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17 May 2006 : Column 296WH—continued

Lastly, English Heritage wants to make sure that safety nets are in place for redundant places of worship. It is an inescapable fact that, although four out of five people express a religious affiliation, the number of active worshippers has fallen. That, together with demographic changes, means that some areas have
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more places of worship than the remaining community can support. Some of those buildings are conveyed to the Churches Conservation Trust. Yet, since 2001, the trust’s funds have been frozen, while, in the same period, it has been given responsibility for another 12 churches, most with big repair bills. The Friends of Friendless Churches, a small charity set up to save disused places of worship of architectural and historic interest from demolition, has already helped to save 100 churches and chapels in England and Wales. Not unreasonably, English Heritage is calling on the Government to reinflate funding of the Churches Conservation Trust as the main safety net for redundant Church of England buildings that are too architecturally and historically important to be deconsecrated.

In all, English Heritage is asking the Governmentfor the incredibly modest sum of slightly more than£26 million over the next three years. I hope that the Minister will not consider me churlish if I put that sum into context by pointing out that it is almost exactly the same amount as the Home Office squandered and threw away on the costs of the preparatory work of building an asylum centre in my constituency, where no actual work was done—not a single sod turned, not a stone erected. The sum that English Heritage is requesting is modest indeed.

In fairness, I acknowledge that the Government have recently demonstrated their concern about historic places of worship. In the 2006 Budget, the Chancellor decided to extend further the scheme that means that churches are, in effect, spared the cost of VAT on repairs. I think that everyone who is concerned about a future for historic places of worship would thank the Chancellor for extending the scheme that refunds VAT to those important buildings. However, as English Heritage research has shown, much more needs to be done to avert a crisis.

The Government do not need any further information. In a letter to me in March, the Minister said that the

Well, there is no ambiguity in English Heritage’s briefing. It is asking for a modest amount. I hope that the Ministers will shortly be able to confirm that the Government will support English Heritage’s campaign in full, but even if the Government do everything that English Heritage wants, more will still need to bedone. There will be work for congregations and for communities.

In my village of Bloxham, for example, we have set up the Friends of St. Mary’s—a group of local people who recognise the considerable importance of the church as a building of significance in the life and landscape of the village. In the past three years, ithas raised approximately £30,000 for the repair, maintenance and fabric of St. Mary’s church. As Simon Jenkins observes:

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He further observes that Bloxham, like many churches, has had things of beauty added over the centuries so that

The debate is not simply about English churches. The issue should be of concern to every Member of the House whether they represent city, suburb or countryside. English Heritage launched its “Inspired!” campaign in St. Mary Magdalene, Paddington, which is regarded as an exceptional grade I example of high Victorian gothic. Perhaps because of its proximity to the Grand Union canal, incoming waters threaten the church’s internal decoration.

Colleagues do not have to wander far from the House to find London churches that are breathtaking in their beauty. We can see the galleries at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, which are a normal feature in Georgian churches; the lavish asphodel sanctuary of St. James the Less in Pimlico; the heavy Norman piers of St. Bartholomew-the-Great; Inigo Jones’s St. Paul’s in Covent Garden;St. Augustine’s in Kilburn, which is one of the most important Victorian churches in London; All Saints, Margaret street in Marylebone, which has breathtaking panel painting of Victorian polychrome; as well as St. Alfege in Greenwich, St. Giles in Camberwell, St. Barnabas in Dulwich, St. Mary in Rotherhithe, St. Anne in Limehouse and Christchurch in Spitalfields. Every town and city has churches of significance and value. Those should not be crumbling; they should be a real asset to the community in which they are found. We have a collective duty to save our historic churches from rot and ruin.

Not surprisingly, in an article in The Guardian last Friday, Simon Jenkins observed that

is a

Everyone who cares for England and for our heritage should consider paying a small amount for the upkeep of a local church or making a donation to a national charity that cares for places of worship. Even if one is not in a position to make a monetary contribution, many hundreds of people contribute to the upkeep of churches of historic significance by helping with fundraising, mowing the grass or simply keeping the furniture dusted and the churches polished. Our churches and places of worship—whether church, mosque or synagogue—are a shared treasure, a shared heritage and a shared challenge. I am sure that the churches and communities can rise to that challenge. It would be good if the Government could lead the way.

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I conclude with a poem written by Andrew Motion, in support of English Heritage’s “Inspired!” campaign:

If, as a nation, we do not respect and preserve our past, what is our future? It is through the churches of England that we learn who we were and thus who we are and who we might become. If we lose that learning, we lose the collective memory that is the essence ofus all.

11.17 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. David Lammy): I thank the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) for securing this debate. It is not often that we hear the poet laureate quoted in full in the hallowed corridors of Westminster, and we are all grateful. This is, as the hon. Gentleman will know, an issue of great importance to me, both as the Minister with responsibility for culture and on a personal level.

Let me start by making it clear that the Government fully recognise the importance of our historic churches. Historic places of worship are an invaluable part of this nation’s heritage. They represent the finest of our historic buildings and are showpieces of the most accomplished design and workmanship. From Canterbury cathedral, to the Shah Jehan mosque in Woking, or the historic Cheltenham synagogue, they help to tell the story of this country in a way that no other group of buildings can, and they are a vital part of teaching us about who we are and where wecome from.

Beyond that, historic places of worship host an array of vital services that are often forgotten, ranging from nursery groups and lunch clubs for the elderly in our communities, to many sporting activities after school and on weekends for our young people. They can only do that thanks to the armies of volunteers attached to churches. The Church of England alone constitutes the largest voluntary organisation in the country and is present in every part of England. With that importance in mind, the Government have in place a range of policies and funding designed to support our historic places of worship.

