HC Deb 27 October 1965 vol 718 cc313-22

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Grey.]

11.1 p.m.

Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles (Winchester)

Britain is almost uniquely fortunate in the variety and glory of its ancient buildings, both lay and ecclesiastical. There are various schemes in the country for the maintenance of these buildings, some very effective and some less so. But I believe that we have a blind spot as far as concerns our ancient cathedrals, because, as I shall show, there is no proper provision for their structural maintenance. Therefore, it is on these 28 ancient cathedrals that I particularly wish to focus attention.

First, let us look very broadly at the part which cathedrals play in our national life from a practical point of view. The cathedral is the mother church of the diocese and the church of the bishop, but this is only the formal position. In many ways, the cathedral becomes the symbol of unity of a city, a district or a county. In regions where there is a great influx of population and large impersonal housing estates, it is notoriously difficult to preserve the character and identity of the area and to make new arrivals feel that they belong and have become part of their new surroundings. Cathedrals, being famous landmarks and local symbols, are of great assistance in solving this nebulous social dfficulty. More than this, the immensity and grandeur of cathedral buildings gives the individual a sense of permanency in a world of changing values. Who among us does not know the emotional refreshment felt after attending a cathedral service? Without being irreverent, it can be compared to having taken a spiritual Alka-Seltzer. A Government who are so keen to give free medicine to the bodies of people should not lose sight of medicine for their souls also.

The architectural glories of Britain's ancient cathedrals are unlike anything else anywhere in the world—Winchester with its magnificent internal perpendiculars reaching upwards beyond human imagination, the spire of Salisbury seen from the hill pointing up to heaven for the glory of God, and Durham, whose massive beauty is, I believe, not unknown to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Public Building and Works.

Let us also not forget the musical and choral traditions which are enshrined in the work and the atmosphere of our cathedrals. Are these not a wonderful influence for good at a time when we are increasingly concerned about the fruitful use of leisure? All these things are not glories only of the past.

Being of a wartime generation, I was particularly moved by a paragraph in a pamphlet on Lincoln Cathedral, which said: During the last war the three square towers became to thousands of bomber crews a welcome and a homely landmark: in the Chapel of St. Michael are the memorial books of Nos. 1 and 5 Bomber Groups of the Royal Air Force, with the names of 21,000 aircrew lost on operational missions. Nearby are the chapels for seamen and soldiers". My point here is that each generation places its own value on our cathedrals, on their glories and on their influence in the community.

There is also the practical point of the importance of cathedrals as an attraction to tourists, particularly visitors from overseas, which must be of value from the point of view of our balance of payments. The British Travel Association tells me that about 2½ million visitors from overseas came to Britain last year and they spent between them £190 million. If one enters any travel agency abroad, in the United States, for example, the first thing one sees in any poster advertising the United Kingdom is a magnificent view of one of our ancient cathedrals.

I turn now to the problems facing the deans and chapters in looking after our cathedrals. They have to pay, first and foremost, the stipends of the cathedral clergy. I think everyone knows that. But, in addition, they have to pay the salaries of lay assistants and guides, vergers and caretakers. They have to pay for heating, lighting and cleaning. They have to insure the structures of the buildings for vast sums. They have to take out additional insurance against lightning, and, in these days, against malicious damage. They even have to insure against damage to ancient glass by sonic booms. They have to pay the expenses of the cathedral schools and choir schools.

This category of expense is partially met out of the sum allocated by the Church Commissioners, but these incidental or additional expenses alone at Winchester, for example, cost £110 a day, or about £43,000 a year, over and above the sums which are available from the Church Commissioners.

Maintenance of the structure of these old buildings is most difficult. The very immensity and sense of permanence associated with huge cathedrals makes it difficult to realise that they will not necessarily remain with us for all time. No doubt, the druids thought the same about Stonehenge. In fact, these very old buildings, many centuries old, are much more difficult to look after than any building of more modern construction. For one thing, deterioration is far more rapid, and defects which would be quite minor if treated promptly soon become major problems. The cost of materials and labour has multiplied by five times since before the war, and skilled craftsmen and stonemasons are very scarce nowadays. There is a great cumulative backlog of maintenance remaining because of the war, and there is also the problem of erosion of stonework accelerated by air pollution.

Here are one or two examples of the plight of our ancient cathedrals. I have not been able to speak to all hon. Members representing constituencies where they are located. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Loveys) gave me a leaflet in which one finds a magnificent photograph of Chichester Cathedral showing, unhappily, that secured against the side of it there is a large notice, "Danger—Falling masonry".

What is happening in Chichester, I understand, is that the flying buttresses, which are such a great architectural feature of it, are tilting outwards and pulling the walls gradually outwards with them so that there is very grave danger of the whole roof falling in. The Bishop of Chichester has said: If we were to allow our ancient cathedral to collapse, it would be an irreplaceable loss, bringing shame to us and impoverishment to succeeding generations. Another example is in Winchester itself, where a huge stone column has begun to bulge and has had to be strapped round, and other stone columns inside are suspect. In Lincoln the massive roof timbers are ravaged by death watch beetle, and a lead roof three acres in extent is suspect and gales or even an exceptional heat wave might dislodge large sections of this huge area of lead. In Norwich also parts of the main fabric of the building are literally crumbling away.

