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Historic Churches (Northern Ireland)

Volume 80: debated on Tuesday 11 June 1985

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10.14 pm

I beg to move,

That the draft Historic Churches (Northern Ireland) Order 1985, which was laid before this House on 22nd May, be approved.

This is a short order, but it is no less important because of its brevity. It enables the Department—

On a point of order Mr. Deputy Speaker. May we be enabled to hear the Minister?

Perhaps hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber would do so as quickly and quietly as possible.

I am as surprised as the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) that so many hon. Members should choose to leave the Chamber when this important order is being discussed. Its purpose is to enable the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland to make grants or loans towards expenditure incurred in the repair or maintenance of churches in current use for ecclesiastical purposes and which have been listed as being of special architectural or historic interest.

The order also gives us the power, should we require it, to extend listed building controls to historic churches in current use from some future date. The order brings matters in Northern Ireland into line with what has been the practice in Great Britain or the past nine years.

Hon. Members will be aware that, in Great Britain, grant aid to churches was not prohibited, as has been the case in Northern Ireland, but there was an arrangement under which churches undertook not to ask for state aid for the maintenance of their buildings, in return for which they were exempted from some of the provisions of planning legislation.

In 1975 it was announced that, following studies by the churches in consultation with the Department of the Environment, the Government had accepted in principle the case for some state aid for historic churches. The experimental scheme has now been in operation for 10 years. In Northern Ireland, we are prevented from making a grant to listed buildings which are being used for ecclesiastical purposes by article 83 of the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1972. These buildings are also exempted from listed building control for works or alteration or extension, but not for demolition. The churches in Northern Ireland have experienced problems similar to those experienced in Great Britain— rising costs of repair and maintenance. They therefore made strong representations to the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland for a scheme to provide financial assistance towards the upkeep of listed churches, similar to that which obtains on this side of the water.

I realise that there are strong arguments against grants for that purpose. It is said with some force that parishioners should bear the costs of repair. Nevertheless, on balance, I believe that there is an even stronger case for acceding to the representations of the Church authorities and for making grants. Therefore, on 5 July 1983, I announced that a suitable scheme would be introduced in the Province. After a great deal of consultation with all of the interested parties, including various churches, the legislative proposals have been drawn up.

As the House would expect, we have discussed these matters extremely thoroughly with the Church authorities during the past 18 months. The draft order was also debated in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The report of the Assembly approving the proposal was laid before the House on 15 March. I note the absense of one or two hon. Members, doubtless for good reasons.

Hon. Members will see that the order provides first, for the making of grants or loans towards expenditure incurred in the repair and maintenance of listed churches currently in ecclesiastical use. Secondly, it allows us to extend listed building control to listed churches in current use from a day to be appointed. Thirdly, it gives us power to appoint committees of the Historic Building Council to advise my Department on the operation of the scheme.

Hon. Members may wish to be aware of the Department's proposals for the administration of the scheme of grant aid. The initial annual budget will be £150,000. I realise that that is necessarily a small crock of gold. We arrived at that sum by extrapolating from Scottish experience, which seems adequately sensible. Scotland has a budget that is about four times the size of ours for about four times as many buildings. The Church authorities were aware of that sum from an early stage, at least from the time of our meeting with the Irish Council of Churches in December 1983. Their understandable wish that that sum should be larger has not detracted from their support for the order.

Grant aid will be fixed at 33·33 per cent. of eligible costs subject to a limit of £25,000 for any particular scheme in a single year. Schemes that would attract grants in excess of £25,000 should be phased over a period of years.

Can my hon. Friend tell the House how many historic churches and historic buildings are to be considered for such grants, because, as he said, it is a small sum of money?

Initially, we are talking of about 85 churches that are A or B-plus listed. That number may increase as we carry out, with the Historic Buildings Council, a review of all the churches that are listed. But at least initially the figure is 85. I accept that the amount of money that we can afford is not as great as most of us would like. It is therefore all the more important that we should concentrate the money with respect to both the number of churches and the work that we can do on those listed buildings.

Grant aid will be restricted to repair and maintenance of the external fabric of church buildings and associated works such as the treatment of dry and damp rot, which underlines the point that I have just made to my hon. Friend. Bells, stained glass windows and internal furnishings will not be included. Again, we are rightly following the practice on this side of the water.

We shall not take the denominational aspect into consideration in any way in making grants. It will be a matter of first come, first served, for the limited funds available, though the church authorities, in consultation with the Historic Buildings Council, may wish to agree on a sensible way of controlling the queue of about 85 potential recipients of aid. I stress that the operation of the scheme will be carefully monitored, and reviewed if necessary in the light of experience.

It is not the Government's early, let alone immediate, intention to make churches in Northern Ireland subject to listed building control. That would be done only following careful consideration and widespread consultation. There is no question of our taking such a step unless it is taken on this side of the water. There is equally no question of our automatically following in the wake of whatever is done in Great Britain. I wholly accept that were we to consider with the Church authorities— and with hon. Members, for that matter—any move in that direction, we should have to face up, among other things, to the considerable financial consequences.

I realise that the order would be even more cheerfully received in some quarters were we able to spend more money on the grants available under it. We have stepped up our activities in conservation and listing, but we still have a long way to go, and I fear that we may disappoint almost as many people as we can satisfy for some time to come. Nevertheless, 1 believe that the order is a small step in the right direction. I repeat that it is welcomed by the Church authorities, and, indeed, was pressed on us by them.

Against that background, noting again that I regard this as an experimental scheme which we may need to modify in the light of experience, I commend the order to the House.

10.24 pm

May I apologise for the absence of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warley West (Mr. Archer) and my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell)? They are tonight in the Province. May I also apologise for being a little late? I am afraid that we must speak to the Attorney-General and tell him to nod a little more slowly. I hope that the House will accept my apologies and the fact that I am making my maiden speech from the Dispatch Box. I am happy to say that the Labour party will not be opposing the order.

