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Historic Churches

Volume 454: debated on Thursday 14 December 2006

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Steve McCabe.]

I probably owe you an apology, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for testing your patience a moment or two ago, but I make no apology at all for raising the subject at this time. I am very grateful to Mr. Speaker for selecting this as the topic for the Thursday Adjournment debate.

I shall speak briefly about Christian churches in this country, their fabric and their survival. I make no apology for that. This is a Christian country and we are approaching one of the greatest of the Christian festivals. In 10 days, churches throughout the land will be full of those who have come to celebrate Christmas. I am delighted about that, and I am sure the Minister, too, is delighted, as a former chorister of some distinction in one of our cathedrals.

In a fortnight, people will go to church in unprecedented numbers. Many of them may go at Easter and many may go at the harvest festival in the autumn. They are what I would call festival Christians, and I make no criticism of that. Many of them will go, as I had to go today, on sadder occasions, to funerals, which is why I am wearing this tie, or on more joyful occasions, to weddings and baptisms. Most of those who go have little knowledge of how our churches are funded. Successive research has shown that many people who regard the parish church as an extremely important landmark and a focal point in town or village think that it is sustained financially out of the rates or the taxes, or by Government funds of one sort or another. I hope that in a fortnight’s time many of them will dig deeply into their pockets, because although these are public buildings—the most important public buildings in our country, in many ways—they receive very modest help from central Government, and that indirectly.

If I were like the famous Irishman, I would not be starting here. When the millennium was approaching, I urged my Government—and then, as it got closer and we had a change of Government, the Minister’s Government—to forget the dome and to set up an endowment fund to ensure that throughout this century we would not need to worry about the survival of our churches’ fabric. However, both Governments decided to have the dome and probably spent £700 million more than they would have done had they followed my suggestion, but there we are.

I have a long history of involvement in this matter. The first private Member’s Bill that I introduced in this House way back in 1971—the Historic Churches Preservation Bill—had as its aim getting state aid for historic churches. At that stage, it was not available in any form. In 1976, when that campaign was nearing a successful conclusion, I published a book called “Heritage in Danger”, which focused on those churches and other threats to our built heritage and our natural environment.

There has been progress. State aid did come, and on an all-party basis—the decision was made by a Conservative Government and implemented by a Labour Government. I have no hesitation in paying compliments to those who were responsible. Since then, we have had the creation of English Heritage, the creation of the lottery and, under this Government, a Chancellor who for the first time has recognised the burden of VAT on those who have to pay towards the restoration of historic buildings. Although they still have to pay it, which is quite a problem, he has created a scheme whereby it is almost entirely reimbursed.

That is very good and it should be put on the record, but we still have a great problem. We have in this country 16,000-plus churches of the Church of England, more than 13,000 of which are listed, 2,750 or more Roman Catholic churches, only 10 per cent. of which are listed—although if one looks at the wonderful book that English Heritage has produced over the past few weeks called “Glimpses of Heaven”, one realises how many more Roman Catholic churches should be listed—and slightly more than 3,000 non-conformist churches and chapels, about 20 per cent. of which are listed.

The problem is that the existing grant schemes are heavily oversubscribed. English Heritage estimates that the shortfall over the next five years could be as much as £500 million. That is why it has launched an extremely splendid campaign called “Inspired!” to draw attention to the importance of our parish churches, in particular, but religious buildings of other denominations too, and has asked the Government to provide over the next five years a sum of £26.5 million, which works out at£8.8 million a year, to allow it to conduct a number of studies into how best we can tackle the problem and ensure the survival of those buildings into the next century and beyond.

English Heritage is not asking for, and I am not asking for, the Government to take over responsibilities for religious buildings. I am, and always have been, implacably opposed to that, because it takes away a sense of local pride, patriotism and ownership. If one goes to some of the great churches of France, where the state has responsibility, one sees that they are wonderfully presented and preserved, but we all know the musty smell that greets us when we enter some lovely but small and obscure churches in French villages, where there is no local responsibility and therefore no incentive to run campaigns to raise funds. Such campaigns often bring a community together, as I know from experience.

