenced off. It turned out that Mowlem had instituted proceedings against the PCC and its chairman, Mr Webber, in late 1999, but the vicar kept Mowlem's legal correspondence, and the crisis, to himself.

"He always came up with a plausible answer for the fencing," says Mr Reid. "He said there were disputes between the contractors and the consultants, trouble with the electricians, and even a problem with landscaping that might deaden the sound of the bells." Mr Webber told the local Evening Echo newspaper in January 2000 that drainage work was to blame. By October, he was telling the paper that a miscalculation in his bid for a Lottery grant had left him £50,000 short for essential landscaping work. (Oddly, it later emerged that Mr Webber had turned down an offer of £350,000 matched funding from the Millennium Commission).

A few days after the Lottery shortfall story appeared in the Echo, Mowlem went public. The PCC had only just found out about the mess. After the bill for the building came an invitation from the local bank to discuss the PCC's £103,750 loan. "That was a shock, given that we did not even know we had a loan," says Mr Reid. Even then Mr Webber made a string of promises that influential motor-racing friends – from the Earl of March to the boss of Formula One racing, Bernie Ecclestone – were putting together rescue packages. Nothing materialised, and eventually the Right Reverend John Perry, Bishop of Chelmsford, dissatisfied with Mr Webber's explanations, called in the police. It was recently revealed in court that Mr Ecclestone had no recollection of ever meeting Mr Webber.

"You must think we were idiots," says Mr Reid. "But Lionel was always a one-man band. He could be very jovial but he also had a big ego. He was dominant and he liked to control everything. We never questioned him because it made him irate.

"In February 1995 we gave Lionel carte blanche to raise the money for the tower. He was very well connected. Stirling Moss was a friend and Lionel knew other very wealthy people. At least that is what he said. We don't know what to believe now."

Between 1995 and 1999, the little St Martin's congregation ­ then around 40 members ­ often asked Mr Webber how fundraising was going. "He would always say 'fine'," remembers Mr Reid. And indeed it seemed so. In the summer of 1997, the vicar enlisted all his car-racing pals for a one-off "Grand Prix" in Basildon. The town centre was sealed off by police and turned into a circuit, and Stirling Moss and the rest whizzed round raising money for Mr Webber's tower. But the PCC, claims Mr Reid, never saw a penny of any funds raised from that event or any other.

"The PCC offered to help but Lionel flatly refused," says Mr Reid. In fact, the PCC had not met for 18 months before Mr Webber retired. It did not meet because Mr Webber, the chairman, did not call a meeting. The PCC members could have called a meeting in the chairman's absence ­ as church rules allow ­ but did not do so, even when Eric Thomson, the 77-year-old council treasurer, resigned from his post in March 1999 after another shouting match with Mr Webber over church bank accounts.

Mr Thomson says: "We had this eccentric situation where Lionel had the bank statements sent to him, not me. He was always slow about passing them over. When I did see them I was worried about transfers in church funds that I knew nothing about. His explanations became more and more convoluted. It was always the bank's fault, never his."

But despite all the worry, Mr Thomson, like many bit-part players in this saga, laughs at the stories Mr Webber allegedly told to cover the financial crisis. "Even the man who services the church's fire extinguishers told Peter Reid recently that when he was trying to get a bill paid, Lionel told him that the church treasurer was a longhaul pilot and never around to write cheques."

Mr Thomson, who is in poor health, looks drained by it all. "I am an old man now and you worry more when you get older," he says. His wife says everyone feels let down: "We trusted Lionel, you see."

If the dog-collar and the vicar's special royal red cassock dulled the critical faculties of the devout, they also seem to have cast a spell on many who never set foot in St Martin's. Tony Kearney, Mowlem's solicitor, admits that the company's attitude was different towards Mr Webber because he "was a charmer and we were dealing with the Church and that ought to mean something."

Jeff Wines, of the Basildon-based insurance brokers Richards, Wines and Levy, gave Mr Webber an unsecured, short-term £25,000 loan last year, a month before Mowlem finally went public. He had to threaten to seize Mr Webber's house before the loan was finally repaid. Mr Wines also admits that he was swayed in his judgement because Mr Webber was the respected local vicar.