The order would enable the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland to make grants or loans towards the expenditure incurred in the repair or maintenance of churches. These churches, of course, must be in current use for ecclesiastical purposes and should have been listed as being of special architectural or historic interest. It would also bring such historic churches within the system of limited building control. It has always been considered an anomaly that listed churches in Northern Ireland are treated differently from those in England, Scotland and Wales, where specific grant aid schemes have been in operation for the past eight years. I have some experience of the situation in Scotland.

That anomaly is somewhat accentuated when one considers that there are about 560 listed churches in a total of 6,500 listed buildings throughout Northern Ireland. If we are to have league tables, it is accurate to say that the Church of Ireland, as the press has pointed out, comes top of the table with 195 listings. That is followed by the presbyterians with 174, and the Roman Catholic Church with 135. I should like to ask the Minister why the order does not come into force for another year—until April 1986. I note that the order will not be retrospective. However, as the provision for listed church buildings in Northern Ireland is now to be brought into line with that in the rest of the United Kingdom, we should be thankful that the order is before us at all. I note that the Northern Ireland Assembly has carried out its usual useful function of scrutinising the order before its appearance in the House. The Environment Committee recommended that the proposals contained in the order be approved, although it made some comments upon it.

I shall not weary the House at this late hour—that would be completely inappropriate for a Deputy Chief Whip deputising as a Northern Ireland spokesman—with a recital of the recommendations. I shall merely content myself with noting the comments of the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the hon. Member lor North Down (Mr. Kilfedder), that the Assembly was concerned with administrative arrangements and broadly welcomed the proposals. That is the view of the Opposition.

10.27 pm

I am sorry that we have temporarily lost the presence of the Leader of the House, because I was going to address to him a word of gratitude for having provided, by suspension of Standing Orders, for extra time whereby this Government measure could, if necessary, be discussed at large by those who wished to debate it. It is not a subject upon which, in recent memory, the Leader of the House has always been so generous. I hope that it is a habit that he will continue and extend.

From that commendation, I turn to something short of commendation on the performance of Her Majesty's Opposition. It is true that one Secretary of State can act for any other Secretary of State, but it is unheard of for one shadow to act for another shadow especially as that shadow of a shadow is a Deputy Chief Whip.

I have to say to the absentees—I hope that my words will reach them in due course—that it is no excuse for absence from debates in the House on Northern Ireland to be in the Province. It would be more proper for hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies to seek on that ground from time to time to excuse themselves. The House has first claim upon the attention of its Members, not least upon those who represent their own party from their respective Front Benches.

While I am on this topic, let me offer a friendly word of advice to the shadow Northern Ireland spokesmen. If they are very inquisitive about circumstances in Northern Ireland and want to know what to look at and when, it is no bad idea to consult—occasionally, at any rate—those who know and who are elected to represent Northern Ireland in this House.

There has been a notable lack of communication between the present Opposition Front Bench Northern Ireland team and hon. Members representing constituencies in the Province. It is no substitute for that kind of consultation to be absent in the Province when Northern Ireland affairs are debated in this House. I hope that these remarks will be noted in the quarters where action can be taken upon them.

When I studied the order, an aspect of the commencement clause at first struck me as curious. Article 6(a) comes into operation on such day as the Minister— I am translating into direct rule terminology—may by order appoint, whereas the remainder of the order, apart from articles 4 and 6(a), comes into operation
"on the expiration of 2 months from the day on which it is made."
It is curious that an article which repeals article 33(1) of the 1972 order should come into effect upon the fiat of the Minister, whereas article 3 comes into effect upon a predetermined day—two months after the making of the order. At first I was incautious enought to think that this was a curiosity which might owe something to that carelessness which the examiner of statutory rules occasionally detects in his valuable work of examining Northern Ireland statutory instruments. However, further reflection convinced me that there was a more sinister explanation to this apparently curious phenomenon.

The Bill, or rather the order—I correct myslf. I hope that my reference to a Northern Ireland Order in Council as a Bill is an unconscious anticipation of the future. The order does two completely separate and unconnected things. First, it abolishes the exemption on buildings in ecclesiastical use from the planning provisions limiting the alterations and so on that may be carried out on those buildings. That is the purpose of article 4. Secondly, it makes it possible in Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, to pay grants to listed buildings, even though they are in current ecclesiastical use.

These two effects have no logical or necessary connection with one another. The Minister informed us that there was no early prospect that the abolition of the exemption of listed ecclesiastical buildings would be brought into effect. Indeed, in a letter to my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) on 11 May, following a ministerial meeting with two of my colleagues, who are present tonight, and myself, the Minister said:
"There is at present no legal constraint on applicants to prevent them from altering listed churches".
That is an understatement. There is at present no legal constraint on anyone altering listed churches. He went on to discuss the consideration being given to removing that exemption in the rest of the United Kingdom.

I agree with the Minister that the removal of that exemption is a serious course of action which should not be taken without considerable prior consultation and reflection and that it could act as a deterrent to those responsible for listed churches seeking to preserve them in the immediately coming years.

In those circumstances, I do not think that it is a proper use of legislation to enact the abolition of exemption and then to leave it suspended with power for a Minister to bring it into force. If such legislative provision is to be made, it should be made in its own right. We should not have to discover by examining the commencement article of an order that such a power is being enacted now and that the exemption is being abolished now subject to commencement on such date as the Minister may by order appoint. I do not believe that that is the right way to go about the matter.

If there is no present intention to remove the exemption, and we may be forgiven for being somewhat hesitant about assuming this, there would have been no inconvenience whatever in not enacting the abolition of the exemption in this order but coming forward with a separate proposal at the proper time. At the least, in any proper form of legislation the giving of effect to article 4 should have been reserved to some procedure that was subject to proceedings in this House. I appreciate that that is difficult to accomplish due to the restrictions under which we labour with direct rule, as the vast majority of subordinate legislation in respect of Northern Ireland in no way comes before the House, but that merely illustrates how much better legislation for Northern Ireland could be framed and effectuated by means of a proper Bill. The provision could then have been contained in the Bill, with an arrangement for it to be brought into effect by an affirmative order, which would bring the matter to the attention of the House once again.

