Session 2010-11
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General Committee Debates
Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Grants to the Churches Conservation Trust Order 2011

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Mr Philip Hollobone 

Beith, Sir Alan (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD) 

Blackman, Bob (Harrow East) (Con) 

Brake, Tom (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD) 

Campbell, Mr Gregory (East Londonderry) (DUP) 

Carswell, Mr Douglas (Clacton) (Con) 

Chapman, Mrs Jenny (Darlington) (Lab) 

De Piero, Gloria (Ashfield) (Lab) 

Ellis, Michael (Northampton North) (Con) 

Goggins, Paul (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab) 

Hoey, Kate (Vauxhall) (Lab) 

Mitchell, Austin (Great Grimsby) (Lab) 

Offord, Mr Matthew (Hendon) (Con) 

Penrose, John (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport)  

Robinson, Mr Geoffrey (Coventry North West) (Lab) 

Watkinson, Angela (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)  

Whittaker, Craig (Calder Valley) (Con) 

Wilson, Phil (Sedgefield) (Lab) 

Wilson, Mr Rob (Reading East) (Con) 

Glenn McKee, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

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First Delegated Legislation Committee 

7 March 2011  

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair] 

Draft Grants to the Churches Conservation Trust Order 2011 

4.30 pm 

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (John Penrose):  I beg to move, 

That the Committee has considered the Draft Grants to the Churches Conservation Trust Order 2011. 

As ever, it is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I do not plan to detain the Committee long with my opening remarks, although obviously I shall endeavour to respond to any questions or comments made during the debate. For anyone who does not have an example of a church in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust in their constituency—I am lucky enough to have two in Weston-super-Mare—I shall summarise briefly what the order is about. 

The Churches Conservation Trust was originally formed in 1969 and, until 1994, was known as the Redundant Churches Fund, which is a fairly self-explanatory name. Its purpose has not really changed since then. It exists to care for, look after and, with luck, create new and modern uses for important churches that are no longer in regular use for worship. 

About 25 churches a year are removed from regular use for worship, and the Church is pretty good at finding modern uses for many of them—anything from office use and, in some cases, redevelopment as housing and flats to all sorts of other uses. However, a steady trickle of churches—no more than five a year—are not commercially viable, or the various options are too difficult in their case, so they tend to find their way to the Churches Conservation Trust, whose basic purpose is to ensure that they are properly looked after, for their heritage value as much as anything else. 

Over the years, the precise proportion of funding has changed but at the moment, it is roughly 70% from the state—the Government—and 30% from the Church. The Churches Conservation Trust is increasingly trying to put that money to community-based use because it has discovered that it is not enough to make sure that the roof does not leak and that the stonework is adequately cared for; it is far better for a building to have some kind of use, even if it is not regular worship. If the trust can find a community use, and they come in a wide variety of types, as the Committee can imagine, that is all the better. 

Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab):  The Minister and the Committee must pardon my ecclesiastical ignorance, but when the hon. Gentleman refers to “the Church”, is he referring only to the Church of England or does the term include Methodist churches, which seem to be becoming redundant faster than Church of England

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churches? Can he give an illustration of the uses to which redundant churches are put? All the banks I know seem to be turning into coffee bars or restaurants, so what is happening to the churches? 

John Penrose:  I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman that when I speak about the Church, I am referring to the Church of England. There is a much smaller number of places of worship for other Christian denominations and, by and large, they are dealt with by the Historic Chapels Trust. We are lucky because my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed is a member of the Committee and he is chairman of the trust. I think that he is planning to give us a few words about what the trust gets up to in parallel with the Churches Conservation Trust. The missions of the two organisations are similar; they compare things and ideas flow between the two. 

The Churches Conservation Trust considers all sorts of community use; for example, one church is used as a circus training school. I am not sure whether that building is dealt with by the trust, but the example gives the hon. Member for Great Grimsby an idea of the different uses to which churches, in general, can be put. More commonly, they can be turned into community centres with the sort of activities that he would find going on in local village halls or community halls in his constituency. 

