Sixth Standing Committee
Wednesday 26 February 2003
[Mr. Nigel Beard in the Chair]
Draft Grants to the Churches
Conservation Trust Order 2003
The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Richard Caborn): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Grants to the Churches Conservation Trust Order 2003.
The purpose of the order is to specify the maximum Government grant to the Churches Conservation Trust for a three-year period beginning on 1 April 2003. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is empowered to make such an order under section 1 of the Redundant Churches and Other Religious Buildings Act 1969, subject to the approval of the Treasury and the House. The order constitutes the statutory basis on which the Government provide financial support for the trust's work.
The Churches Conservation Trust—formerly the Redundant Churches Fund—was established in 1969 under provisions in the Pastoral Measure 1983, as amended. The trust's role is to care for Anglican churches of historic or architectural interest that are no longer required for regular worship and for which no suitable alternative use can be found. The trust's chairman and trustees are appointed by Her Majesty on the advice, submitted through the Prime Minister, of the Archbishops of Canterbury and of York. Since July 2001, the trust has been ably chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field).
There are almost 13,000 listed Anglican churches, and it is a sad fact that every year about 30 of them cease to be required for regular worship as a result of demographic and social change. Many are in inner-city or rural locations, and some are of great historic or architectural interest.
There is a statutory procedure for dealing with such so-called redundant churches. Most are found other suitable uses, including as places of worship for other denominations, community centres, concert halls, offices and, latterly, as houses. The future of churches of historic, architectural or archaeological importance for which no satisfactory new use can be identified can be secured by vesting in the Churches Conservation Trust, which has received 11 such churches in the past three years. In such cases, the decision is made by the Church Commissioners, who take expert advice from the Advisory Board for Redundant Churches, which is an independent body. The funds available to the trust are also a decisive factor.
The trustees have legal responsibility for more than 330 churches, of which 310 are grade I or II. They range from the magnificent 18th century
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church of St. Paul's, Portland square in Bristol, which is one of the most important examples of provincial ecclesiastical Georgian architecture, to St. Bartholomew's, Richard's Castle in Herefordshire, which is an ancient church dating back to the 12th century. Were it not for the trust, many beautiful churches would face damaging alterations, deterioration or even destruction. As it is, however, they are maintained in sound condition, are accessible to the public, and remain a focus in their localities.
The trust's main duty is to repair and maintain such churches, but increasingly it is concerned to find ways to encourage people from all backgrounds who are not familiar with historic buildings to see its churches as places where they are welcome and which belong to them. June 2001 therefore saw the launch of the trust's website at www.visitchurches.org.uk, and I hope that every member of the Committee has logged on to it. That achievement has raised the trust's profile and reflects its wish to be as accessible as possible. Such an innovation was to some extent overdue, but it is good to see it.
The trust is also developing a strong education programme for primary and secondary schools and that, too, is welcome. Last year, its education officer launched a series of leaflets for teachers so that they could be well informed about the issue. Schoolchildren were among the 27,000 people of all ages who visited St. Mary's, Shrewsbury in autumn 2001 to experience Anthony Gormley's inspiring display of sculptures, ''Field for the British Isles''.
In line with departmental objectives, the trust aims as far as it can to invest in churches in Government priority action areas. About £2.3 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund has been invested in work at St. Paul's, Portland square in Bristol. The trust hopes to lease the church to a local charity that teaches circus skills. That will allow the building to regain its place at the heart of the community and to become a landmark project for the regeneration of that deprived part of Bristol. [Interruption.] I think that hon. Members are saying that there were summersaults from politicians, but the House of Commons can cater quite well for that without help from a church in Bristol. In any case, the repairs contract is providing excellent training opportunities for disadvantaged young people through collaboration with a local government-funded agency.
The trust has achieved the majority of its objectives, which it set out in its 2001 to 2004 funding agreement. That included a 10 per cent. year-on-year increase in visitor numbers. As regards future plans, a new funding agreement is being drawn up and will be ready for implementation by the end of March. The trust has again set itself challenging targets, including a move towards team-based working in five designated regions. Meanwhile, the role of the trust's churches as a focus for education and community activity will continue to be promoted.
The next few weeks will see the trust's long-awaited move to new office accommodation in west Smithfield. That is an exciting step for the trust, which has had to battle with a cramped working environment and an outdated telecommunications system for too long. The
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trust's continued presence in the City of London can be justified by its need to be close to its two major sources of funding. It further benefits by not having to pay business rates in the City, owing to its charitable status.
My Department is the trust's major financial supporter and contributes 70 per cent. of its grant in aid funding. The Church Commissioners provide the remaining 30 per cent. That ratio has been in place since it was agreed in 1994. English Heritage is sometimes able to provide funds to assist with major repairs to individual redundant churches that are due to be vested in the trust. In addition, the Heritage Lottery Fund has awarded several grants to the trust, which hopes to receive more for projects in the coming years.
