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I wrote:

In the 30 years since I wrote that, a transformation has occurred in Russia. Many of those churches are now vibrant and living again. People are no longer deterred from worshipping—they are free to do so, and many of them do. In our country, there are no deterrents to worship—may there never be. I would hate to think that, in 100 years’ time, some English writer would write about the English countryside and its beautiful churches with the same elegiac nostalgia employed by Solzhenitsyn in that passage. However, if we do not identify those buildings properly, and ensure that they are fully utilised, for a variety of purposes but primarily for worship, and if we do not all play our part, voluntarily and individually, but above all through this place and in government, that will be their fate. How could we say that we lived in a civilised nation if we allowed the village churches of Norfolk or Lincolnshire, the Somerset towers and the churches at the heart of many of our country towns and big cities to crumble into ruin?

Christmas is a good time to focus our attention on buildings of great beauty, which, even to those who are not believers at all, mean a great deal. The other day, at
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a meeting of the all-party arts and heritage group and the all-party historic churches and chapels group, a Labour peer, whom I will not name, and who pronounced firmly that he was not a believer, also committed himself completely to the cause of keeping those buildings up. The chairman of the historic churches and chapels group, the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson)—I hope that he will soon be restored to health and back among us—is a self-proclaimed atheist but shares the affection that I believe that the Minister has, that I have and that I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey), whom I am delighted to see sitting on the Front Bench, has.

I hope that we will hear some encouraging words from the Minister tonight, and that 2007 will be a year of true hope for the churches of this country.

6.52 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. David Lammy): I thank the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) for securing the debate and for the manner in which he has made his comments. I also thank him and my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) for all their work in the all-party group on historic churches.

Let me associate myself with the remarks that the hon. Gentleman has made. He and I share a love of churches and of choral music: we were together only last week at a Friends of Cathedral Music event in the House. He therefore knows that the topic is close to my heart. I am glad that we have an opportunity to discuss the matter in the House, following last week’s worthwhile debate in another place.

During my time in this post, I have been pleased to visit a good number of churches in an official capacity. I am also pleased that one of the first things that I was able to do was to convene a Church Heritage Forum, in which I heard at first hand from denominational representatives and heritage specialists what they saw as the issues facing churches in this country.

We should not need to remind ourselves of all the reasons that our churches, cathedrals and other religious buildings are so significant to communities. Their contribution to the nation’s heritage is unique, with some dating back more than 1,000 years, and they are witnesses, one could say, to the changing generations of this country. As the hon. Gentleman has indicated powerfully, they act as a spiritual home for many people across the country. They are therefore key to our sense of place and belonging.

As those buildings have been passed down through the generations, it now falls to us as the current guardians to ensure that they are in a good state to be passed on to those who follow us. The hon. Gentleman is therefore right: while we have seen some successful and iconic advances, particularly in our urban churches, a real challenge exists in rural areas such as Norfolk and Oxfordshire. We all need to work together to preserve our rural churches and find new uses to contribute to those buildings, because of the challenges presented by falling congregations. I was at a Churches Tourism Association conference three weeks ago and heard of how churches are planning for new uses. Part
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of that is putting church tourism on a firmer footing—just one of many growth areas where new initiatives are being developed and new audiences sought.

People attached to churches, particularly in rural areas, perform a variety of vital activities and services: supporting elderly people, providing child care, counselling or advice. They help to hold communities together. A major piece of research funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently confirmed that. We know that this is taking an innovative turn also, with churches hosting post offices, village shops, farmers markets and even cashpoint machines.

We are not just talking about services of a social nature, but many cultural activities such as musical events, drama or art exhibitions. We know that the churches are, in line with the “Building Faith in our Future” agenda, looking for new ways to engage with local communities. We need to find new uses for churches that will help, in the longer run, to preserve the fabric by bringing in new streams of funding, new people and new partnerships. Churches matter to more people than just churchgoers; let us plug in to the wider support for churches that already exists in the nation.

As churches look to engage more with communities, perhaps by adapting buildings to make them more welcoming or user-friendly, the Government are keen to help by reducing the administrative burdens of such works. Under the ecclesiastical exemption, the major denominations are already exempt from the need to obtain listed building consents for works. It is a system that works well in protecting the nation's historic church buildings, partly due to the wide range of knowledge and expertise represented in the denominations' own systems, most of which is given voluntarily.

Further to that, the Government have been reviewing the way in which we protect all our historic buildings. The heritage protection review, which will shortly be the subject of a White Paper, will, among other measures, streamline those consents regimes that still apply to churches. It fact it will make the system that applies to all historic buildings more simple, more flexible and more open. Churches will be able to opt in to heritage partnership agreements. Those could remove the need for repeated applications for certain types of work that either crop up regularly, or will be needed at separate sites within, say, a diocese. New listing descriptions for churches will help congregations to understand what is significant about their own specific building when considering proposals for development or change.