I have summarised what the Churches Conservation Trust does, why it exists and how long it has been going. At present, it cares for about 340 properties. The purpose of the order is purely to organise the funding of the Churches Conservation Trust for the period of the comprehensive spending review. With that, I will sit down and I hope to hear contributions from other members of the Committee. 

4.35 pm 

Gloria De Piero (Ashfield) (Lab):  It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. 

I have three questions. How does the maximum grant of £11,192,000 compare in real terms to Government grants in previous spending periods? What practical effects does the Minister envisage that the reduction will have, particularly on the community support he talked about? Finally, how will the effects of any reduction be monitored by his Department? 

4.36 pm 

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD):  I am glad to have the opportunity to welcome the order. It involves a cut in funding to the Churches Conservation Trust, but a continuation of it. The trust is an extremely valuable organisation that looks after some wonderful buildings and makes them accessible to future generations. 

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby asked about churches of other denominations. Some years ago, an alternative body was founded to try to deal with them in the form of the Historic Chapels Trust, of which I am the chairman. That is an interest—unremunerated—but a very deep one. We are not funded on the same basis as the funding set out in the order, which comes directly from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and is approved by Parliament. About a third of our funding is from English Heritage, a third from the lottery and a third from private fundraising. 

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Both organisations have to look for ways that buildings the Churches no longer look after can be maintained for wider community purposes. That is the basis on which the Historic Chapels Trust has operated since its beginning, and the same approach is increasingly followed by the Churches Conservation Trust, which has moved from its original approach of simply keeping a church available and having the key somewhere, to realising that it should be active in promoting other uses. Like the Churches Conservation Trust, the Historic Chapels Trust has a wide portfolio, but a much smaller one. The Churches Conservation Trust has nearly 350 buildings; to date, we have 20. 

Austin Mitchell:  For a minute, I thought that the right hon. Gentleman might have risen to present the order as another instance of the influence of the Liberal Democrats on the Government, in persuading them to cough up money, but I have a serious question. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that the Methodist Church has been discriminated against? Why should a body that is so strongly opposed to gambling be forced to draw its funds from the lottery rather than from the Government, as the Church of England does? 

Sir Alan Beith:  I draw two important facts to the hon. Gentleman’s attention. One is that since the lottery began, English Heritage has maintained an alternative scheme under which Churches opposed to using lottery funding can apply directly to English Heritage. The buildings looked after by the Historic Chapels Trust are no longer in the possession of the Churches. We try to have regard to the concerns that the founders of those Churches may have had about what is done on the premises, but by definition the premises are no longer theirs. 

The other crucial difference is that the order benefits from the fact that the Church of England is a significant contributor to the funding of the Churches Conservation Trust. Other denominations were not in a position to provide that kind of funding, so the Historic Chapels Trust draws little of its funding from the denominations that formerly owned our churches. In a few cases, endowment money has come with a building, but it is a relatively small proportion. 

Our approach, which is increasingly shared by the Churches Conservation Trust, is to preserve the buildings for what they are, in their quality, but to encourage a much wider range of people to use them. Certainly our approach, and I think that of the Churches Conservation Trust too, is not to discourage their occasional use for worship. Indeed, many of the buildings cannot be properly understood unless worship is seen taking place in them, whether a Catholic shrine or a vast chapel such as Bethesda chapel in Stoke-on-Trent, which one could understand only if one saw it packed with people singing hymns or listening to a sermon. I hope that will be possible again, once we finish phase 2 of spending on that project, on which we have already spent more than £1 million. 

I conclude by pointing out that there is a common interest between the Churches Conservation Trust, the Historic Chapels Trust and, indeed, Friends of Friendless Churches, a voluntary body working in the same field: we want to discourage redundancy. We want congregations to realise that some of the things that our organisations do to make their buildings more accessible could be

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done while they are still used by their denominations. The particular skills or the confidence to embark on such schemes may often be lacking, so I very much welcome English Heritage’s scheme to try to assist and enable congregations to realise what they could do with their building. The network of offices that English Heritage has created is one of its most valuable initiatives. If we do not do such things, we will have churches becoming redundant and becoming the responsibility of the Churches Conservation Trust, HCT or Friends of Friendless Churches, when they could have been kept in active denominational use. 