I therefore register our complaint at this advantage— an improper advantage, we would argue—of the Order in Council procedure to enact now a provision that is not to come into effect until some undetermined date.

The question of what Iain Macleod and I used to call "needs and means" was dealt with at some length, though perhaps not at fully adequate length, by the Minister. The incompatibility between the needs and the means will cause the main difficulties that the order and its adminstration will encounter. The facts of the matter were set out by the Minister and have already been rehearsed today. No fewer than 545 churches in Northern Ireland are listed buildings. In relation to a total of that magnitude, an annual budget of £150,000 is nugatory.

Perhaps I can just conclude this part of my remarks, as I may anticipate the Minister's intervention. He has stated that a short list is to be compiled, comprising the present A and B grade churches but to which others may after consideration and investigation be added. He estimates that the total size of that effective list for consideration may be about 85 churches. I still believe that 85 churches on a short list for an annual budget of £150,000 is completely unrealistic. If that unrealism is not to be completely disastrous and cause more ill will than good will among those whom the measure is intended to benefit, some stern administrative measures must be taken. The idea that there can be a painless subdivision or distribution of £150,000 among a short list of 85 listed ecclesiastical buildings is completely unrealistic.

Some suspicion of the difficulty is revealed in the Minister's explanation, in the letter to which I referred, of how he intends to marshall the queue. Perhaps I might read what he said in that letter, although I noticed that he qualified it in his speech this evening. He said:
"Various methods of ordering the short listed churches were considered, including selection by greatest need, by the number of listed churches in each denomination or by the architectural or historic 'worth' of the individual churches, before it was decided that applications should be dealt with strictly in the order in which they are received."
This first-come, first-served rule was justified on the ground that,
"to do otherwise would be to introduce an unacceptable degree of subjectivity which would inevitably lead to disharmony."
It is ludicrous to say, when there are 85, or 545 whichever way one looks at it— potential bidders for grant, and when one does not even know when the starting pistol will go off, that first come will be first served. Will there be arrangements such as one finds in competitions organised by newspapers, so that the first application opened by the junior clerk in the Department of the Environment will be deemed to have been received first, or will it be the postmark on the envelope, or will it be the date on the letter? What will be the rationality in this unseemly scramble, which is to be the only method proposed for marshalling the queue?

It is ridiculous for the Government to say that, of all the possible contenders, it will be first come, first served, but we have no ideas—at any rate, we have not explained them to those most concerned—how to set out in this race to be first in the queue. In the House, for private Members' Bills or private Members' motions, we have a system of ballots. Why did not the Government think of a ballot, which might be conducted by the Clerks of the Assembly? It might be the last act that they will perform before disappearing into oblivion. Why were they not asked to conduct a ballot among the 85 applicants and arrange them in the order that the names were drawn from the hat?

That conclusion was reached—I hope that it will not be maintained—after rejecting methods that one might have thought were reasonable. I am sure that it will have occurred to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that selection by greatest need was not an irrational method of selection. Admittedly, it was selective, but selection by greatest need is something for which Governments and Ministers take responsibility all the time. One might almost say that the allocation of resources to greatest need is what we keep Ministers for. That method was considered, only to be rejected.

Then there was the criterion of the architectural or historic worth of churches. If the object is to preserve buildings which are of architectural or historic worth, one would have thought that that might be a sensible criterion to apply when deciding which of the claimants should have the highest priority. Judgment is needed. It is a dereliction of judgment and inconsistent with the claimed purposes of the order to throw the reins on the horse's neck and say, "There are the 85; let's see which of them turn up first, and it will be the first three or the first six who turn up who will get the first slice of the cake."

The Under-Secretary of State will land himself in much more trouble by doing it that way than by applying a more rational criterion. Ulster people are not so irrational that they cannot understand that grants for the preservation of listed buildings bear some relation to the need for expenditure upon particular buildings and the worth and architectural value of those buildings. That idea is not absolutely impossible for the well disposed to sell, even among competing claimants. But there is a need for judgment. That is perhaps greater and more difficult to exercise in Northern Ireland than it is on this side of the water.

The historic and architectural value of the churches of different denominations can be different in kind. A judgment between the Roman Catholic cathedral in Newry and the Church of Ireland cathedral at Downpatrick in my constituency is a judgment of items which belong to different categories and different standards of value and merit. If one supposes that both are listed buildings, I am not suggesting that it would be easy to establish a common scale against which both buildings could be measured. The same could be true of the very many distinguished dissenting meeting houses. I apologise to my Ulster colleagues for the grating sound of Anglican vocabulary, but that is what they were when they were first erected, so perhaps I shall be excused upon that ground.

I am glad to have obtained the approval and pardon of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) for my chosen adjective.

Many of those meeting houses are extremely distinguished buildings. There is an extremely distinguished meeting house at Kilmore in my constituency— as it happens, only two or three miles from Downpatrick cathedral. I should be interested to know how one would set about judging the respective architectural or historic worth of that meeting house, which I am sure is a listed building of a high category, and of a Church of Ireland building such as that to which I have referred These judgments ought to be made and ought to be seen to be made, and they will have to be made if the money, such as it is, which is to be spent upon this purpose is to be administered in a way that is rational and defensible. If we were to ask the Under-Secretary of State why the first slice of grant was given to the Kilmore Presbyterian meeting house, it would be unsatisfactory if we were told that it got in first and that its application was received a whole week before the application of the Roman Catholic church in Strangford which, in its way, is an equally remarkable and interesting building which may, for aught I know, be of high architectural value.

The practical solution that I offer to the Under-secretary of State to assist his purposes is that he will have to be responsible, or he will have to find someone through whom he can be responsible, for genuine acts of judgment which will have to be performed with great severity. Unless we are to fritter away in penny packets, or almost penny packets, this small annual budget, it will have to be spent upon urgent and important work, and acts of difficult judgment and discrimination will have to be made. They should be acts of judgment which can be defended and be seen to be rational.