Financial provision to the trust for the three financial years ending on 31 March 2003 will total £12.6 million. Of that, £8.8 million will have come from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and £3.8 million from the Church Commissioners. The order provides for Government grants of up to £9 million to the trust in the next three financial years. That is an aggregate of the public spending review figures for the next three financial years. Those figures have already been made public and the trust has been notified for financial purposes.
The grant allocated to the trust continues to be determined in accordance with departmental spending review procedures, within the limits of the maximum that the order specifies for the three-year period as a whole. The Church Commissioners' maximum contribution for those three years has been set at £3.857 million; the Synod approved it today. We therefore propose that the trust's maximum overall budget for the next three years be £12.9 million, against £12.6 million for 2000 to 2003. The Government are confident that that level of funding will enable the trust to keep its existing churches in satisfactory repair, receive a limited number of new churches—the Church Commissioners will need to prioritise eligible buildings—and achieve the targets set out in the funding agreement.
The order represents the Government's continuing commitment to the care and protection of our built heritage, as voiced in the Government report ''The Historic Environment: A Force for our Future'', which we published in December 2001. The report outlined the Government's commitment to realising the full potential of the historic environment harnessed as a lifelong learning resource for all and made accessible to the whole of society. The order will help the trust to achieve its aspiration of ensuring that some of the finest buildings in England become better known, better appreciated, better understood and even more widely loved by a growing proportion of the population.
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): May I start by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Beard? The Opposition will not oppose the order. We fully support the grant to the Churches Conservation Trust, which does
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invaluable work in maintaining a critical part of our national heritage. We also pay tribute to the Church Commissioners for their contribution to that cause.
I have a few questions, which the Minister might be able to answer when he sums up. It is all very well offering money to rescue churches that would otherwise fall into disrepair, but are the Government being sufficiently pre-emptive? Are they doing enough to minimise the unintentional redundancy of churches in circumstances in which local communities or the Church authorities find it difficult to maintain them? If money were spent pre-emptively, we might not need quite so much to bring buildings back from the dead, so to speak.
We are pleased that the trust has set up its own website and heightened its profile nationally; that is obviously important and an extremely good move. Are the Government sufficiently pleased, however, with the conduct of local consultation on buildings that are threatened? Are the right processes in place to ensure that local communities have a say in whether such buildings become redundant in the first place, and, when that is almost inevitable, in what their future should be?
The Minister said that 11 churches had been put on the register in the past three years. Our research, which might be inaccurate, suggested that there were only five; it would be interesting to have confirmation that we were measuring the same period. None the less, 11 is a fairly substantial number, as it accounts for about a third of the churches that became redundant in that period. As the Minister rightly said, the great proportion find other uses, but is the rate at which churches are becoming redundant increasing substantially, or is there a steady trickle of four of five a year?
The increase in funding from £8.8 million to £9 million is, of course, welcome. However, that is an increase of only 1.94 per cent. over the next three years, which averages out at a 0.65 per cent. increase per annum, which is well below the rate of inflation. Although there may not be a linear relationship between the costs involved in the trust's work and inflation generally, wages and the cost of materials are certainly large inflationary factors in any figures, and the funding in no way keeps pace with inflation. Is the Minister confident that his Department's share of the money is sufficient to do the necessary work?
What did the trust ask for? It must have had input, and presumably the Minister can tell us what it deemed necessary to do the job that it has been given to the best of its ability. What was the real basis on which he and his team determined the figure of £9 million? It is a nice round figure, but it does not make much sense to anyone who looks at the percentage increase on what has been offered over the past three years. Will he tell us how he determined the final figure?
When the last statutory instrument was debated, the Minister said that the trust had set itself challenging targets, mainly financial. He alluded to some of them, but did not say whether they had all been met, although I think that he said that a majority had been.
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Will he give us a closer definition of what he means by a majority? Was he talking about 90 per cent., 99 per cent. or perhaps just over 50 per cent?
Has there been any change in the amount of funds available from charitable and non-state sources? If the money from those sources for the upkeep of churches has increased, has the Government's contribution fallen? Has the Minister or his Department carried out any assessment of the relative funding from English Heritage, the Heritage Lottery Fund, local authorities or other independent sources? Does his Department have any proposals to encourage potentially larger donations from those sources? He mentioned £2.3 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund, so money is obviously coming from such sources, but does that happen on an ad hoc basis? Do the Government have an overview of the figures?
The Minister mentioned the trust's new offices. He alluded to the fact that there were no rates to pay because it was, in effect, occupying its own buildings, but he did not say whether there was any increase in the overheads of running the trust as a result of moving into new premises.
All in all, we support the order, but we would be grateful for the Minister's answers to our questions.