In many cases when a church or a chapel has been closed, a few years later local communities begin to wish that it had not happened and that they had not lost the Church’s interest in their locality, which can readily be combined with the sort of things that the trusts now do to encourage wider community use. I very much welcome the order. 

4.41 pm 

John Penrose:  I shall endeavour to respond to those points, but may I start by saying that I completely agree with and acknowledge the importance of the trends that my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed has laid out? For churches currently in use, and those that are out of use and run by the Historic Chapels Trust and the Churches Conservation Trust, it is noticeable that there is a move towards re-establishing churches as the local community’s front room and allowing them to be used in a way that integrates worship and a variety of other community uses. That can only be to the good. I am sure every member of the Committee would applaud that. 

I was asked three specific questions by the hon. Member for Ashfield, which I will address point by point. She asked about the percentage change to the funding compared with previous years. There will be a 20% reduction over the four-year period of the comprehensive spending review. That is a 20% reduction on like-for-like constant pound value, before the effects of inflation, compared with last year. Obviously, there will be the effect of inflation within that as well. I think the hon. Lady will know about the 20% change, because details were published in the comprehensive spending review. 

The reductions mean that everybody has had to tighten their belts, and the Churches Conservation Trust is no different. It is very determined and has faced things in an extremely constructive and effective way. It is determined to try to ensure that it minimises as far as possible the impact of any changes on its front-line service provision. The trust has a director and the full-time equivalent of about 45 staff, including four regional managers and some other regionally based development and conservation staff. It also has 1,200 volunteers who act as key holders and assist in making the churches accessible and welcoming. Obviously, the 1,200 volunteers will not be affected by the cuts, although I know that the trust is trying to minimise the effect on the management of and liaison with volunteers. That is clearly a high priority. 

The Churches Conservation Trust is also trying to increase its income generation. We have already spoken about community activities, some of which create an

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income, and the trust is trying to increase them and its fundraising activities in an effort to reduce the impact of the reduction in funds. It has had to make some adjustments to its management burdens and overheads; for example, it will reduce the number of regions that it currently services from four to three. I am sure all members of the Committee would applaud that as the least damaging and most effective way to respond to the alterations. 

The hon. Member for Ashfield asked about governance and monitoring, and how we can be sure that public money is being spent effectively. I am sure she will appreciate that the Church also wants to make sure that its part of the contribution is spent effectively. The Churches Conservation Trust has an independent board. The chairman is Loyd Grossman, of whom I am sure she will be aware. The board has the usual good governance arrangements in place. Clearly, it will also try to ensure that both the Church and the Government are kept informed and reported to, but the first line of defence for good governance is the board, which is well versed and professional, and which—I hope everyone will agree—holds the interests of the CCT and everyone else front and centre. 

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD):  I thank the Minister for giving way just before he completes his peroration. I would like clarification on one point. If a church has been taken over by the Churches Conservation Trust as he has described, can it subsequently be used as

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a place of worship? Could the Church that had vacated the building go back once it has been resurrected as a strong community facility? 

John Penrose:  I am delighted to say that the answer is yes; in fact, that is already happening. A large proportion of CCT churches are used for occasional services, for example on a particular saint’s day. I think that a proportion of them may have been deconsecrated, but many, if not all, are still occasionally used or are available for use, so that is not lost. That goes back to the remark made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, who said that dual use is increasing. There is not necessarily a bar to making something available both for community use and for worship. 

I hope that I have answered everyone’s questions and convinced the Committee that the CCT is a thoroughly good thing. It has been around for a while, looking after an important part of the nation’s heritage and ecclesiastical history. We should all be the poorer without the trust; it is doing important and good work. It is not just the permanent employees and the governance board who are doing good work; the 1,200 volunteers are also involved in the impact of churches on their local communities. We owe them all a great debt of gratitude and a huge vote of thanks. I hope that we will therefore support the motion. 

Question put and agreed to.  

4.47 pm 

Committee rose.