I am a great believer in trusts. I am president of the Staffordshire county trust and vice-president of the Lincolnshire—the county of my birth—county trust. Through bicycle rides and other fundraising efforts, those trusts raise money to preserve our historic heritage of churches. That is tremendously important and should be encouraged, not discouraged.

It is also important to encourage those who go to church at Christmas and during the great festivals to dig deep into their pockets. More churches should erect graphic boards, pointing out what it costs to maintain and run a church. Anything that is old, lovely and fragile is expensive to maintain. Year in, year out, the small and sometimes dwindling congregations find that cost a genuine imposition. Demographic change and population movements have led to many parishes having small congregations. There has also been a falling-off in the ordained ministry. Whereas, in my youth, it was normal for a village to have its resident vicar or rector, that is now the exception rather than the rule. Many of those men and women are responsible for not only two but sometimes five, six and even more churches. They need lay help, which they receive, but they have to do far more than simply raise money to maintain the fabric.

A residual responsibility rests on those of us in elected office and especially on the Government. I should like to think that the Minister recognises that I am not making a party political point. His party has the honour of providing the Government of the moment; I hope that mine might in the near future. However, whether or not that happens, the problem remains. I want a greater recognition of the problem, building on the achievements to which I referred—the introduction of state aid, the creation of English Heritage and its funds and the lottery. All those are welcome. However, the Minister must be aware of the perception that the Olympics mean that many other deserving causes will be deprived of funds in the next six years and beyond.

When I published “Heritage in Danger” in 1976, I quoted a passage from the great Russian author, Solzhenitsyn, and I should like to draw the House’s attention to it tonight. He wrote:

“Travelling along country roads in central Russia you begin to understand why the Russian countryside has such a soothing effect. It is because of its churches… As soon as you enter a village you realise that the churches that welcomed you from afar are no longer living. Their crosses have long since been bent or broken off; the dome with its peeling paint reveals its rusty rib cage; weeds grow on the roofs and in the cracks of the walls… People have always been selfish and often evil. But the angelus used to toll and its echo would float over the village, field and wood. It reminded man that he must abandon his trivial earthly cares and give up one hour of his thoughts to life eternal… The tolling of the eventide bell… raised man above the level of a beast… Our ancestors put their best into these stones… all their knowledge and all their faith.”

I wrote:

“Let us hope that no English writer has to pen such an elegy on England’s churches.”

In the 30 years since I wrote that, a transformation has occurred in Russia. Many of those churches are now vibrant and living again. People are no longer deterred from worshipping—they are free to do so, and many of them do. In our country, there are no deterrents to worship—may there never be. I would hate to think that, in 100 years’ time, some English writer would write about the English countryside and its beautiful churches with the same elegiac nostalgia employed by Solzhenitsyn in that passage. However, if we do not identify those buildings properly, and ensure that they are fully utilised, for a variety of purposes but primarily for worship, and if we do not all play our part, voluntarily and individually, but above all through this place and in government, that will be their fate. How could we say that we lived in a civilised nation if we allowed the village churches of Norfolk or Lincolnshire, the Somerset towers and the churches at the heart of many of our country towns and big cities to crumble into ruin?

Christmas is a good time to focus our attention on buildings of great beauty, which, even to those who are not believers at all, mean a great deal. The other day, at a meeting of the all-party arts and heritage group and the all-party historic churches and chapels group, a Labour peer, whom I will not name, and who pronounced firmly that he was not a believer, also committed himself completely to the cause of keeping those buildings up. The chairman of the historic churches and chapels group, the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson)—I hope that he will soon be restored to health and back among us—is a self-proclaimed atheist but shares the affection that I believe that the Minister has, that I have and that I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey), whom I am delighted to see sitting on the Front Bench, has.

I hope that we will hear some encouraging words from the Minister tonight, and that 2007 will be a year of true hope for the churches of this country.

I thank the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) for securing the debate and for the manner in which he has made his comments. I also thank him and my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) for all their work in the all-party group on historic churches.