The Minister is making provision in article 5 of the order for afforcing the Historic Buildings Council. The suggestion was made in discussion elsewhere that representatives of the churches might be put on that council, and probably the Minister was wise to be cool towards that suggestion and to say that his prime object in afforcing the council was to increase the degree of historical and architectural expertise that was available in the council.

However, the Minister will have to go further than that and set up a specific advisory body to make, to be seen to make and to show public cause for making, exactly those difficult judgments that at present he is threatening to spurn by using the method of first past the post or first at the head of the queue.

The Minister must safeguard and husband the relatively small finance that is to become available for ecclesiastical listed buildings in Northern Ireland. He must husband it not only by preventing it from being frittered away in small packets but by being sure that there is genuine outstanding merit and need in the applicants which are chosen for early receipt of what I hope will be large single grants under the order. By "single", I do not necessarily mean not spread out over several years. I mean really large projects which might absorb a considerable part of the annual budget for several years.

In restricting the scope of these grants as they are restricted in Great Britain, to the external fabric, a mistake is being made, as so many mistakes in relation to Northern Ireland are made, by failure to understand, appreciate and be sensitive to some of the peculiarities and merits of Northern Ireland.

There are some distinguished Church of England churches in this country of which the principal historic interest is their internal fittings. I can think of a Shropshire church which has absolutely intact the Commonwealth fittings dating from the 1650s. They are objects of great interest and are preserved on that account, and that is by no means unique. However, I do not think I would be contradicted in saying that in Great Britain, and certainly in England, the fabric of the churches is essentially their lasting glory and that element of them that calls for protection and preservation.

I am far from sure that that assertion could be made with the same confidence of the churches in Northern Ireland which, as listed buildings, will mainly come under the scope of the order, and I will give two examples to illustrate the significance of two of the deliberate omissions from the scope of the grants. I shall first give an example of furnishings.

I do not know whether the Minister, who is a voracious and active traveller in Northern Ireland and a rubbernecked Minister when he is in the Province, has had the good fortune to visit St. James's—I hope that I have given the correct name—in Waringstown and has seen the magnificent Jacobean furniture which was recently restored and lovingly preserved. It would be impossible to distinguish between the merits of the church furniture and the fabric of that church. Indeed, the fabric was made for the furnishings more than the furnishings were made for the fabric. I dare say that my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South, if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will later confirm that that could be true especially of the meeting houses of the Presbyterian and other Non-Conformist denominations where the building is ancillary to the internal arrangements and yet where the internal arrangements are of architectural and historic value. That is an example showing why major schemes, which are the proper way to get full value out of the available finance, should not exclude furnishings in appropriate cases.

My second example is stained glass. That might seem a strange nomination for a Northern Ireland Member to make, since the glories of stained glass as we know them in some churches in England which were lucky enough to escape the rage of Puritanism have no corresponding representatives in the Province where the work of destruction was carried out much more by war and rebellion than by Puritan and Reformist prejudices. That does not mean that the windows in the churches in Northern Ireland are not equally part of the building and, in some ways, more part of the buildings than the 15th-century stained glass windows for which the perpendicular south aisles were added to many churches, particularly but not exclusively in East Anglia.

I was going to give an example from my constituency, but I shall give another from the vicinity of Waringstown, since the Minister and the House, if it is accompanying me in these examples, were last in Waringstown looking at St. James's church. One need only go to the mother church in Waringstown which—as all good mother churches in Northern Ireland should — has a Gaelic name, Donaghcloney, and one will find a remarkable edifice. It is not beautiful to the eye. Indeed, it was erected as a village hall by the Lyttle family which owned and ran the mill which, for many decades, was the lifeblood of Donaghcloney.

That hall has been brought into use to replace a tin tabernacle which stood on the basis of the erased pre-Reformation church. It has been brought into use as the parish church in Donaghcloney. It has a splendid set of —I confess it—Victorian windows, brought there from a Church of Ireland church in the Republic which was demolished. I am prepared to say that those windows have a value of their own kind in the Northern Ireland context which ought to be taken into account.

I do not want to dwell too long on this imaginary peregrination. I invite the Minister, when next in Downpatrick, to go—or to go again—into St. Patrick's, the parish church, and look at the east window. The structure itself is late 16th or early 17th century, but I think he will agree that, as in so many Wren churches in the City of London, the east window in that church is an essential part of the church, and forms part of that for which the preservation of the church is desirable.

I make a plea to the Minister—since there is nothing in the terms of the order which excludes reconsideration —not to be so rigid, in the circumstances of Northern Ireland, in defining the outer limits of what it is that calls for preservation and assistance under the order.

Although I believe that the purpose of the order is probably wise, as on balance the corresponding legislation in Great Britain has probably been wise, we shall run into disaster unless the Minister changes his mind about the method of allocating priorities. We shall run into disaster unless, recognising that he has a limited budget, he deliberately uses that limited budget in a way which will do really big and distinguished things, although that means there can b only a few really big and distinguished things done for the listed buildings in Northern Ireland which are in ecclesiastical use.

I hope that the debate will be, as it is intended to be, of use to the Minister, who showed himself understanding and open-minded about the difficulties and dangers which he would encounter when he had a useful discussion with my hon. Friends and myself some weeks ago.

11.1 pm

The House has listened to a very fine speech from my right hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. Powell), who covered many of the salient points of the order.

We are being brought face to face with the question whether a public interest in a building brings with it the need for a public liability in respect of that building. It would seem that there is general agreement that that public interest imposes a public liability, the only question being what the extent of the liability should be. In such cases there is always a balance of interests between the user and the viewer, and I am not sure that we have managed so far to get dead right what that balance should be.

