HC Deb 24 April 1986 vol 96 cc480-7

'Section 2 of the Redundant Churches and other Religious Buildings Act 1969 shall be repealed.'—[Mr. Freeman.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Roger Freeman (Kettering)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 98, in schedule 6, page 118, line 5, at end insert— '(2A) Section 56(1)(a) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 shall cease to have effect.'.

Mr. Freeman

I am conscious that we are now moving to a debate not about people's houses and their right to leaseholds or freeholds, but rather about the issue of the preservation of churches of outstanding architectural merit. Although this is a different subject, I do not believe that it is in any way less important than the other issues that we have been debating this afternoon. My new clause repeals section 2 of the Redundant Churches and Other Religious Buildings Act 1969. Since 1969, that provision has permitted the Anglican Church alone to demolish listed redundant churches without seeking listed building consent.

The Anglican Church is therefore in a unique position in relation to the other denominations. Having passed through all the excellent steps in the Pastoral Measure of 1983, which is currently in force, and having considered alternative uses for a church no longer in use, if the Church decides that the building should be demolished, irrespective of the fact that it is listed as a building of outstanding architectural merit, the Church alone has the right in the end to decide the fate of that building and, indeed, to demolish it.

The new clause is designed to correct that anomaly and, at the end of that excellent procedure contained in the pastoral measure of 1983, to give the Secretary of State for the Environment the right of veto over the proposed demolition of that redundant church. I point out that this procedure is already applied to secular buildings that are listed. If a building is listed, the owner of the building must seek listed building consent to demolish the building. The new clause puts the Anglican Church in exactly the same position not only as other church denominations but as other owners of private property.

Mr. Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

I understand and appreciate what my hon. Friend has said, but does he not agree that in the event many more listed secular buildings are demolished, and there are much greater safeguards, although the ecclesiastical exemption operates, for Church of England buildings. Although I understand what he says in theory, does he not agree that in practice there are much greater safeguards for the ecclesiastical achitectural heritage items that he and I are anxious to conserve?

Mr. Freeman

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but the short answer is that I do not agree with him. If he bears with me, I will come to his point in the logical sequence of my speech.

I emphasise what is not covered by the new clause. It does not affect the ecclesiastical exemption for alterations under the faculty jurisdiction procedure for churches in use. That is a wider issue and my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) deals with it in amendment 98, which is grouped to be considered with this new clause. I am dealing with a narrower issue, concerned only with redundant Anglican churches. I am not suggesting in any way the scrapping of the Pastoral Measure provisions, which I believe have generally worked well. I ask for the ultimate right of veto for the Secretary of State, who would have the ultimate right to decide whether a listed redundant Anglican church should be demolished. After all, that was the recommendation of the Faculty Jurisdiction Commission's report in 1984 in sections 300 to 302.

I now come to my hon. Friend's intervention. Why is this new clause needed? In defending it, I will deal briefly with the five objections that could be made against it. The first is my hon. Friend's point that the Church system works better than the secular or state system. I disagree. I suggest no change to the pastoral measure provisions of the 1983 Act. I want to see all those steps taken—the church examining alternative uses, a waiting period, and consultation with local authorities, conservation bodies and other interested groups. I want all that procedure to stay intact.

What I suggest is a final additional stage. If the Church concludes that a building should be demolished—it has demolished 70 listed churches since 1969—I argue that the Secretary of State should have a right of final review. That is an additional safeguard; therefore, by definition more churches will be saved for the future. The new clause grafts on to an existing system one extra proviso. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) is satisfied with that, answer.

The second objection, of which I am aware from my postbag and public comment, is that the Church needs money from the sale of land underneath a redundant church. The Anglican Church is hard pressed to obtain financial resources. By demolishing a church, especially in the inner city, it might lay its hands on valuable resources which could be used to meet its pressing needs—for example, to provide service to the community and to pay salaries, stipends and pensions to the clergy and their dependants. If a building is listed as being of architectural merit, wider issues are involved than the mere value of the land underneath it.

In a secular system we already apply the test that certain procedures must be followed before a building of outstanding architectural merit can be demolished. It is wrong to put the Church in a different category from the private sector. Without being sacrilegious, I point out that British Rail, which has a large number of buildings of outstanding architectural merit, must go through the same procedure. It, too, is hard pressed.

The Church owns about 50 per cent. of all grade 1 listed buildings. That is the size of the potential problem and a measure of the importance of the new clause.

Mr. Chapman

My hon. Friend has said that the Church owns a high proportion of the grade 1 listed buildings. Will he confirm that only one Church of England grade 1 listed building has ever been demolished?