It is a great shock to many people to know that defects of this sort are dealt with on a shoestring. What are the various sources of finance available for dealing with these situations? Many people think that it can be done by the Church Commissioners because they have a large amount of capital, but they very rightly retain their capital intact, which is, I think, the right policy for them to follow in a century when inflation makes it very unwise to spend capital on purposes which should be met by income. The essential point is that the Church Commissioners are really agents of Parliament, and I am not sure that this is always fully understood. The Church Commissioners, by virtue of the Cathedral Measure, 1963, have no power whatever to pay out any sums for the maintenance of the fabric of cathedrals, and this is why I say that we have a blind spot.

Next, many people think that this maintenance can be done by public subscription. There is no doubt that there have been some wonderful responses to appeals for donations and subscriptions. One thing has been most noticeable, that it is not only from one denomination. In all cases where cathedrals have made large appeals, the response has come from a very wide scatter of people of all denominations, including non-churchgoers.

But when it comes to these vast buildings we are talking of huge sums—£200,000 or £300,000. That is the sort of figure that we are talking about. Despite the generosity of individuals and despite enormous sums given by the Pilgrim Trust, in particular, from time to time, the response to these appeals is frequently inadequate. The inevitable happens. It leads to cobbling up, and 10 or 15 years later the work has to be done all over again.

Another possible source of finance is local government. The Historic Buildings Act, 1962, gives a certain amount of latitude to local authorities to help in repairing ancient buildings of all sorts, including, if they wish, cathedrals. This is all right as far as it goes, but most of these very large appeals are larger than any individual local authority can wish upon its own ratepayers. My whole point is that this expense should be spread over the whole nation because our cathedrals are a national heritage and not just a local one. Cathedrals benefit not only those who live within the sound of their bells.

Then, of course, one thinks about another source of finance and inevitably one turns to the Exchequer. No doubt I will be told that this is a difficult time to ask for Exchequer money; but it always is a difficult time to ask the Exchequer for money. On this point I want to emphasise that I am aware that not all deans and chapters agree with the idea of public money being spent for this purpose, because the autonomy of deans and chapters must be paramount. This is fundamental.

If there were any strings attached to Government money, probably many deans and chapters would rather, in their own words, "beg their bread in desolate places." I must say that because otherwise I should find myself in hot water with half the deans in England. But we could get over it readily because, under the suggestion I shall make, detailed distribution would be carried out by a body which might be analogous to the University Grants Committee. It might be, for instance, the Cathedral Commission of the Church Assembly. I claim that it would be just as appropriate to use central Government funds for this purpose as for defence, because the Church, with appropriate outward symbols such as cathedrals, is one of the bastions of the defence of our way of life against the enemy within and the enemy without.

To show that I am not being denominational in this, I want to quote the example of the Roman Catholic church I saw in Italy at the time of the 1948 elections. Outside it was an enormous banner which read: "God can see you vote and Stalin cannot."

The concrete proposal I should like to make is that the Exchequer might consider paying to the Church Commissioners sums up to a certain annual limit—no one can expect an open-ended commitment—based on meeting, £ for £, the response to major appeals made for maintenance. This would be a good way of ensuring that public money should only be spent where there was real public enthusiasm for the project.

If I were to make any more concrete proposal, Mr. Deputy Speaker, no doubt you would rule me out of order in an Adjournment debate, so I end by saying that naturally I do not expect any firm promises tonight, but I ask the hon. Gentleman for an undertaking to consider this problem seriously in all its aspects and subsequently to make a statement to the House giving the results of such consideration.

All I have said can be summed up thus: earlier generations and less affluent generations have somehow managed to keep our great cathedrals maintained. Are we willing to be the generation which falls down on the job?

11.18 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Public Building and Works (Mr. James Boyden)

The subject of this debate is one which is very near my own sympathies. I moved in Durham partly because of the Cathedral. In my new home I had a full view of its majesty and one of the sadnesses of moving south was that I lost that glorious view from my window.

I also find it difficult to decide which of the hon. and gallant Gentleman's two choices, Winchester or Salisbury, I would vote for. They are both splendid buildings, and only a few weeks ago I was in Winchester and twice went to his very fine Cathedral. I served on the Ecclesiastical Committee when the Cathedrals Measure was passed, so I have considerable sympathy with the subject.

