HC Deb 25 May 1971 vol 818 cc235-8

3.35 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Cannock)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to further the preservation of churches and other religious buildings of historic and architectural importance in England and Wales. It is currently the fashion to talk of the importance of conservation, preservation and the need to enhance the beauties and advantages of our environment. However, too frequently we merely pay lip service to these things without considering the nature of the problems they present.

I wish today to draw attention to some of the issues we must face if we truly wish to preserve our great heritage of religious buildings—the churches, chapels and cathedrals which contribute so much to the beauty of the landscape, and to the dignity of our towns and which are admired and enjoyed by those of all faiths and of none. Included in the provisions of my Bill would be places of worship of all denominations, wherever they are of architectural distinction or historic importance.

Of necessity, the great medieval treasures of the Established Church are at the centre of the problem. They constitute the finest group of historic buildings in the country. They are a priceless part of the nation's heritage and, because of this, they deserve to be jealously guarded and meticulously maintained, whatever the cost.

Although they are nearly always lovingly cared for, no congregation, however devoted, can control the ravages of industrial pollution and the encroachment of the avaricious and philistine developer. Nor can the dwindling group of worshippers in a changing countryside or an uninhabited town centre always be expected to meet the enormous cost of repairs which inevitably fall due after the wear and use of centuries. My Bill would seek to give these buildings better legislative protection and to help those who struggle to maintain them.

First, it would extend the provisions of the Civic Amenities Act, 1967—the Measure for which my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Sandys) was responsible—by requiring local authorities to designate conservation areas for the purpose of ensuring the protection of the environs of every cathedral and Grade A church building. It would also require local authorities to consider requests to designate conservation areas in the vicinity of all places of worship of intrinsic architectural and historic importance, particularly where the building was the focal point of town or country scene. By these provisions, it would seek to combat the unthinking and destructive acts of those planners, developers and industrialists who have no regard for architectural beauty or harmony and no sense of history.

But the Bill would attempt to meet the problem of finance as well. I wish that it could place a statutory obligation on the Government to contribute towards the upkeep of some of the nation's greatest assets. After all, the principle of giving aid to historic buildings, even to churches, if they are redundant, has been established; and it is only the continuance of the ecclesiastical exemption of 1913, and reluctance on the part of Church and State to make the first move to end it, that has prevented the extension of this principle. However, there seems something rather quaint in an Established Church and its secular guardian being unwilling to contemplate such a development.

As a private Member, I cannot move the disposal of Government funds, but only those of local authorities. Thus, the Bill would oblige local authorities to use the powers they already have under the Local Authorities Historic Buildings Act, 1962, to make grants to any important religious buildings within their areas; that is, if—and this is an important proviso—the Historic Buildings Council and Historic Churches Preservation Trust judge that repairs or restoration are essential and that the sum involved is manifestly beyond the means of the congregation to raise.

This condition is crucial, for it is no part of my intention to suggest that we should provide a cushion for negligent incumbents or careless congregations or that we should seek to stifle the voluntary appeal. Still less am I casting doubt on the enormous value of the work done in the last 19 years by the Historic Churches Preservation Trust and, for even longer, by the Anglican Church's Council for the Care of Churches.

But the stark fact remains that while most of our important religious buildings are well cared for and our great cathedrals can generally succeed in raising vast sums through public appeal, hundreds of our finest churches stand in danger because population movements away from small villages and town centres have left them without large congregations to support their absolute needs. The problem is nationwide, although the churches which cause most immediate concern are possibly those in counties like Norfolk and Lincolnshire and in cities like Norwich and York, and we should not forget Parliament's own church of St. Margaret's, Westminster.

These churches are in peril, and it is a scandal that so many should be reduced to selling their movables to keep on their roofs, for tourists as well as for worshippers. Do not let us forget that they are among our foremost tourist attractions and that they are therefore in no small degree responsible for the £450 million which tourism now earns for the country annually.

Again, the need for the sums that they have to find is often in part the result of atmospheric pollution and the vibration of the traffic which thunders past their walls. Here is another factor which the Bill recognises, for it requires the rating authority to accept some degree of responsibility for damage caused in this way.

I realise that the latter provisions will be slightly controversial and that, in any event, a Private Member's Bill is unlikely to pass into law at this stage of the Session. But I hope at least that the publication of the Bill will help bring the problem into focus. There is general agreement that something must be done, and my Bill has support from hon. Members on both sides of the House and from almost all religious persuasions, including, I might add, two Church Commissioners.

For too long, our heritage has been the Cinderella of the public purse, with architecture the Cinderella of the arts. It is a sobering thought, for example, that the Government contribute substantially less to maintaining our great secular historic buildings than they do to subsidising Covent Garden.

If we can stimulate further thought on the matters that I have raised, the sponsors of the Bill will be well pleased. For my own part, nothing would give me greater pleasure than to be able to introduce a Bill in the new Session containing no financial provisions, because the churches had proclaimed their need publicly and enlisted the sympathy and support of a willing and generous Government.

I trust that the House will give me leave to introduce the Bill as an indication of its recognition of a serious problem and of its will to acknowledge our national obligations to those who built these glories in the past, and to those who will enjoy them in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Cormack, Mr. Marcus Worsley, Mr. Edward Bishop, Mr. Arthur Blenkinsop, Mr. Sydney Chapman, Mr. Greville Janner, Mr. Ron Lewis, Mr. Alexander Lyon, Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas, Mr. David Steel, Dr. Tom Stuttaford, and Mr. Ernie Money.