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So what are the key messages I should like the Minister to take from this debate? First, the credit crunch has caused many large-scale regeneration projects to stall. I know that because I am involved in one of them. However, often smaller-scale local developments involving church buildings and the clusters of buildings around them are being missed. Developments such as this are less risky and can provide a real opportunity to lift the local quality of an area. But they can happen only if everyone huddles together and pools their budgets.

To grasp these kinds of local opportunities we require focused leadership in the public sector and the churches. These projects do not happen by chance. We

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also need practical politicians experienced in the workings of the world. Church-based developments can provide them with an opportunity to redefine the role of the politician as the practical person and the bringer of partners to the table. This is where our politics will be renewed; not here in Westminster.

New Labour says that it believes in community, but this Government have often produced lots of strategies, policies, committees and legislation rather than getting involved in the practical realities of a local neighbourhood. I see little evidence that any future Government have woken up to this opportunity either. Politicians need to be grounded in real projects; the micro and the macro are connected, as any business person knows. I seek to present to the Minister today an opportunity that can enable us to use limited public funds more efficiently, to bring life to underused assets and to create social cohesion and a spirit of enterprise in some of our most vulnerable communities.

Finally, I encourage the Minister to take a closer look at these local opportunities to use public money more effectively. I ask Her Majesty's Opposition whether it is not developments such as this that provide a practical opportunity in communities to explore what statements about a post-bureaucratic world might actually mean in practice.

I thank the Minister for taking part in this debate and the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, for a helpful discussion of this subject, and I look forward to hearing what they both have to say.

6.41 pm

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, I venture into this field as someone who has been a Methodist superintendent minister for more years than I care to remember. I am still an active supernumerary minister on the local Methodist circuit, and I welcome the opportunity to think things through which the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, has given me this evening.

There are many, many answers to the question because buildings, areas and congregations differ a great deal. Many church buildings, as we have already heard, are already in community use in one way or another. Three years ago, I went to close one old Methodist chapel in the village of Glan Conwy and found 16 people there. They did not want it closed because on Monday it was the place for the playgroup, as it was on Thursday. The local choir met there on Tuesday, and Wednesday night was bingo night. I do not think that John Wesley would have approved, but we just have to accept that this all helped in the community.

Other things happen in our churches: arts classes, language centres, play schools, elderly citizens' meeting places, youth clubs and police help points. I do not often look on the dark side-I may be known as a bit of an optimist-but I can see a dark side with which I cannot come to terms. We hear that there are many opportunities in town centres, but rural areas are different. Who wants a chapel that is in a field and literally miles from anywhere? There is no real opportunity to use such a chapel for a community or government purpose.

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I know that English Heritage, and Cadw in Wales, are aware of the various situations and how the listing of buildings can create difficulties-we have already heard about some of them-in planning, in the change of use, in the sale of property, in maintenance costs and in costs to make over a building. The development of church buildings can sometimes be restricted because of listing regulations.

The local Methodist church in the Conwy Valley village of Penmachno was listed about three years before it was decided to close it. It had been a thriving church in a quarrying, rural area, but as the quarries had closed and farm labourers were few there was nothing else to do except close it. Yet it was a listed building and after all these years is still not adapted for any other use, because they are fighting planning and listing regulations-immense problems for purchasers who would want to make it into a home. In many rural areas, I honestly do not see either central or local government having any realistic alternative for the use of church buildings. Populations are few and widely scattered. They commute to work, if there is any and if they are of an age to work-after all, we have a very ageing population in our villages. The community that was not able to support a chapel is also the community that faces a lack of vision. I do not have a vision of what we could realistically use those buildings for.

We know about falling numbers at services. There are few to keep a local church or chapel going. Possibly, it is a denomination that is unable to provide pastoral care or ministerial oversight. In another chapel that I am thinking of, there is one officer left-and that officer is of a good age and is not able to take responsibility for that building. He will, possibly, open the church door once a month, but they cannot cope; even with ministerial oversight, there are not the people there to shoulder the burdens and responsibilities.

I do not know whether you have been phoned up at two or three o'clock in the morning to hear, "Ah, Mr Roberts, the slates have been blown off the roof of the chapel". That would be because they have landed in somebody else's back garden. What do you do? I must say that I did not go to attend to it in those dark hours. There is nobody there to take responsibility, but the tiny congregation sometimes does not want to close the chapel. Perhaps they were christened or married there; they have spent all of their lives there, and it will break their hearts but there is no alternative.