Owning any historic building brings responsibilities and burdens and that is certainly true of looking after a church. We need to recognise the costs of caring for a building that serves not just the local congregation, but the local community. The church is also likely to be the oldest and most intricate building in the area. Many churches are in a vulnerable state. That is not just a fabric maintenance issue; it is also about the size and resources of congregations. Many churches have just a handful of adult worshippers, each perhaps managing a number of voluntary positions within the church and community.

English Heritage's “Inspired!” campaign earlier this year helped us to recognise what a vulnerable church
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looked like, why it becomes vulnerable and which areas of the country are most likely to be affected. Like any historic building, the church needs people who are dedicated to its maintenance. Let us not underestimate the importance of people’s loyalty and love for their buildings. The work of the many volunteers up and down the country is beyond value. People sometimes look to the situation in other countries, where Governments perhaps take a more direct role in funding of church buildings, but as the hon. Gentleman suggested we can tell when such buildings have lost the love and the sense of ownership that helps to keep other buildings going.

The hon. Gentleman also set out the legal responsibilities for the maintenance of church buildings; they clearly lie with national and local church bodies. However, I can say that, no matter on whom the legal responsibility lies for the upkeep, the Government do have a role to play and they have been helping. I am glad that he acknowledges that.

The listed places of worship grant scheme has given out over £50 million since 2001, and over 8,500 buildings have benefited. Earlier this year the Government showed that they had listened to the churches’ concerns, and added professional fees and repairs to some fixtures and fittings to the scope of the scheme. In relation to that problem, we continue to negotiate in Europe to be able to offer permanently reduced VAT on church repairs. The joint English Heritage and Heritage Lottery Fund scheme has paid out almost £90 million, and over 1,000 buildings have benefited. Cathedrals have received £42 million since 1991, and dedicated support is continuing. For three years the Wolfson Foundation is generously matching the English Heritage contribution. The Government, with a £3 million annual grant, remain the majority funder of the Churches Conservation Trust, which cares for the most significant of our redundant churches. I am very pleased that, following negotiations, the Heritage Lottery Fund last week committed to continue to support churches for the foreseeable future, with a £20 million fund for 2007-08 and a dedicated places of worship scheme until 2013. Let me at this point also pay tribute to the work of the county historic churches trusts for all the hard work that they have put in to providing grant funding for churches—and I should point out that the hon. Gentleman is president of the Staffordshire trust.

I welcome the launch earlier this year of the English Heritage “Inspired!” campaign, which echoed the need for a partnership approach that I had already picked up from my Church Heritage Forum late last year. The campaign recognised that the Government could not be expected to plug the whole of what is seen as a funding gap. It put forward five “solutions” that would help to manage the size of the future repair bill and build capacity among the churches to help address current and future issues. The solutions are sensible plans of action, and they would certainly make a difference. Some of them are already being put in place by English Heritage, and the results are good. Timely maintenance will, of course, prevent more costly repair in the long run. I am pleased that English Heritage has already been piloting church maintenance programmes in London and Suffolk, and from next year it will do so in Gloucester. Support officer posts within dioceses,
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circuits or synods would certainly make a difference. Congregations could be supported in identifying repair priorities and opportunities for alternative use, and a more strategic vision for alternative use across an area could be developed.

Some of the “Inspired!” solutions are themselves inspired by pockets of good practice in different areas of the country. Last week in another place we heard calls for better access to information on the range of help available. We are looking at whether there might be a role for Government in making sure that the guardians of all our listed religious buildings are able to tap into the expertise that is available.

I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said about English Heritage. It is, of course, central to all the Government’s historic environment policies. I should like to put on the record my appreciation of its valuable work, a sentiment that I was able to pass on personally to the commissioners only yesterday. However, although I am sympathetic on the funding issue, the hon. Gentleman will understand that I am unable at this time to commit to any increases in Government support for English Heritage as we are about to enter a comprehensive spending review period. However, those of us who are concerned about
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these issues ought to bear in mind the suggestion of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which questioned in its summer report whether there might also be a greater role for denominations in funding local teams to carry out some basic maintenance and survey functions among their own churches. That seems a good idea.

Part of ensuring the future of all historic churches is making sure that there are those with the appropriate skills to do the technical work in a historically faithful way. Even here, English Heritage is working with key partners, using Heritage Lottery Fund money, to develop training opportunities to ensure that the skills gaps are plugged over time.

The Lord Bishop of London, speaking last week in another place, acknowledged that

I am very pleased to have been able to lay out for the hon. Gentleman how the Government have helped to bring this situation about. The Government remain committed to the future of all our historic places of worship, and to working with the denominations as they seek a sustainable future for their buildings.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Seven o’clock.

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