There is, of course, the very real difficulty for the owners of listed churches that they are now to lose some of their freedom of action by virtue of being listed. In looking through the total number of churches involved, to which my right hon. Friend referred, I was most surprised. I managed to find 84 A listings, but I understand, from what my right hon. Friend said, that there are 85 A and B-plus listings. There are 24 Church of Ireland A buildings and eight B-plus buildings. The Roman Catholics have four A and 24 B-plus buildings. The Presbyterians have four A and seven B-plus buildings. The Methodists have four A and seven 3B-plus churches. The Non-Subscribing Presbyterians, surprisingly, out of a total of 20 churches, have three A and five B-plus buildings. The Society of Friends has one A, and the Moravians have one A.

One is led immediately into the question of the division of money among the churches. My right hon. Friend covered that point in great detail. The Minister should look at it again, because the figures that I have quoted are an absolute nest of worms in this context. I hope that the Minister will take account of what my right hon. Friend has said, because I would be very worried about the first-come-first-served principle.

In my inquiries I have also noticed that the listed categories for Scotland and Northern Ireland are the same, in that they are A, B-plus and B, whereas in England and Wales the gradings are 1 and 2. When the Minister replies to the debate, will he be kind enough to tell us exactly what the differences are between those various gradings? It is relevant to the question how a church listed in Northern Ireland compares with a church listed in England. It may be that wholly different criteria apply. The listing may depend upon the context of the building rather than on a common level throughout the United Kingdom.

I was surprised to hear the Minister say that he had only a quarter of the money for Scotland, and that Scotland had roughly four times as many such buildings. Can he go further and tell us how many B, B-plus and A graded buildings there are in Scotland compared with similar groupings in Northern Ireland? I understand that the total number of listed churches is in the ratio 4:1, but I am curious about the merit that is attached to them, which should be revealed by the listing. If the ratio is more than 4:1, perhaps the Minister should reconsider the decision to give one quarter of the money for one quarter of the listed buildings.

I should like a clear explanation of what the ecclesiastical exemption consists of. The case of the Howard United Reform church upset people's understanding of the position, and seemed to turn the haycock upside down. The owner of churches in Northern Ireland would like to be told what use the ecclesiastical exemption now is. Can one use it to demolish a building which is no longer in use or needed?

A large problem regarding redundant churches is building up steadily in Northern Ireland. Many people seem to think that churches have become redundant only in Belfast because of the vast movement of the population during the past 15 years, mainly because of terrorism, but that is not the case. Many rural churches, of practically all denominations, although mainly of Protestant denomination, are in areas where the population has greatly decreased. I can think of Presbyterian churches and churches of my own denomination, whose congregations are much smaller than they were 150 years ago. That is not to say that the total number of people has decreased, but there has been a tremendous amount of movement from rural areas to towns, with a corresponding drop in church population. It causes enormous difficulties for some congregations and parishes. I hope that we shall not get into the rut of thinking that redundant churches occur only in larger urban areas. The problem extends across the Province.

All denominations continually make the case that there should be some sort of appeal procedure against the listing of a church. That may be difficult, because the Churches may have reasons for not listing it, usually regarding disposal or lack of use of the church, whereas there may be architectural merit that demands that it should be listed. If there were an appeal procedure, it would be welcomed by everyone, because we need to have all the facts of each individual case brought into the open so that people know exactly why a building is listed.

I have studied the listings of the various churches, especially those in my own area, which I know well. In some instances, the reason for the listing is plain, but in others I have some difficulty in identifying the outstanding merit that has led to the placement. It seems that most of the churches have found their way on to the list in one way or another. When I tabled a parliamentary question, the Minister was unable to tell me how many churches had been inspected and left off the list. I hope that we shall be told what percentage of the churches in Northern Ireland have been put on the list.

I am concerned about the loss of ecclesiastical exemption, but my fears may be allayed to some extent when the Minister gives an explanation of the benefit that will accrue to Churches from the exemption in the light of the Howard United Reform Church case, which was taken to another place. I make a plea that the grant or the loan should not mean automatically the loss of ecclesiastical exemption. The exemption must give some benefit to the Churches that come within it. I should not like to see a small grant or loan used as an excuse for tying a Church's hands and those of the denomination for all time.

Everyone who has read the order accepts that a grant or loan of £150,000 will be a drop in the ocean. There must be some Church involvement in the listing procedures, and we must endeavour to determine how we marshal the applicant Churches in order of priority. There must be a system which is acceptable to the Churches which belong to the various denominations that are affected, so that they do not feel that they are being hard done by.

In inquiring into the order, I took the precaution of writing to the four major denominations. They all kindly replied to me setting out their views. There is deep concern about the way in which the money is being distributed. That concern can be allayed only if there is a Church involvement. It is feared that that would lead to an unwieldy committee which would include representatives of all Churches. If it is only an advisory committee, that unwieldiness might well be acceptable.

A consultation document has been drawn up by the Department of the Environment and a similar paper has been circulated in Scotland. When the Minister replies, I ask him to tell us what effect the document is having upon the future of listed churches in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. There is bound to be a spin-off from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, or vice versa. The issue runs right across the sea and we should not close our minds to the consultation paper.

That leads me to sections 16 and 19 of the paper. Section 16 states:
"The internal structure, decorations and fittings of a church may be of fundamental importance to its liturgical and other religious purposes. It may be argued that to apply normal listed building controls to church interiors would risk impinging on the churches' freedom to decide on the form of their worship. However, some interior alterations, particularly those involving structural work, may damage the aesthetic quality for which a building has been listed. In that case, it can be argued that the Government has a duty to safeguard the interiors as well as the exteriors of buildings included in the statutory list."
Section 19 tell us:
"In some cases, however, this would exempt from control those very features for which a church had been listed; many buildings with plain exteriors contain a wealth of important church fittings which would thus be totally exempt from listed building control".
A building with a plain exterior that required considerable money spent on it would not be eligible for a grant if the internal features were not taken into account. That would not be acceptable. A building has to be looked at as a whole, interior and exterior.

My right hon. Friend the Member for South Down commented on Jacobean furniture. I have been in two churches which are plain buildings with a seating arrangement based on the family unit, so that the pews are all built in a square. There may be other such churches in Londonderry. Such features are well worth preserving, because, although they are not modern looking, they are a tie with the past. Such churches should not be left out of the running just because of the plainess of their outsides.