Mr. Freeman

I can confirm that at least one such building has been demolished. That was a scandal, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing it to our attention. I am sure that he was referring to Holy Trinity church in Rugby. My right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), who was then Secretary of State for the Environment, rightly objected to the proposed demolition of the grade 1 listed church and asked the Church to undertake a further review of alternative uses. Sadly, the Church decided to demolish that building, and that was a great loss to our architectural heritage.

The third objection is that, if the system is secularised, the Church's funding might be jeopardised or even withdrawn. The state already contributes about 60 per cent. of the resources of the redundant churches fund, so it is already an important and, perhaps, senior partner in the preservation of redundant churches. The counter-argument is that we are considering only an incremental burden—saving each year a few additional churches of outstanding architectural merit. That will present the redundant churches fund with an additional burden. I hope that the Anglican Church will not consider withdrawing its support. The excellent provisions of the Budget and the Finance Bill to encourage charitable giving by companies and individuals should benefit and enhance the resources of the redundant churches fund.

Fourthly, it is argued that the proposed new clause and, perhaps, the broader proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills are the thin end of the wedge in giving greater state control over the Church and are, perhaps, a step towards disestablishment. Since 1977, the state has been providing finance for the repair of churches. When the system was introduced nearly 10 years ago, a clear understanding was reached between the Church and the state that the state would provide finance for the repair of listed buildings and the financing of the redundant churches fund if the Church began the process of reforming its systems of building control and allowed the state, through the Secretary of State for the Environment, to exercise greater control and to contribute to reviewing the fate of some churches. That has been going on for 10 years—much slower than the pace of reform of parliamentary procedure—and there is little evidence of any action. I regret that. We are still waiting for action to be taken.

6.45 pm

The fifth argument against the new clause is that more building controls will impose a bigger financial burden on the Church. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) has advanced that argument, which is based on a misunderstanding. The listed building consent procedure does not mean blanket preservation. It means that someone other than the owner of the listed building —the Secretary of State—would encourage alternative use and ultimately make a judgment on the fate of the building. The Church should support that positive step.

This modest measure is supported by the Friends of Friendless Churches—I pay tribute to that organisation in promoting over many years the campaign for ecclesiastical exemption reform—by six conservation bodies, and by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Association of District Councils, English Heritage, which is the public sector quango responsible for advising the Minister, and the Church's Faculty Jurisdiction Commission, which supported this move in 1984. I commend the new clause to the House.

Mr. Richard Shepherd

My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman) rightly said that my amendment No. 98 goes further than new clause 6. My measure is primarily intended to encourage my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to disclose the Government's thinking on the future of ecclesiastical exemption. The exemption, embodied in section 56(1)(a) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, exempts those in charge of ecclesiastical buildings in use, of any denomination—a clear distinction from new clause 6—from the need to obtain listed building consent for their demolition, alteration or extension in such a way as to affect their character as buildings of special architectural or historic interest as would otherwise be necessary under section 55(1) of the Act.

The exemption has a long and inglorious history. Its origins were in the Ancient Monuments Consolidation and Amendment Act 1913, when the then Archbishop of Canterbury successfully persuaded the House of Lords that the Church of England should not be subject to the ancient monuments legislation, on the grounds that its own faculty jurisdiction provided the necessary safeguards. When the concept of listed buildings was introduced in 1947, and extended in 1968, the exemption was carried through into the historic buildings legislation.

The case against this exemption can be briefly stated. Ecclesiastical buildings are often the oldest, and in places the only, historic buildings in the community. They inspire great attention and interest in a wide range of people, not merely the worshippers. The law allows those in control of the buildings to make sweeping changes to them—even to demolish them, as long as part of the site remains "in ecclesiastical use"—without listed building consent and thus without the opportunities for public consultation and publicity to which such changes should properly be subject.

The exemption is based on a series of nonsenses. The first is that it was originally based on the controls that the Church of England has; yet exemption applies to all ecclesiastical buildings and not simply to those of the Church of England. Other denominations have no equivalent of the faculty system and yet enjoy the benefit of the exemption. Large numbers of nonconformist chapels and Catholic churches have been radically altered or demolished without any public participation.

The second is that the Church of England's faculty jurisdiction is in no way a proper substitute for listed building controls. It is sadly deficient in almost every particular. It does not properly involve the local authority. It gives no locus standi to non-menbers of the congregation whose church is to be altered. There is no mechanism for enforcement, and breaches are widespread. Against this, the churches and ecclesiastical organisations concerned argue that liturgical changes should not be subject to control by local authorities. Not all demolition, alteration and extension work is required for liturgical changes, however.

