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Session 1999-2000
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Grants to the Churches Conversation Trusts Order 2000

Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Tuesday 1 February 2000

[Mrs. Irene Adams in the Chair]

Draft Grants to the Churches Conservation Trust Order 2000

10.30 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Alan Howarth): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Grants to the Churches Conservation Trust Order 2000


The purpose of the draft order is to specify the maximum level of Government grant to the Churches Conservation Trust over a three-year period beginning on 1 April 2000. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is empowered to make such orders under section 1 of the Redundant Churches and other Religious Buildings Act 1969, subject to the approval of the Treasury and of the House. The orders constitute the statutory basis on which the Government provide financial support for the work of the trust.

The Churches Conservation Trust, formerly the Redundant Churches Fund, was established in 1969 under provisions that are embodied in the Pastoral Measure 1983. The trust's role is to care for Anglican churches of historic or architectural interest that are no longer required for regular worship and for which no suitable alternative use can be found. Its chairman and trustees are appointed by Her Majesty on the advice of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, submitted through the Prime Minister. Since April Last year, the trust has been chaired with the greatest distinction by Liz Forgan. I also pay tribute to the director, Catherine Cullis, and her colleagues. The trust is funded jointly by the Government and the Church of England.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): I am sorry to interrupt so early, but the Minister's broad definition presents problems. I was surprised to hear that the trust's responsibility is to deal with Anglican churches. I assumed that it did not cover Anglican buildings that are not part of the parochial system and that its role is to preserve the parish churches of the Church of England, which is a different set of buildings.

Mr. Howarth: The right hon. Gentleman is right, but perhaps he can enlarge on that point later.

As Simon Jenkins eloquently demonstrated in a recent book, the parish churches of the Church of England constitute one of the glories of the nation's heritage. Those buildings enshrine every phase of our history, from Saxon times right up to the present. They are of every possible size and architectural style, and display a vast range of artistic and technical accomplishment. They make a unique contribution to the appearance of the countryside and the townscape, and provide a sense of identity and continuity for local communities. Hon. Members who are interested in statistics might like to know that of the 17,000 listed ecclesiastical buildings, nearly 13,000 are churches of the Church of England, of which about 3,000 are listed at grade 1. Indeed, Anglican churches account for well over a third of all grade 1 listed buildings.

The Church of England has an excellent record in looking after its historic buildings and I pay tribute to all those individual congregations throughout the country that have contributed to that achievement. However, the fact is that, for several reasons, including mobility of population, a small proportion of Anglican churches—typically about 30 each year—cease to be required for regular worship.

There is a statutory procedure for declaring such a church redundant and settling its future. Most redundant churches are found other suitable uses—as places of worship for other denominations, community centres, concert halls, offices or even homes—but where a church is of historic, architectural or archaeological importance and no satisfactory new use can be identified, its future can be secured by vesting in the Churches Conservation Trust. The decision whether to vest a church in the trust is the responsibility of the Church Commissioners, who take expert advice from an independent body, the Advisory Board for Redundant Churches. The commissioners will not normally decide to vest until every effort has been made to identify a satisfactory new use for the building. The process ensures that the trust takes charge only of churches of appropriate quality for which there is no sensible alternative to vesting.

The trust currently has 320 churches in its care, constituting a portfolio of superlative quality. Virtually all the remarkably varied buildings are listed, many at grade 1. The trust's beautifully prepared annual report offers a broad conspectus of the estate, with examples drawn from across the country, reflecting century after century of the past millennium. The majority are in rural areas, but there are important urban ones, too. Some are in challenging inner-city locations. Were it not for the trust, many of those fine churches would face neglect, damaging alterations or even destruction. As it is, the buildings are maintained in sound condition, are accessible to the public and remain a focus of their localities.

I have visited several trust churches and can testify not only to the quality of the buildings but to the commitment and skill with which the trust cares for them. A corps of exceptional architects, stonemasons and other experts helps the trust's permanent staff, who currently number 21. I am glad of the opportunity to congratulate them on their work. I also pay tribute to the many unpaid keyholders and friends who wind clocks, open churches to visitors and mow churchyards, expecting no reward for their efforts save the pleasure that they derive from their work and the sure knowledge that others enjoy it.

The trust has undertaken 270 church repair projects during the past three years. Although it rightly sees the physical care of its churches as its principal responsibility, it is increasingly keen to find ways of making the buildings more accessible to the public, to make the experience of visiting them more enjoyable and informative, and to maximise their potential as an asset for the local community.