Only Mr Potter, from Basildon Council, insists that Mr Webber was not treated any differently from any other debtor when he failed to settle a £14,000 bill for the barriers erected by the council in 1997 when Basildon went motor racing. He says the debt, which only recently became public, did result in court action in 1998 but that went unnoticed by the local press.

In Basildon they cannot agree on whether Mr Webber is a crook, a single-minded egotist in the Victorian tradition of folly monuments, or a man with good intentions who simply got in over his head. The man they endlessly discuss has now retired with his wife, Jean, to Burnham-on-Crouch, about 40 miles away, and is never seen in the town he once dominated.

Mr Webber is no longer chaplain to the Queen, or to the racing drivers' club. His expected appointment, on retirement, to Emeritus Canon has been stalled by the current investigations. The Bishop of Chelmsford has appointed two clergyman to take care of Mr Webber's pastoral needs while he deals with the financial mess. Apparently Mr Webber rarely answers the phone these days and has largely given up talking to journalists. Mowlem claims he will only communicate with them by letter. Certainly The Independent's efforts over several days to reach him by telephone and letter came to nothing.

Two weeks ago, in court, he said that he now "deeply regretted" that he had ever started training for the church. Mr Reid thinks Mr Webber feels that the church has let him down. Unsurprisingly, Mr Reid thinks exactly the opposite is true.

But Sarfraz Sarwar, a Muslim leader in Basildon, remembers Mr Webber's years of kindness to the Moslem community, and says he is a victim of injustice. "Whatever the outcome, Lionel's intentions were good. Most of Basildon is not religious, so it does not understand that the tower was the vision of a religious man. It's for God to judge him, not people. If this had happened in the Muslim community we would have hushed it up and rallied round. We would have run jumble sales and sold our cars to bail Lionel out. But Lionel's church and Basildon have deserted him."

For Mr Reid of the St Martin's PCC, however, the whole case raises fundamental questions about the power of a Church of England vicar and his relationship with both his flock and his ecclesiastical superiors. Rev Philip Banks, a spokesman for the Bishop of Chelmsford, agrees that the case poses huge questions for the Church of England. "Church regulations have been flouted," he says. "And the question of liability is something the Church of England will have to look at in the light of this case."

Meanwhile the St Martin's congregation is trying to claw back some power and self-respect. They seem to find joy in small, new responsibilities. As we step on the swirls of colour cast on the church floor by the huge stained-glass windows that Mr Webber raised £80,000 to install (without any scandal) 10 years ago, an elderly female warden passes by. "Since the vicar went we have started a rota for the flowers," she says brightly.

The PCC is looking for a replacement vicar. "We have told the bishop we want a cross between a saint and an accountant," says Mr Reid. St Martin's can offer an enlarged congregation; Mr Reid says some members who left after clashing with Mr Webber have now returned to the fold. But along with a larger congregation, the new vicar of St Martin's would face a more sobering prospect ­ the inheritance of loans and bills now calculated to total, with interest, £800,000. Though the PCC members recently discovered ­ thank the Lord ­ that they are not personally liable for the money, the PCC as a body is.

The headache they inherited will be as grand as the bell-tower standing wrapped in its metal girdle a few feet from the church. Mr Kearney of Mowlem says that whether Mr Webber acted "naively, arrogantly or fraudulently", the company just "wants paying" and is now working with the PCC on solutions. But the PCC has no funds or assets. It seems likely that the Lottery or charitable organisation will be approached for funds.

There has been no move by Basildon's business or civic community to club together to save the bells ­ which is sad because the tower shines in a town so architecturally uninspiring that the BBC's John Simpson once compared it to Baghdad. "Basildon doesn't have any real money, love," says a middle-aged woman passing the tower. "And if it did it wouldn't spend it on that."

As a "last resort", Mowlem is threatening to send in the bulldozers to demolish the tower. Since the ancient bells are listed, and will have to be removed first, that will cost them even more money, to say nothing of the damage the publicity would do. "They can't do that," says another middle-aged woman, sitting by the bell-tower having lunch. "It is already part of Basildon."

What is needed, she says, is someone with the vision to pull the town together to raise the necessary funds. In the old days, Basildon need have looked no further than Canon Lionel Webber.