The Government themselves recognise the force of these criticisms, I know. In 1984, the Department of the Environment circulated a consultative document on the future of the extension.

At the same time the Church of England published the report of its own commission on the continuing care of churches and cathedrals, which advocated a number of changes to the faculty jurisdiction to overcome its faults, but left the system largely intact.

Almost two years have passed since the Department's consultative document, and the toll of ecclesiastical buildings continues. I think that the time is now right for the Government to make an announcement on the future of this outdated anomaly, and the amendment provides them with a suitable opportunity.

Mr. Simon Hughes

It is ludicrous that the provisions covering buildings of particular national importance across the board are dealt with in a way that can involve the public in a mechanism that gives them local protection but does not apply to the vast number—50 per cent., as the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman) said—of the buildings that fall into the category. There was, as the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) said, a historical precedent by which a protection was available before planning law developed after the war as it applied to churhces. Not only is that not truly a form of public law but in its procedures it is less effective, slower and less easily understood or participated in. I hope that the Minister can accept the amendment now or that he will find an early opportunity to introduce legislation so that this can be done soon.

The amendment is short and simple, and it would be a good starting point. It is about time that we protected ourselves against the losses that can easily occur of buildings that are part of our heritage, of whatever denomination or of no denomination. This can happen under the present legislation, and the amendment would prevent it.

Mr. Chapman

I have listened with care to the eloquence and expertise of my hon. Friends the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman) and for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), and I have come to a different conclusion. I invite the House not to accept the amendment or the new clause.

I acknowledge that the law and regulations relating to ecclesiastical exemption are complicated and somewhat anomalous. Church of England churches in use, for example, and non-Church of England churches in use can be altered, extended or partially demolished without listed building consent. However, Church of England redundant churches require consent for alterations or extensions, although this is not required for total or partial demolition, if it is carried out in accordance with a scheme made under the Pastoral Measure. I accept that a non-Church of England church in use requires listed building consent for total demolition.

I wish to point out two matters that go wider. First, church buildings are now listed as, are all other buildings of architectural or historic interest, so that one has the same measuring rod whether a building is an ecclesiastical building of the Church of England or a secular building. Also, we are discussing a very narrow section of the planning laws related to listed building consent only. All Church of England buildings, indeed all church buildings, have no exemption from the normal planning controls.

Some statistics are worthy of recording in this short debate. The Church of England has 17,000 churches, of which a very high proportion, nearly 12,000, are listed. Over 2,600 of those churches are grade 1 listings. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering acknowledged that in the last 17 years at least, only one of those grade 1 listed chuches has been domolished. That is a very favourable record compared with the demolitions of secular buildings. In fact, the Church introduced provisions for the control of the demolition of buildings over 700 years ago. I therefore feel that I can say without fear of contradiction that the system has been tried and tested and, I think, has not been found wanting. It compares more than favourably with the control of listed buildings under the much later town and country planning legislation.

The Church of England spends about £55 million annually on the maintenance and upkeep of its ecclesiastical estate, and only about one tenth of that figure, about £5 million a year, is provided by the state. That is a pretty good record of voluntary contribution. The result is a proven record of success. While I know that one can adduce statistics to prove almost anything, I would abide by the simple point that a listed church of England building has a three times better chance of avoiding demolition than a listed secular building. I suggest that it is tempting providence to change the rules now.

In any case, I understand that discussions have been going on—

Mr. Rooker

Tempting providence?

Mr. Chapman

I thought that was a rather choice phrase. I always describe the recent terrible conflagration of York minster as an act of God. I think is is quite wrong that the state, let alone the Church Commissioners, did not take out insurance to prevent acts of God.

As I say, discussions between the Department of Environment and the Church Commissioners are under way. I remind the House that the existing arrangements have been regularly honed and in the last 15 years Parliament, on three separate occasions, examined these carefully and approved the present arrangements. As to redundant churches, of which there are just over 1,000, three quarters have been saved. Of the 266 that have been demolished since the Pastoral Measure of 1969, only 62 were listed. That is the latest figure that I have. I stand to be corrected although clearly there will not be much difference.

There are many more secular listed buildings—I think the total is about 338,000 currently listed, including the ecclesiastical ones. Last year alone, of those secular listed buildings 204 were demolished and permission was given for 2,372 to be partially demolished.