Let me associate myself with the remarks that the hon. Gentleman has made. He and I share a love of churches and of choral music: we were together only last week at a Friends of Cathedral Music event in the House. He therefore knows that the topic is close to my heart. I am glad that we have an opportunity to discuss the matter in the House, following last week’s worthwhile debate in another place.

During my time in this post, I have been pleased to visit a good number of churches in an official capacity. I am also pleased that one of the first things that I was able to do was to convene a Church Heritage Forum, in which I heard at first hand from denominational representatives and heritage specialists what they saw as the issues facing churches in this country.

We should not need to remind ourselves of all the reasons that our churches, cathedrals and other religious buildings are so significant to communities. Their contribution to the nation’s heritage is unique, with some dating back more than 1,000 years, and they are witnesses, one could say, to the changing generations of this country. As the hon. Gentleman has indicated powerfully, they act as a spiritual home for many people across the country. They are therefore key to our sense of place and belonging.

As those buildings have been passed down through the generations, it now falls to us as the current guardians to ensure that they are in a good state to be passed on to those who follow us. The hon. Gentleman is therefore right: while we have seen some successful and iconic advances, particularly in our urban churches, a real challenge exists in rural areas such as Norfolk and Oxfordshire. We all need to work together to preserve our rural churches and find new uses to contribute to those buildings, because of the challenges presented by falling congregations. I was at a Churches Tourism Association conference three weeks ago and heard of how churches are planning for new uses. Part of that is putting church tourism on a firmer footing—just one of many growth areas where new initiatives are being developed and new audiences sought.

People attached to churches, particularly in rural areas, perform a variety of vital activities and services: supporting elderly people, providing child care, counselling or advice. They help to hold communities together. A major piece of research funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently confirmed that. We know that this is taking an innovative turn also, with churches hosting post offices, village shops, farmers markets and even cashpoint machines.

We are not just talking about services of a social nature, but many cultural activities such as musical events, drama or art exhibitions. We know that the churches are, in line with the “Building Faith in our Future” agenda, looking for new ways to engage with local communities. We need to find new uses for churches that will help, in the longer run, to preserve the fabric by bringing in new streams of funding, new people and new partnerships. Churches matter to more people than just churchgoers; let us plug in to the wider support for churches that already exists in the nation.

As churches look to engage more with communities, perhaps by adapting buildings to make them more welcoming or user-friendly, the Government are keen to help by reducing the administrative burdens of such works. Under the ecclesiastical exemption, the major denominations are already exempt from the need to obtain listed building consents for works. It is a system that works well in protecting the nation's historic church buildings, partly due to the wide range of knowledge and expertise represented in the denominations' own systems, most of which is given voluntarily.

Further to that, the Government have been reviewing the way in which we protect all our historic buildings. The heritage protection review, which will shortly be the subject of a White Paper, will, among other measures, streamline those consents regimes that still apply to churches. It fact it will make the system that applies to all historic buildings more simple, more flexible and more open. Churches will be able to opt in to heritage partnership agreements. Those could remove the need for repeated applications for certain types of work that either crop up regularly, or will be needed at separate sites within, say, a diocese. New listing descriptions for churches will help congregations to understand what is significant about their own specific building when considering proposals for development or change.

Owning any historic building brings responsibilities and burdens and that is certainly true of looking after a church. We need to recognise the costs of caring for a building that serves not just the local congregation, but the local community. The church is also likely to be the oldest and most intricate building in the area. Many churches are in a vulnerable state. That is not just a fabric maintenance issue; it is also about the size and resources of congregations. Many churches have just a handful of adult worshippers, each perhaps managing a number of voluntary positions within the church and community.

English Heritage's “Inspired!” campaign earlier this year helped us to recognise what a vulnerable church looked like, why it becomes vulnerable and which areas of the country are most likely to be affected. Like any historic building, the church needs people who are dedicated to its maintenance. Let us not underestimate the importance of people’s loyalty and love for their buildings. The work of the many volunteers up and down the country is beyond value. People sometimes look to the situation in other countries, where Governments perhaps take a more direct role in funding of church buildings, but as the hon. Gentleman suggested we can tell when such buildings have lost the love and the sense of ownership that helps to keep other buildings going.