My right hon. Friend also spoke about stained glass windows. I cannot understand how windows can be left out of this order, because most stained glass windows embody in their structure a considerable amount of stonework that can be seen from the outside and is part of the architecture of the building. One should not leave such windows aside. My church has stained glass windows, with stonework visible from the outside, and that is very much part of its character.

Article 83 of the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, which is being altered by this order, says that grants and loans for the preservation of listed buildings should be for
"the repair and maintenance of any objects ordinarly kept in the building."
If we are changing that order, we should do so in a way that takes account of that provision, which covers the point made both by my right hon. Friend and me.

In that order, article 31(2) (b) refers to
"any feature of the building which consists of a man-made object or structure fixed to the building or which forms a part of the land and which is comprised within the curtilage of the building."
I am curious as to what that last phrase means. How does that include walls and gates, which in many cases seem to be the only reason why a building is given listed status? I should have thought that the boundary line runs down the middle of the wall, and I cannot see how the outside of it could be taken to be within the curtilage of the building.

Whenever we talk of churches, most people think of a building, but a church in the true sense is not a building, but a body of people. It is a body of worshippers and believers joined together in a congregation. That may not be as true of the Anglican tradition, of which I am a member, as it is for the tradition of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth). However, it is still a basic ingredient of a church that it is a body of people. A church is not always the same size, or the same shape; nor does it have the same distribution of people at all times. It is a living and changing body of people, and it is there with a job to do.

That brings me to what concerns me most in the order — the preservation of buildings. The Church is not about the preservation of buildings. Its essence is teaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is a quite different matter. I fear that the application of the order will hang a massive millstone around the neck of many congregations and stop them from carrying out their basic function as Christians and believers in the Gospel of Christ.

When I was a boy, all Presbyterian churches were known as meeting houses. During my teens, however, they gradually became known as Presbyterian churches. The change did not meet with universal approval from the congregations. I liked the original term, and still use it quite often. It seems to be generally acceptable to my many Presbyterian friends and neighbours.

In the order, we are taking the first exploratory steps towards securing the right balance between the interests of the user and those of the viewer. I do not believe that we have got it right. When we produce orders such as this I always fear that some people will attempt to get something on the cheap. My experience of life is that nothing is got on the cheap— someone, somewhere, has to pay. It seems that the Treasury will not put any more money into the Northern Ireland coffers and that the £150,000 comes out of existing money. If so, someone else will go £150,000 short. I should be glad if the Minister would say that there is more money.

As a result of the order, I believe that the interests of the viewer will overtake those of the user and that the Church might lose out in the long run, and none of us wants that.

11.22 pm

I welcome the order because it brings Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom.

The explanatory document says that the order will bring historic churches within the system of listed building control, but that is already the case in practice. Part III of the explanatory document says that the order will not lead to an increase in overall public expenditure. Having regard to the derisory amount that is to be provided, one could be forgiven for wondering whether approvals for expenditure will be controlled by the amount available and whether the Churches will find that they are worse off than before.

Even worse is the fact that churches in class B, which do not qualify for grant aid, must maintain their buildings for the benefit of others. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) gave a vivid description of what will happen. The situation should be considered in conjuction with the well-known case, which my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) mentioned, concerning Bedfordshire county council v. Trustees of Howard United Reform Church in May 1975. In that case the other place defined an ecclesiastical building in such a way as to render the Churches unable to demolish their churches if they wanted to without listed building consent.

As a result of the factors that I have outlined, the Churches are not free to redevelop their sites to meet the demands of their work or changed circumstances, nor can they realise the full asset value of their sites for use elsewhere, should they consider that the word of God requires such action. In other words, they have lost their rights in their property, without compensation, and are now saddled with a perpetual commitment without redress. That appears to be contrary to British constitutional law, but it is unlikely that any Church, certainly in Northern Ireland, would have the resources to bring such a case before the House of Lords.

Despite the consultations between the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment and the Irish Council of Churches on the subject of the order, the Churches have been put in a virtually impossible position and little regard seems to have been paid to the implications for their future. In the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 there is provision for compensation for refusal of listed building consent in certain circumstances. The contrary view under article 69 is discretionary, not mandatory, and, to my certain knowledge, there is at least one case of a Methodist church in central Belfast where that has been applied, with the result that no compensation has been paid. It is my view, and that of the trustees of the church, that the reasons given and the contrary case presented by the Department of the Environment were spurious.

The original application to demolish the existing building and erect another on the same site, with church premises within the new building, was expressly to provide a Methodist place of worship and witness for the foreseeable future, together with a rental income to enable that worship and witness to be carried out. As my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East said, in that church in the centre of Belfast we are all going through a traumatic experience. During the last war, that church was open 24 hours a day to minister for the ex-service men, the service men, the ARP and everyone involved in the war effort. Before 1969, the church was also open 24 hours a day to look after young people in the area and people who needed help. During the troubled times, that church was also there, providing succour for the police and the Army who were carrying out their difficult job in the centre of Belfast. Even today it is open for several hours day and night to cater for the down-and-outs, the unemployed and people who need help and succour in difficult circumstances.

That application was refused, on the grounds that the building was to be listed. All the proposals in the contrary view under article 69 of the 1972 planning order, put forward by the Department of the Environment and fully admitted by its officials, were incapable of providing a place of worship and ancillary premises alongside the notional commercial development, which formed the basis of a refusal to pay compensation.

While I welcome the order, as far as it goes, which is not very far, it is my opinion that the case that I mentioned should be reconsidered and that the House ought to undertake a review of the law in relation to planning legislation and the Churches to safeguard the rights of the various Churches. I hope that the Minister will give my suggestion his serious consideration.

11.28 pm

I am speaking in the debate because, in a fit of generosity, the Leader of the House has allowed us at least another hour and a half. Accordingly, I should like to use some of that time, although I am amazed as to why, when we are dealing with an order that we cannot change and must accept, we are given such latitude of time, when on other occasions we would have liked to make changes to legislation, which would have been helpful, and for the good of the country, but we were not allowed time to do so.