The Church Assembly thinks that the importance of cathedrals in our culture is growing. There may be different views about that, but it is worth quoting from the Church Assembly pamphlet, "Report of the Cathedral Commission", in which it is said—and this is quite a novel thought for some people— … owing to the mobility which the motorcar has brought to modern life, Cathedrals both old and new become places of pilgrimage far in excess of anything previously known. It goes on to say: Far from being outmoded, the Cathedral Churches of England have never before served as living centres of worship for such a wide variety of ordinary Church members". And, of course, a large section of the public, which is perhaps not so committed to the services, finds considerable spiritual refreshment in them in the way that the hon. and gallant Gentleman suggested. In the same pamphlet there is a sentence about the musical connections of the cathedrals: The tradition of Cathedral music is an artistic heritage comparable in quality to the heritage in stone preserved by the buildings themselves. The hon. and gallant Gentleman is pushing at a general door where there will be a fairly considerable amount of public Interest.

He says that the times are unpropitious. I feel that I ought to tell him that my own Ministry has this type of consideration very much in mind and I ought to explain the background to the way in which both the Church of England and the Ministry of Public Building and Works have come to regard the question of subsidies for living churches.

Under the Ancient Monuments Acts, 1913 to 1953, no ecclesiastical building at the time being used for ecclesiastical purposes is subject to the provisions of the Acts providing for protection, grant or guardianship by the Ministry. The Ministry has never considered the possibility of extending the Ancient Monuments powers to churches. Indeed, when the 1913 Act was in preparation the Archbishop of Canterbury acquiesced in this and later in the House of Lords debate opposed an attempt to bring churches, especially cathedrals, under that Act. None of the English churches since then has made any representation about churches in use.

Under the Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Act, 1953, grants could be made to churches in use. The relevant provision says that any building appearing to the Minister to be of outstanding historic or architectural interest is eligible for grant. Churches are not specifically excluded. However, when the Act was being passed, there was no intention to make grants to churches in use and in the debates Mr. Molson, the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works, said: Ecclesiastical buildings are not excluded in words from the Bill, but it is not our intention that this modest sum …"— the sum then available— should be used for the preservation of churches."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd July, 1953; Vol. 517, c. 813.] The situation is that the Minister has power to make grants to churches but has decided not to use it.

Mr. Tom Driberg (Barking)

Is it not the case, however, that grants have been made to ecclesiastical properties such as Farnham Castle?

Mr. Boyden

Yes. Grants have been made to chapels in private use which are part—I was about to say part of an architectural complex—which are chapels in use and which are of special architectural or historic interest. They have not been made for cathedrals themselves, although there have been grants for buildings within the precincts of cathedrals, for instance, the cloisters at Wells.

There are historical reasons why grants are made for cathedrals in use in Scotland, in Glasgow and Dunblane, for instance, but I will not go into them except to say that they are not good precedents for conceding the general point which the hon. and gallant Gentleman is making about grants for cathedrals in general.

In Scotland there are grants for cathedrals which are not used. The five in particular are Elgin, Fortrose, St. Andrews, Dunkeld, and St. Machar's, Aberdeen. The point is that the cathedrals are not in use for ecclesiastical purposes under the Church of England. The Anglican Church in England has not made representations about this, although the Church of Scotland has done so. When I was in Scotland fairly recently on a general Ministry visit, representations were made to me. I dare say that the hon. and gallant Gentleman knows that discussions are going on over Government assistance for redundant churches. Legislation will be needed for this. Amicable discussions have been held and the Government have agreed, as did the previous Government, to contribute something of the order of £200,000 over a five-year period for redundant Anglican churches, consequent upon the Church itself making comparable contributions. So movement is taking place.

Legislation required for redundant churches is likely to be some time maturing and one ought to set the problem of the cathedrals against the size of the problem which the Church itself faces as a whole. This is not an argument against the State contributions; it is an argument to say that the problem has been there for a long time, that everybody who is connected with it realises the size of the problem, and very serious consideration will be given to any move in the way the hon. and gallant Gentleman wants. The Church Assembly document says on the fabric of the cathedrals: In many Cathedrals the problems of maintaining the fabric are on such a vast scale that no possible scheme could provide an adequate answer. They must be left to struggle with their problems, drawing as fully as possible upon local or national interest in the building itself. It says, in a rather defeatist way: Final and complete provision must, therefore, be ruled out of practical consideration. That is not to say that the public, the Church, does not need to be alerted to the need for private generosity towards the cathedrals. Those who are interested in the splendid architectural heritage, and in our musical and spiritual heritage, will be most grateful to the hon. and gallant Gentleman for ventilating this subject, and showing the size of the problem, the degree and difficulty of it. In this connection, all I can say is that he has my personal sympathy and that the Government are well aware of the problem.

Mr. Driberg

From what my hon. Friend has said, it seems clear that there can be grants, on the recommendation of the Historic Buildings Council, from his Ministry to the cathedrals, and I do not think that deans should be afraid of strings, because the sort of strings attached to these grants are fairly loose, including principally the requirement that the building assisted by a grant should be open to the public at reasonable times, which obviously would apply to a cathedral. That is one method by which it could be done fairly easily, though, of course, the total sum available through the Historic Buildings Council would have to be greatly increased from the modest sum at present made available.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Eleven o'clock.