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We ensure the protection of historic churches through the listing system. More than 45 per cent. of grade I listed buildings are churches. The heritage protection reforms that we intend to introduce in the coming years will make that protection system work more effectively for owners, managers and users of those buildings. We provide substantial funding to contribute to the upkeep of historic places of worship. Funding already in place from Government and lottery sources will total around £60 million this year.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, congregations carry the large burden of dealing with the repair bills of our parish churches for leaky roofs, broken windows, repointing and so on. That is why we created a unique scheme to tackle the problem: the listed places of worship grant scheme. A unique scheme within the heritage sector funding system, it returns the VAT paid on repairs to listed places of worship. Approximately 8,000 churches have benefited and more than£43 million has been paid out since 2001 to those churches. The scheme provides an average of £1 million a month to support those churches and it is important that that is on the record. In the Budget, the Chancellor announced that the scheme would continue until 2011 and would be extended to cover professional fees and repairs to clocks, pews, bells and organs. That extension and extensions to the linked memorials grant scheme mean that £70 million of new money has been committed.

Alongside that targeted help on VAT, another major part of the funding that is already in place is the joint repair scheme for places of worship operated by English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund. That scheme is worth around £25 million this year, and with this year’s grant has paid almost £90 million since it began. This year, the repair scheme will, for example, enable St. Mary’s, Tunstead in Norfolk to repair its magnificent 15th century arch-braced roof: £136,000 has been offered as a grant.

In addition, my Department provides £3 million a year to support the Churches Conservation Trust, which looks after the finest of the churches that are no longer needed for regular worship. The trust does an excellent job of conserving the 335 historic churches in its care and is increasingly giving consideration to how its churches can be opened up for greater use by local communities.

English Heritage gives £1 million a year for cathedral repairs. The £40 million given under the scheme since 2001 has seen a major backlog of repairs in our cathedrals all but eradicated. In addition, the Heritage Lottery Fund puts more money into churches for repairs, new works, conservation, treasures and events. Including its contribution to the joint scheme, the HLF has put £300 million into church and cathedral buildings since 1994. Approximately 9 per cent. of all the money given by the HLF goes to our historic churches and faith buildings.

Our support for historic places of worship is not only about the heritage protection system and direct funding. It is about trying to reflect the needs of those buildings in wider Government policy making. That is why my colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have been looking at the contribution that faith buildings make to community cohesion in rural areas. Funding such as the £12.5 million faith
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communities capacity funding is in place to support churches and to empower local people. All of that will help to keep those buildings alive and in use.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that, by any analysis, that is a substantial package of support and one of which the Government should be proud. Of course, there is always more to be done and the hon. Gentleman highlighted English Heritage’s “Inspired!” campaign that was launched last week. English Heritage’s research is extremely valuable and improves our knowledge of the state of repair of our national church buildings. The hon. Gentleman will have seen, for example, that the diocese of Oxford has been shown to have a large number of churches in need, although that diocese also has the most churches of all the dioceses in England. That information is enormously helpful and we would like that sort of approach to be taken with a wider range of historic buildings.

We also welcome the English Heritage pilot studies and capacity-building activities, both planned and ongoing, which will help to inform debate in the coming years and show whether funding is appropriately targeted. As English Heritage’s work makes clear, we need an effective partnership between Government, church denominations, heritage specialists and the public.

The challenge facing us is not small. Church buildings’ estimated repair need is considerable. As I said, we are helping the churches to meet that challenge through a comprehensive package of funding; but we need to move forward and we must do so together. Our assistance can only be partly about money. It is also about giving church organisations access to support networks and advice at national, regional and local levels. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that too many congregations remain isolated from that information and advice. We need to improve our knowledge of what works to keep churches in use, and consider innovative ways to keep churches as living buildings in their communities. “Inspired!” will help towards that.

It is clear that although some dioceses and parishes are able to spread good practice and move forward, to maintain their buildings and move forward, and to apply for grants from English Heritage or the Heritage Lottery Fund and move forward, others remain more
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isolated, have less capacity, and are less able to do that. We must tackle that problem together.

Tony Baldry: English Heritage has asked for£26 million. We are just about to start another spending round, and bids will be made to the Treasury. Will the Minister give the House some indication of whether his Department will press the Treasury for the money that English Heritage has requested as part of that spending round?

Mr. Lammy: As any Minister would say, one does not give funding commitments when one is entering the spending round. Now is the time for dialogue and discussion about what are the significant issues. By any analysis, the £130 million that we give English Heritage as a non-departmental public body is a large sum. The organisation has been able to find efficiency savings to put back into the front line, it has responded to a quinquennial review, and a peer review is approaching. The Government will certainly take that work forward as we enter into the spending round.

As English Heritage has pointed out, and as the Bishop of London recognised when he spoke at Synod in February, the work is not for the Government alone. The churches face a major challenge to galvanise further support. We are told that 89 per cent. of the population visited a place of worship during the past year, and we know that even non-churchgoers have an affiliation and affection for the village church. Churches need to capture and capitalise on that support.

I know that hard-pressed volunteers work miracles when it comes to fundraising, as well as undertaking vital community services. We need to consider whether church buildings can be enjoyed in new ways—as visitor attractions, educational resources, or centres of community activity—all of which open up alternative routes for funding. We need to discover whether existing community services and new alterative uses for churches can attract new sources of funding, and we must ensure that they get that funding.

We in Government will continue to listen to and work with the denominations and faith communities, as we seek to secure a sustainable future for our historic churches. I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman on that in the coming years.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended until half past Two o'clock.

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