The Church, in my view, has an extremely good record. Opposition Members may think that it is a typical Conservative remark to say, "Leave well alone." In my view it would be in the interests of conservation and the protection of our wonderful ecclesiastical architectural heritage if we left the law exactly as it presently stands.

7 pm

Mr. Allan Roberts

The special pleading of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) was on behalf of the Church and perhaps not on behalf of the Creator, if He is up there looking down upon us. I am sure He has a real regard for the buildings in which we worship. The people who administer those buildings may not have the same regard for them. I accept the figures the hon. Gentleman gave. I suppose there has not been a major attack on church listed buildings since the days of Oliver Cromwell; he probably altered more than most. Since then the record has been reasonable.

Having listened to the amazing list from the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), I do not think we can treat the new clause lightly; it must be treated seriously. If there are organisations such as the Friends of Friendless Churches there is obviously a problem. I thought it was only animals that attracted such groups. If churches are at such risk that these organisations have to campaign for them, the new clause should be accepted. If the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet is right, and the Church does not want to demolish any empty listed church buildings, why should it object to the change?

I am not sure that amendment No. 98 is so sensible. I hope the Minister will clarify the point. That amendment would affect alterations within a church which was still being used for worship. I have had representations from the Catholic bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, who said: Following the II Vatican Council (1962–1965) we have made significant changes in our worship; this has entailed significant changes in the universal law of our Church about the internal ordering of our churches. Changes have had to be made, but this is done after consultation and with care and discretion. If a listed church is redundant, it should not be demolished without listed building consent. If it is to be converted into say, flats, planning permission should be sought for the change of use. If changes are to be made within a church for the purpose of worship, the provisions should remain as they are.

If money is available and if there is Government support, the real issue is to deal with listed buildings which have fallen into disrepair. There is one such church in my constituency, the parish church of St. James. The roof is falling in. It is like the Roman Catholic cathedral in Liverpool. But it is a listed building; it is a beautiful building and we are desperately trying to get money to repair it. Perhaps the Minister could help me on that as well.

Mr. Tracey

This has been an interesting ecclesiastical lagoon in the midst of what is primarily a housing and planning debate. I appreciate the sincerity of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman) in moving new clause 6 and of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), who tabled amendment No. 98. I understand their reasons. Certainly the Church of England alone does not have to seek listed building consent for the total demolition of a listed church or of an unlisted church in a conservation area, given that the demolition is taking place under the pastoral measure. If the demolition is by faculty, consent is sought in the usual way.

The report of the Faculty Jurisdíction Commission recommended the modification or repeal of section 2, but that was rejected by the General Synod. It is fair to say that many people regret that. I am well aware of the depth of feeling which has manifested itself on both sides of the House and in the country at large.

The subject of ecclesiastical exemption from listed buildings control arouses much feeling. When the Department put out its consultation document in January 1984 on the future of the exemption there were 136 responses. Some argued fiercely for the retention of the exemption; others argued equally fiercely for its abolition, and others simply wanted various modifications. To some extent those views have been reflected in our short debate in the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering and my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, and then, suddenly, of my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman), who has considerable expertise in matters of architecture and conservation.

My hon. Friends know very well that my noble Friend the Minister of State, who has prime responsibility for the subject within the Department, has held discussions with representatives of the Church of England and the Churches Main Committee in an effort to find a way forward that would be acceptable to the churches, to the local authority associations and to the amenity societies. Those discussions have been going on for some time. We are getting to the point when they should perhaps draw to a conclusion; nevertheless they are continuing. My noble Friend still hopes that it will be possible to arrive at precisely the right, mutually acceptable solution. The speeches in the debate will be noted when the legislation goes to the other place. I remind my hon. Friends that not only will the Minister of State be there, but also the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, who is chairman of English Heritage.

Mr. Marlow

I am not sure how my hon. Friend intends to finish his speech. If he were to say that he would accept the amendment, that the debate with the Church will take account of the fact that the Bill has been amended and, if the Church does not like the amendment, that it may come forward with a different amendment in the other place, everybody would be satisfied. We would at least come to a conclusion on the matter.

Mr. Tracey

I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend, but I am not galloping at such a speed. There is considerable expertise in the other place, including that of the bishops, as I think the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) said from a sedentary position. We want debate to take place on the matter so that we may find a mutually acceptable solution.

The new clause and the amendment are somewhat premature. I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise my sincerity and that he will seek to withdraw the new clause.

Mr. Freeman

On the assumption that their Lordships will read carefully the Official Report of this debate, I do not wish to detain the House longer. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the new clause.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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