I should like the Minister to clarify the point mentioned by the hon. Member for Cumbemauld and Kilsyth (Mr. Hogg) about the date upon which the order takes effect. If it is to be April 1986, is that an acknowledgement that there is no money available but that money will be released in the next financial year, or is it because someone in the Department is aware that in the near future some work will be done on a building for which no money is available and that, rather than face that difficulty, the Department has put it on the long finger?

As the Minister will be aware, the historic St. George's church in the centre of Belfast has recently completed a major scheme to preserve its witness. There has been a great deal of controversy over that building. If the order is passed tonight, and as the Minister has discretion, I cannot understand why it is proposed to wait until April 1986 before it takes effect. We look forward to receiving an assurance that it will come into effect sooner.

I support the points made by my right hon. and hon. Friends for consideration by the Minister and others who will have to implement the order and the scheme. Rather than merely consider the point made by the churches and the Northern Ireland Assembly, there should be a representative of the churches on the decision-making body.

I understand that one of the objections to that is that such people will have a theological point of view only. I do not believe that that is necessarily so. Within the churches there are people who have the historical and architectural expertise to deal with the subject dispassionately. It is not necessary to have a representative from each of the major denominations because, contrary to what many folk have said, I believe that there is greater collaboration between the churches in Northern Ireland than exists centrally in England and Scotland. It is not beyond anyone's capacity to nominate someone to represent the churches dispassionately.

I take up the concept of need to which my right hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) referred. The need for structural work on the building has been emphasised. As I understand it, the force of the order is to provide finance to help that work. My hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) suggested that a small congregation which has been given a legacy of an historic building that it can no longer maintain in a good structural condition may be in greater need than those with a love of history and architecture believe.

I happen to be a philistine.

I share the views of the hon. Member for Londonderry, East about the functions of a church. In an age when there are greater demands upon church members, many people who believe in worldwide evangelism and helping the needy are torn between choosing to help mankind or pouring money into maintaining a building. As well as a need to carry out architectural work on a building, there may also be a need to provide the finance required to do so, because local people are no longer able to supply the tremendous finances that are often required for modern building schemes.

My right hon. Friend the Member for South Down referred to what is locally known as the redemptionist meeting house in Kilmore, and reminded me of the story of the preacher who went to kill rats in the morning and to Kilmore at night.

There are meeting houses through the Province where intrinsic beauty and historic interest lie within. For example, there is exterior architectural merit in the Presbyterian meeting house of Sinclair Seamen's in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker), but the real historic and architectural beauty lies within. The pulpit is in the shape of a ship's prow, signifying the heritage of that meeting house and its links with the sea. I therefore hope that in interpreting the order, attention will be given not only to the exterior of a building but also to the interior which often has an historic value.

In church buildings throughout Northern Ireland, England and other parts of the kingdom, a new revolution is taking place about how an interior should be arranged for the proper exercise of worship. That was no doubt one of the concerns in the minds of those who framed the order, but if its purpose is to preserve historic buildings, we must be prepared to say that finance will be made available.

My right hon. Friend the Member for South Down spoke of the absence of Opposition Front Bench spokesmen. For some time, a pattern has developed whereby Ministers who visit Northern Ireland constituencies inform the Members concerned either the day after or the day on which they are in the constituency. If constituency Members are expected to welcome such visitors, we should like to know earlier, so that we can plan accordingly.

I also regret to say that a habit is developing whereby Northern Ireland Members no longer need to know what is happening in their constituencies. Ministers may be security conscious, but it is tragic if they cannot trust hon. Members, whereas from now on they will have to trust Sinn Feiners in local councils.

11.39 pm

First, I welcome the hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Mr. Hogg) to our debates. I think that his speech today was his first contribution to a Northern Ireland debate, and I congratulate him on his maiden speech from the Front Bench. I am sure that it will not be his last speech from that Bench, although if we are unlucky it may be the last time that we hear from him on the affairs of the Province. I share the hon. Gentleman's gratitude for the sensible and thoughtful comments of the Assembly, which includes some who are also Members of this House.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the figures for the denominations of churches which are listed buildings in all categories, but I think that it is more relevant to consider those in categories A and B-plus, a breakdown of which was given by the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross), to whose comments I shall return later.

The right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) made as interesting and informed a speech as one would expect from him. I hope that it will not be taken as too critical an observation or suggest that I am overly thin skinned about this if I say that his speech and some others reminded me of how much trouble one can heap on one's head by trying to do a small amount of good, although as a Tory I am not at all surprised by that. One just has to take a little care in these matters.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the removal of the exemption and suggested that taking these powers might act as a deterrent to people concerned to obtain listing for a building in which they are interested. We have no evidence to suggest that that is the case. I think that the right hon. Gentleman was on more substantial ground when he developed his argument about the type of power that we have taken in this respect, but, given the undertakings that I set out in my opening speech, I think that the situation should be regarded as reasonably tolerable. The churches certainly regard it in that way, and I hope that the House will take the same view later today.

The right hon. Gentleman and others properly referred to resources, and I accept that £150,000 is a small crock of gold, but if it is an unrealistic figure for Northern Ireland it is equally unrealistic for the rest of the United Kingdom because we have tried to arrive at a figure by extrapolating from experience elsewhere. I shall return to that aspect when I respond to the speech of the hon. Member for Londonderry, East.

I am anxious that we should do more in terms of conservation of both the built and the natural environment, but resources are limited as I am discovering—without, I hope, too many constraints on my discoveries — in attempting to implement both the letter and the spirit of the extremely important and well-received Balfour report. I repeat that £150,000 is not much, and certainly not so much as the Churches would have liked, but there were moments during the debate when some Members seemed to be saying that we would do better to provide no funds at all if we could not provide more. I accept the criticism that we ought to find more, although I am not sure where it could come from, but I am sure that it is better to do this with limited funds than not to do it at all. I repeat that that has been the consistently held view of the Church authorities in the Province, which we have fully consulted.