I would like to see churches of all denominations working together-and they are, much more than in the past-to solve some of those questions. It has happened; we know that some church buildings are used by two or three different denominations. Yet then, instead of that one individual having to face the burden, we need some outside advice. I do not know whether we could work together-it must be on an ecumenical basis-because they struggle with, "How can we afford to repair the roof? How can we even afford the insurance premium?". I do not know whether some other churches are like my own Methodist church; some communities with a congregation of six have an insurance premium on their chapel of £1,200 a year. They cannot possibly meet that sort of demand, so I suggest that the Government could somehow lead on this. We want expert guidance, helping sometimes

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to even take the burden of the decision to close from the shoulders of the local congregation. The painful decisions can be shared, but someone other than me must look at whether there is a way to tackle insurance premiums.

A younger membership with more energy and vitality might be able to maintain buildings and have the vision to adapt demand to the 21st century. I know that it happens in some places. Only last week, I was in one local church converted from a warehouse where it was standing room only. That was wonderful, but the previous Sunday, a week yesterday, I gave the closing service in a little village chapel in a part of Llandudno called Penrhynside. When I became a minister there, many years ago, there were six places of worship. One by one, they have closed-I am going to try to do something about this-and the last service in the village was held a week yesterday. It was very sad, but the people keeping it going were all over 80 years of age, and there was a limit to what they were able to do. So there is a different pattern. People, not buildings, make churches. But if the building is in a state of disrepair or needs special attention, we have to meet that need. Of the six chapels in the little village, one has become the village hall. Three chapels have become houses. The one that I closed the other day has not yet decided what it will do-it will probably be put on the open market-and one has been demolished. You need only one village hall, not five or six. They cannot all be adapted. Perhaps local councils or the Welsh Assembly Government can give some leadership. But, in many instances, I do not think that there is any realistic proposal that could save our buildings.

6.50 pm

The Lord Bishop of Leicester: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, for bringing this issue to our attention. It must be 35 years since, as a youngish curate in east London, I found myself in a post-war restored Victorian church that seated 1,100 people. On my first Sunday morning, I counted 48 people in the congregation and more than 1,000 empty seats. We spent the next five years working hard on completely rebuilding that church and redeveloping the site. Now, there is a multi-purpose centre with provision for sheltered accommodation for the elderly, a general practitioner facility, language teaching for Bengali women and counselling rooms, as well as a place of worship.

That set me out on a path which I have sought to follow in my ministry over the years since. In the 1980s, I found myself as the parish priest in Canvey Island. There was a transplanted east London population of 40,000 people, many of whom were young families detached from their extended family networks in London and often with very severe family pressures and difficulties. We adapted the church buildings, in partnership with Essex County Council social services department and the Children's Society, into a family centre which provided all kinds of provision for needy, young families. That provision has endured for 25 years.

The issue which the noble Lord has brought to our attention is very close to our hearts. For most of its history, the Church of England has had a vision for its church buildings as the centres of community life.

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Medieval church buildings were designed to be places of education, social care and community cohesion. Part of our mission as churches is to work among and for the benefit of the whole local community, and not just for the benefit of those who attend. The two biggest assets which the churches bring to this task are our buildings and volunteers. As has been mentioned, the Church of England has 16,200 parish churches across the country. In many places, they are not only the oldest public space, but the only remaining public space once the shop, post office, school, pub and so on have disappeared.

The Church of England, for which I speak, is especially well placed to serve as a potential service delivery point as it has a presence in every community. Its unique legal status means that its churches provide a service to all who live within the parish-whether people want to get married or to use its facilities for funerals or in other ways. My colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, in his opening presentation to the recent Church of England synod debate on the potential of church buildings, said:

"We are the custodians of a countrywide infrastructure which would take billions"-

of pounds-

There is much research available to show that churches, as well as other faith groups, have a special contribution to make. They are deeply rooted in community life, able to reach out to the most vulnerable groups and are well placed to provide high-quality local public services. In recent years, many surveys have been carried out-funded by regional development agencies, government offices and local authorities-to map the contribution of faith groups in their local communities.