The trust has recently appointed a head of public affairs, who will be responsible for advancing its access programme. The task is challenging. Many of the churches contain precious or delicate objects that pose security risks. Also, many country churches are in remote locations and are difficult to reach. The trust is keen to take every opportunity to encourage more people to visit the churches and to promote their role as a focus for education and community activity. A priority is to increase the number of organised school visits and to improve the availability of educational material.

A further objective is to explore the contribution that the churches might make to urban regeneration. All Saints Church, Leicester, has been identified as a pilot regeneration project and the trust has several other churches in inner-city locations where restoration may play a key role in bringing new life back into the community.

My Department is the major financial supporter of the trust, contributing 70 per cent. to its costs; the Church Commissioners provide the remaining 30 per cent. The partnership between Church and state has been in operation for many years, and underpins the trust's work in preserving that outstanding component of our national heritage. English Heritage is sometimes able to provide funds to assist with major repairs to individual redundant churches—especially those on its buildings at risk register—that are due to be vested in the trust. Two trust churches have benefited from heritage lottery fund awards and further funding bids to the HLF are expected soon.

In the three financial years to 31 March 2000, financial provision for the trust has totalled £10.6 million, of which £7.44 million came from the Department and £3.2 million from the Church Commissioners. The order provides for Government grants over the next three financial years of up to £8.829 million. That is an aggregate of the public spending review figures for that period, which have already been made public and notified to the trust for planning purposes. The actual level of grant allocated continues to be determined in accordance with departmental spending review procedures within the limits of the maximum figure specified for the period. The commissioners' maximum contribution for the three years has been set at £3.783 million.

We propose that the trust's maximum overall budget over the period should be £12.6 million, as against £10.6 million for the period 1997 to 2000. The Government are confident that such funding will enable the trust to keep its existing churches in sound repair, and permit the selective vesting of additional churches and the enhancement of the new access and education programme to which I referred. The trust has set itself challenging targets for the years ahead, which are enshrined in a new funding agreement signed last year. The agreement explicitly states the outputs and performance that it must deliver, reflecting targets set in the Department's public service agreement.

The draft order represents the Government's continuing commitment to the care of an outstanding part of our heritage. It will help to secure the long-term preservation of some of our loveliest and historically most significant churches, opening them up to a wider audience. It will ensure that buildings that have stood at the heart of their local community for hundreds of years will be properly cared for, and that they remain available for our enjoyment and that of those who come after us. I commend it to the Committee.

10.41 am

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk): I thank the Minister for explaining the draft order so comprehensively. It is not controversial and we are happy to support it. I should welcome to the Committee my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke). He is distinguished both as a former Secretary of State and as a former chairman of the Churches Conservation Trust.

England's redundant churches are a considerable problem, and especially those of historical, architectural or archaeological importance. As the Minister noted, and as has recently been brought to light by Simon Jenkins in his book, we have an extraordinarily rich legacy in this country, especially in my home county of Suffolk, but church attendance is declining, areas change, populations move and the use of churches inevitably alters.

As we have heard, the draft order sets a rate for the state's contribution over the three years from 1 April 2000 to 31 March 2003. I welcome the trust seeking to make redundant churches part of communities and community life so that they can be used for appropriate purposes. That has traditionally been their role. They may be redundant as churches, but I welcome the development. The trust appoints an architect for newly redundant churches and assumes a responsibility for their structural soundness, cleanliness and tidiness, and for additional elements, including furnishings and fabrics where possible. I welcome that, too.

How did the funds raised from non-state sources over the past three years compare with those raised in previous periods? How much has the state contribution changed? I would be grateful for clarification. What assessment has been made of the funds raised for redundant churches by local authorities, the heritage lottery fund, gift service collections, and other state sources? Was the decision to raise the state contribution to the trust made because of disappointing funding from such sources? I fully accept that the state has a responsibility. I would be happy for the Minister to write to me with observations if he wants.

The procedure for declaring a church redundant appears to be clearly laid out by the trust, properly allowing for representations from the public. However, are many representations typically received from the public in practice? Does the Minister believe that the consultation process could be improved in any way? In considering those matters, we return to community involvement, which is very important.

Our ecclesiastical heritage is precious. We all know about the costs of maintaining our churches, and I welcome the order as it will enable the preservation of at least some redundant churches that are of special interest. In agreeing with the Minister's commendation of the order, I pay tribute to the Churches Conservation Trust and to the excellent work of its chairman and staff. The Opposition are happy to support the order.

10.45 am


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