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Church Estate (Water Services)

Volume 485: debated on Thursday 11 December 2008

4. What assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the effects of changes to charges for water services on the Church's estate; and if he will make a statement. (242325)

It is estimated that the new annual charge for surface water drainage will cost Church of England churches and cathedrals around £5 million or more. Churches using the public sewers will also be liable for highways drainage contributions at an estimated cost of around £10 million per annum.

By way of a statement, we are deeply concerned about the impact of these charges on the local work of the Church and other faith groups.

Do we not have enough difficulty finding funds to run and maintain our churches without the water companies adding to the burden by adding to their profits? Does my hon. Friend intend to seek meetings with Government and others to rectify the situation?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Representations have been and continue to be made to the Government on that issue. We have looked at it carefully and are not convinced that it is all a matter of water company profits. The companies maintain that the change will be cost neutral as it redistributes charges falling on different categories of non-household customers. That includes businesses, churches, charities and community bodies. However, it is having a considerable effect on our churches.

I have been working on this problem with the diocese of Salisbury, and it has been reported to me that Wessex Water believes that the changes to the charging regime would come into operation only on change of ownership of the property involved. On the face of it, that would seem to make it unlikely that a church would be affected, but what would be the impact of a change from freehold to common tenure? I do not expect the hon. Gentleman to know the answer to that question today, but will he please let us know?

I am relieved that the hon. Gentleman does not expect me to answer that off the top of my head, and I would not wish to do so. It is a matter worthy of study, and I shall give him a specific response, and place a copy in the Library.

Is it not absolutely outrageous that the water companies charge churches and other similar bodies for the disposal of surface water? Rain comes from heaven: it does not cost the water companies anything yet they charge us for it. Why the devil are the Government allowing them to charge churches for the disposal of surface water? It is outrageous.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not wish to answer his own question. I am happy to do that, but he knows that mercy is like the rain, gentle from heaven above. Unfortunately, the water company charges are not from heaven, but are induced and calculated. I support what he says, and agree that this is a Church-wide issue: a Teesside clergyman at St. Luke’s, North Thornaby has reported to me that his church has experienced a rise in its water charge of 1,300 per cent. His church warden created a petition on the No. 10 website, and so far it has attracted 37,000 signatories. Given the hon. Gentleman’s views, perhaps that total will now rise to 37,001.