One such survey has been done in my home city of Leicester and demonstrates that more than 400 different community groups, sponsored by the various faith communities in a highly ethnically diverse city, are reaching the most hard-to-reach communities across the city. The Church of England is already playing its part, and churches are increasingly becoming vital partners in building strong communities. Examples have come to the Cathedral and Church Buildings Division of the Church of England of the many varied and different ways that church buildings are being used by and for the community. They include churches as locations for major civic events; as locations for social and community activities, including support for the elderly, the homeless, asylum seekers and so on; and as places of education, attracting school visits, UK online centres, Sure Start centres, nurseries, adult education centres, classrooms, after-school clubs, libraries, heritage centres and conference centres. These are all examples of provision already in place. Post offices, doctors' and dentists' surgeries, health centres, gymnasia, community shops, police stations, cafes and farmers' markets have already been mentioned.

In my own diocese of Leicester, the St Philip's Centre is at the forefront of resourcing the church and public and private sector organisations, including the police, teachers and health workers, in faith literacy, a vital skill in public service today. It is based in an

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inner-city church in a largely Muslim neighbourhood. In the Church of Christ the King in Beaumont Leys, a white outer estate, the church is used extensively by groups supporting large numbers of transient asylum seekers and other destitute people. Leicester Cathedral plays host to the Welcome Project, which assists asylum seekers, and is presently planning for a major new diocesan centre reaching out to those not in employment, education or training. All these activities are taking place in living churches that are still parish churches, part of the parochial church system and still first and foremost places of worship.

The 2005 parochial returns register found that 44 per cent of churches now have lavatories and 37 per cent have kitchen facilities. Four years on, the figures are likely to be considerably higher. Such amenities enable churches to host a wide range of community events. The Pastoral (Amendment) Measure 2006, which came into force in January 2007, allows the lease of part of a consecrated church building, provided the church continues primarily to be used as a place of worship. This enables longer-term occupancy by outside groups and allows them to meet additional funding conditions. This is a role that we want to encourage national, regional and local authorities and other bodies to recognise, and it is a role that we are encouraging our churches to welcome, for example, by encouraging parishes fully to engage with the development of their local community plan and dioceses to participate in local strategic partnerships, local area agreements and local action groups. There is an increasing number of area or regional Christian and multi-faith groupings, as well as individuals at diocesan level, already actively participating in LSPs and other local, community and voluntary sector networks and alliances. This is beginning to create new partnerships and give us increased access to a more level playing field in terms of access to existing and new areas of funding. This in turn has strengthened the church's capacity to develop the use of its buildings for worship and mission to the wider community.

However, we cannot continue to sustain all this activity or reach the full potential of church buildings as community resources without increased support from various partners, which must include government at all levels. That is why this debate is so important. The 2004 report, Building Faith in our Future, set out to celebrate church buildings and the contribution they make to their local communities. It called upon government and the community and voluntary sector to work with us in partnership. The report sets out many ways in which those partnerships can be built.

In January this year, St Peter's Church, Peterchurch, in the diocese of Hereford completed a project to refurbish the interior of this grade 1 church. Obviously, it will not be possible for every church to be so adapted nor, due to location or other factors, will it be possible to find such important extended uses but, where they arise, it is vital that we pursue the possibilities. By using these buildings to their full potential, they can become a real resource for their local communities. They can build social capital, serve community building and be a vital resource to the people of England. They are precious to the whole community and an asset beyond price that deserves all our interest and investment.

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7 pm

Lord Tope: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, for initiating this debate and raising a very interesting and important subject. It has certainly stimulated in me considerable thought. Prompted by the debate, I have looked at and learnt more about the organisation of which he is part-One Church, 100 Uses-and was taken with the excellent and innovative work it is doing and the many excellent projects which he did not have time to develop. In this debate, I would have been more interested to hear of some of the problems to which he alluded but also did not have time to expand on. Here, we need to address problems and find solutions rather than simply congratulate ourselves on a number of excellent projects, wonderful though that is.

I reread the 2008 report referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, entitled Churches and Faith Buildings: Realising the Potential. I hope that the Minister will be able to bring us more up to date on some of the government actions which were recommended in that government report. The report was primarily about enabling faith groups, and the third sector in general, to learn about and have better access to funding. It is a hugely important subject, which I do not diminish at all, but it was rather less full on how to get access to the levers of power, particularly at local level.

Here I declare my interest, not as one with diminishing congregations but as a London borough councillor for 36 years-I still am a London borough councillor. I have rather different experience from my noble friend Lord Roberts. In London, we do not have too many chapels in the middle of fields but we have an increasing number of underused church buildings of all denominations where there is very real potential. The noble Lord, Lord Mawson, referred to considerably underused property assets. They are more than property assets: I think we all recognise that churches are very much more than simply buildings and often are very historic buildings. They are, always have been and always should be the centre of a local community. The initiative to put churches at the centre of communities more than perhaps they have been in recent years is greatly to be welcomed.

