National Churches Trust: A sustainable future for the UK’s church buildings

Posted On: 
23rd April 2018

Working together, Government, the church, heritage bodies and charities such as the National Churches Trust, can ensure that churches play a vital role in the life and well-being of people for many years to come.

The plain fact is that keeping church buildings in good repair requires significant levels of funding, says Luke March, Chairman, National Churches Trust.
Credit: 
NCT

In our 42,000 parish churches, chapels and meeting houses, the UK has a tremendous national asset. It’s an asset that we should protect not just for today, but also for future generations.

Churches, chapels and meeting houses are some of our nation’s most historically and architecturally important buildings.

In England, over 45% of all Grade 1 listed buildings are churches and there are also large numbers of listed churches and chapels in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Community hubs

As well as being one of the most important parts of our heritage, churches, chapels and meeting houses play a vital role in providing a space where community activities can take place.

Our research has shown that nearly 90% of churches are used for community purposes such as playgroups, senior citizen lunch clubs, concerts and exhibitions. Some even host post offices, shops and GP clinics.

Many church buildings are of course also used as polling stations, and also host MPs surgeries.

During moments of local and national emergency, such as the Grenfell Tower fire or last year’s floods, they become a focal point for help and shelter.

And each week for many hundreds of thousands of people, churches remain important as places of worship or just as somewhere to spend a few minutes in quiet reflection.

I’m pleased to say that the public agree that church buildings are important.

More than four in five Britons (83%) say that the UK’s churches, chapels and meeting houses are an important part of the UK’s heritage and history, according to the findings of the most recent opinion poll on church heritage by Com Res, published in 2017.

Funding

The National Churches Trust is the UK charity that supports church buildings of all denominations. I’m grateful that this week, on Tuesday 24 April, Catherine West MP is hosting a meeting at the House of Commons when we will have an opportunity to talk to MPs about some of issues facing the UK’s church buildings today.

One of these is how best to ensure that they can remain in good repair, open and at the service of local communities.

The plain fact is that keeping church buildings in good repair requires significant levels of funding.  Finding that money is a long and time consuming task which is usually done by volunteers with no professional fund raising experience.

The good news is that some of the money required comes from local people.  It is estimated by the Church of England that each year over £115 million is raised and spent by communities on repairs to their parish church buildings. But as congregations decline in some churches, this level of support cannot be guaranteed.

Charities such as the National Churches Trust are another significant source of funding.  Since 2007, we have helped by providing over  2,000  grants worth almost £17 million to help churches with funding for repairs and maintenance.

Since 1977, funding has also come from the state, first provided by English Heritage and from 1996 onwards also by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). 

Last year, however, due to a decline in lottery money, the HLF had to stop providing ring-fenced funding for church projects and in 2018-19 the amount they guarantee to churches will drop from £20 million to just £13.5 million. 

It’s still too early to assess the full impact of this drop in funding, but with less to go round, many churches may not be able to find the money they need.

Another form of help has been the Listed Places of Worship Grants scheme, which allows churches to claim a refund of VAT incurred as part of a repair project.  The scheme is only guaranteed until 2020 and we are lobbying hard to make sure that the financial help it provides can continue beyond that date.

DCMS Taylor Review

In recent years, due to the national importance of church buildings it has been recognised by all the major political parties that they require financial assistance from government.

That was one of the conclusions of the DCMS Taylor Review on the sustainability of English churches published in December 2017, the first time that there has been a Government report examining how best to ensure the future of church buildings.

The National Churches Trust was therefore pleased that last month the DCMS acted on the findings of the Taylor Review by making available £1.8 million for a pilot scheme to help places of worship in Manchester and Suffolk.

The National Churches Trust will work closely with our partners to help ensure that the pilot programmes are successful and extended to other parts of England. We would urge the other nations of the UK to take note of the Taylor Review and consider how they can better support church buildings.

This summer, we make our contribution into the debate on the future of church buildings by publishing a new five year strategy.   We will be releasing full details at our Conference, to be held at the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster on Wednesday 27 June and with a keynote speech by Dame Caroline Spelman MP, the Third Church Estates Commissioner.

Churches, chapels and meeting houses are at the heart of communities throughout the UK  

Working together, Government, church and heritage bodies and charities such as the National Churches Trust can help ensure that they will continue to play a vital role in the life and well-being of people for many, many years to come.