The hon. Gentleman also set out the legal responsibilities for the maintenance of church buildings; they clearly lie with national and local church bodies. However, I can say that, no matter on whom the legal responsibility lies for the upkeep, the Government do have a role to play and they have been helping. I am glad that he acknowledges that.

The listed places of worship grant scheme has given out over £50 million since 2001, and over 8,500 buildings have benefited. Earlier this year the Government showed that they had listened to the churches’ concerns, and added professional fees and repairs to some fixtures and fittings to the scope of the scheme. In relation to that problem, we continue to negotiate in Europe to be able to offer permanently reduced VAT on church repairs. The joint English Heritage and Heritage Lottery Fund scheme has paid out almost £90 million, and over 1,000 buildings have benefited. Cathedrals have received £42 million since 1991, and dedicated support is continuing. For three years the Wolfson Foundation is generously matching the English Heritage contribution. The Government, with a £3 million annual grant, remain the majority funder of the Churches Conservation Trust, which cares for the most significant of our redundant churches. I am very pleased that, following negotiations, the Heritage Lottery Fund last week committed to continue to support churches for the foreseeable future, with a £20 million fund for 2007-08 and a dedicated places of worship scheme until 2013. Let me at this point also pay tribute to the work of the county historic churches trusts for all the hard work that they have put in to providing grant funding for churches—and I should point out that the hon. Gentleman is president of the Staffordshire trust.

I welcome the launch earlier this year of the English Heritage “Inspired!” campaign, which echoed the need for a partnership approach that I had already picked up from my Church Heritage Forum late last year. The campaign recognised that the Government could not be expected to plug the whole of what is seen as a funding gap. It put forward five “solutions” that would help to manage the size of the future repair bill and build capacity among the churches to help address current and future issues. The solutions are sensible plans of action, and they would certainly make a difference. Some of them are already being put in place by English Heritage, and the results are good. Timely maintenance will, of course, prevent more costly repair in the long run. I am pleased that English Heritage has already been piloting church maintenance programmes in London and Suffolk, and from next year it will do so in Gloucester. Support officer posts within dioceses, circuits or synods would certainly make a difference. Congregations could be supported in identifying repair priorities and opportunities for alternative use, and a more strategic vision for alternative use across an area could be developed.

Some of the “Inspired!” solutions are themselves inspired by pockets of good practice in different areas of the country. Last week in another place we heard calls for better access to information on the range of help available. We are looking at whether there might be a role for Government in making sure that the guardians of all our listed religious buildings are able to tap into the expertise that is available.

I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said about English Heritage. It is, of course, central to all the Government’s historic environment policies. I should like to put on the record my appreciation of its valuable work, a sentiment that I was able to pass on personally to the commissioners only yesterday. However, although I am sympathetic on the funding issue, the hon. Gentleman will understand that I am unable at this time to commit to any increases in Government support for English Heritage as we are about to enter a comprehensive spending review period. However, those of us who are concerned about these issues ought to bear in mind the suggestion of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which questioned in its summer report whether there might also be a greater role for denominations in funding local teams to carry out some basic maintenance and survey functions among their own churches. That seems a good idea.

Part of ensuring the future of all historic churches is making sure that there are those with the appropriate skills to do the technical work in a historically faithful way. Even here, English Heritage is working with key partners, using Heritage Lottery Fund money, to develop training opportunities to ensure that the skills gaps are plugged over time.

The Lord Bishop of London, speaking last week in another place, acknowledged that

“many churches are in a very good state”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 7 December 2006; Vol. 687, c. 1342.]

I am very pleased to have been able to lay out for the hon. Gentleman how the Government have helped to bring this situation about. The Government remain committed to the future of all our historic places of worship, and to working with the denominations as they seek a sustainable future for their buildings.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Seven o’clock.