We in local government know that there are bad times ahead and that, whoever wins the general election, we shall be facing a very severe financial time over the next few years, probably the like of which I have not known in my 36 years. There have been some good times and a few bad times, such as when Anthony Crosland told me, within a year of my being elected, that the party was over, and it has been like that ever since. We are in for some difficult times which will require all of us in local government to think outside the box and to be very much more innovative in our approach to how we provide services for our communities. It is of particular interest to me that we should be much more innovative in the way in which we engage with our communities. In a period of financial cutbacks it will be especially difficult but important to engage with the communities, otherwise the mismatch and the disengagement will be all the more severe.

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One point that perhaps strays a little from buildings and is much more about the churches is how local government engages with faith groups and churches and vice versa. In my view, faith groups should always be represented effectively in local strategic partnerships-I think the Minister would agree that that is the case on good LSPs. I stress the word "effectively"; they should be there not simply because it is good to have them listed among the membership but because they can play an effective role as partners. Inevitably, there is always a mismatch between the statutory partners with all their resources, even in hard times, and any community or voluntary group that simply does not have that infrastructure readily available to it.

Nevertheless, a good partnership will work as a good partnership. That will inevitably lead to more innovative thinking, new and different ways of providing services for and with the local community, and to returning church buildings very much to the sort of use for which they were originally intended, as the noble Lord has said-not just in their important role as a centre of worship but in the equally important role as a centre of the community.

I have two particular interests in the way in which some of this might happen. I have the responsibility in my local authority for the public library service, which is a great interest of mine. Indeed, I ought to declare an interest as vice-chair of the All-Party Group on Libraries, Literacy and Information Management. At all times, but particularly at financial times, the library service, particularly branch libraries, come under enormous pressure. There is a great fear that they will be in the forefront of financial cuts, and sometimes it is right and appropriate that branch libraries should close simply because they are in the wrong place. I would prefer to say that they should be relocated rather than closed.

I wonder whether in some cases relocation to an underused church building could be very appropriate for a branch library. I do not have time to wax eloquent-if I could-on libraries, but they are very much more than just places for books and the use of the internet, important though those core businesses are. Several branch libraries in my own borough are self-service-the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, referred to self-service libraries-enabling them to stay open for much longer.

I shall give two brief examples. In the first couple of months of this year libraries in my borough have been issuing freedom passes in London to anyone over 60 who wishes to renew their freedom pass. My borough is one of the few that are using public central and branch libraries to do this, and the libraries have been packed with people who have not been to a library since they were children and who note that libraries have changed just a little in the past 50 or 60 years. Many of them are going on to use libraries. That may be an innovative use for some underused church buildings. At the other end of the age scale, we use our library every Friday evening for what would otherwise be called a youth centre. This Friday is live music and open mic night for young performers, which is rather different from the traditional image of the "shh" public library.

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The other issue to which I want to allude is very much a London issue and on a rather larger scale. Over the next seven years, London education authorities will have to find an additional 50,000 primary school places. That is a huge problem. Normally we talk about a funding problem-the Minister may be pleased to know that I will not allude to that particularly-but this is also a space problem. In many schools, there is the physical problem of where to put additional classes, even if you can afford them. If you add to that my party's aspiration for smaller class sizes, it is even more of an issue. It is clearly not possible or appropriate for many church buildings to accommodate primary school classes, but it must be possible for a number of church buildings to do so provided that the buildings are properly built and designed for use as a classroom and are properly equipped. Any problems can be overcome, and probably more cheaply, than by trying to build new classrooms.

Those are two brief examples. We know that we are in hard times and that local government will need to be a lot more creative and innovative in its thinking over the coming years, and I hope very much that it will start to work much more closely with the churches, particularly in respect of the huge underused property asset to which the noble Lord referred.

7.10 pm

Earl Cathcart: I was beginning to feel inadequate as this debate unfolded. The first two speakers were ministers and the third a Bishop, so it was of huge comfort when the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said that he was a councillor. I am not a minister and do not think that the Minister is a minister, as his training is as an accountant. So I make that the church three and the laymen three.

I thank and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, not only on introducing this debate, but for the excellent work that he has already done on co-location of public services and utilising underused churches. His portfolio is truly outstanding, and I hope that we can develop and expand his project across the UK. There are thought to be 46,500 churches, chapels and meeting houses in the United Kingdom, of which 37,000 are in England alone, so the scope for co-location of public services is enormous.

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