The question emerges as to what criteria one should apply in allocating those unfortunately but necessarily limited resources. The right hon. Gentleman's Pevsneresque journey round the Province and beyond showed the difficulties in reaching wholly rational, objective and defensible judgments on these issues. I do not wish to heap criticism on the heads of colleagues or of civil servants in Scotland or in England and Wales, but I am bound to say that rationalism has sometimes had a pretty difficult run there. Of course, that is precisely the sort of area on which we shall want to keep an open mind. It is precisely the sort of area on which we shall wish to keep in close touch with the Church authorities, and I believe that our good faith on this issue can be judged by the extent to which we have consulted the Churches consistently and fully during the past 18 months. If, with the council and the Churches, we can work out a more rational way of allocating the funds, so be it. But there are some difficulties in being as rational as the right hon. Gentleman suggests.

As to whether we should include fittings, bells and stained glass windows, I thought, when I heard the right hon. Gentleman developing his interesting case for the differences of the position in Northern Ireland, that I could have made, in terms of my constituency, a speech on both sides of the argument. I could have argued the case for including the fittings of churches, and I could have argued the case against. My principal consideration was that, in concentrating on wind and weather-proofing, we were doing something which was probably imposed on us anyway by the limited funds available.

Given that the funds are limited, we are probably better served by following Great Britain practice. But here again I wish to make it clear to the right hon. Gentleman that we must review our progress as we moved forward. If it seems to us clear that there is a case for including fittings, bells and stained glass windows as well as the fabric of a church, we must make those adjustments and extend our architectural agenda. But I hope that if I or anyone else reaches that decision, we shall have more resources to hand in order to do so.

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East, who has taken a special interest in the provisions of the order, and whose interest has, as always, been helpful, not least in obliging Ministers and officials to look keenly at what they are trying to do, asked several questions. First, he asked me to compare the criteria that we apply in Northern Ireland with the criteria that are applied in England and Wales. As the hon. Gentleman will recall, I set out the criteria that we apply in a parliamentary answer to a question from him on 27 February 1985. The exact scales of listings in Scotland and Northern Ireland are slightly different from those which apply in England and Wales, but, broadly speaking, we are applying the same criteria as are applied in England, Wales and Scotland.

I am afraid that I do not have the precise number of A and B-plus churches in Scotland. It was a perfectly fair question, and I should have come armed with an answer to it. I shall provide the hon. Member for Londonderry, East with an answer as soon as possible. However. I repeat that on a rule of thumb basis our understanding was that we were giving to churches in the Province as reasonable a deal as was being given to churches in Scotland, where at least some of the same problems occur.

The hon. Member also asked me about the existing ecclesiastical exemption. He has referred on previous occasions to the House of Lords judgment in 1975, in the case of the trustees of Howard United Reform Church in Bedfordshire, that a church that was about to be demolished could not be considered to be in ecclesiastical use. This point was also mentioned by the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker). Following that judgment, it has been accepted that no exemption from listed building control could be enjoyed by any church where total demolition was involved. It was that judgment, among other matters, which provoked the interest which led to the issue of discussion documents in England, Wales and Scotland. The discussion document was issued in January 1984 in England and Wales and comments were received by July 1984. A similar document was issued in January 1984 in Scotland, and comments were received by March 1985. Comments on the two documents are being considered by my right hon. and hon. Friends and we shall keep in close contact with them while they consider them. We shall want to take account of the decisions that they reach on Great Britain, but I repeat that I do not feel that our hands ought to be bound by whatever decision is reached for Great Britain, although it will be relevant to Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East also asked about the percentage of Northern Ireland churches that had been listed. I cannot provide him with an answer to that question. The listing process in Northern Ireland is not, alas, yet complete, so it is not possible to say how many churches will eventually be rejected. I hope that the increase in the number of staff will mean that the listing process can be completed more rapidly. I regret that there is a backlog and I hope that it will be cleared as quickly as possible. It relates not only to churches but to all other buildings.

The hon. Member for Belfast, North referred to a particular case which he has followed with his customary diligence. He has quite properly chased both me and my predecessor up hill and down dale over it. The problem in that case does not arise just because we are referring to a church. The various planning and listed building problems would relate equally to any type of building. However, we are prepared to review the listing of the building in question and examine whether it can reasonably be given a higher classification, and whether it will qualify for grant. I accept that that does not satisfy all the arguments that the hon. Gentleman put forward, but I hope that he will take it as an earnest of our concern.

The hon. Member for Belfast, North referred to a point that had been made by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth about when the order would come into force.

order, with the exception of articles 4 and 6(a), will come into force two months from the day on which it is made, and I hope that we shall be able to start spending money this year under the terms of the order if it passes through both Houses.

I have attempted, within those funds for which I answer in this House, to ensure that during this financial year, we shall have funds that we can start to use. The problem, given how late in the year we shall be starting, will be to spend all of the £150,000 in this financial year. Nothing would please me more than to be able to make substantial progress in spending that money and, before the end of the financial year, to know clearly that we would not have enough. However, because of the time of year at which we shall be starting, I doubt whether we shall find ourselves faced with that problem.

I note what was said about ecclesiastical representation on the sub-committee of the Historic Buildings Council. What we need on that committee, as on the council and on other advisory bodies in the environmental sphere, is vigorous and independent-minded expertise, and I accept that we may be able to secure that expertise from among those who are active leaders of Churches as well as from churchgoers. If so, we will all be the beneficiaries. The important point is to acquire the expertise, from wherever it comes.

I have attempted to deal with the points raised by right hon. and hon. Members in this interesting debate. I hope that the arguments that I have put have been relatively convincing; convincing enough to ensure that the order is made and that, as a consequence, churches in Northern Ireland can benefit from its provisions, albeit not on the scale that hon. Members understandably would wish.

Question put and agreed to.


That the draft Historic Churches (Northern Ireland) Order 1985, which was laid before this House on 22nd May, be approved.