HC Deb 11 March 1986 vol 93 cc812-4 3.45 pm
Mr. Roger Freeman (Kettering)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to repeal section 2 of the Redundant Churches and other Religious Buildings Act 1969, to prevent the demolition of redundant Anglican churches without listed building consent. As the law stands at present, it is possible for an Anglican church which is no longer required for ecclesiastical purposes to be demolished without listed building consent, provided, of course, that the demolition is following a scheme under the Pastoral Measure 1983. The purpose of my Bill is to change this procedure.

The exemption from the need for consent is a privilege that is enjoyed solely by the Church of England. All other church denominations must obtain listed building consent before they may demolish their churches. This is an anomaly that should not be allowed to continue. May I make it plain that my Bill proposes no changes to the procedure in regard to churches that are in use; it is addressed only to churches that have been declared redundant by the church authorities.

In the 1984 report of the Anglican Churches Faculty Jurisdiction Commission entitled "The Continuing Care of Churches and Cathedrals" it is stated:

"it does appear to us that there could be advantage to the Church as a whole if at the final stage after all the possibilities under the Pastoral Measure had been exhausted, and when the Commissioners had decided that there was no alternative but to demolish, the exemption were lifted and the building in question brought under the normal Listed Building Control".

I agree with the commission, and my Bill would implement its conclusions.

Under the present law, an objection to a proposed demolition can be lodged, but the Church Commissioners' statutory obligation to consult relates solely to the advisory board for redundant churches, which is a Church organisation. Therefore, if the Church Commissioners wish to demolish, there is nothing that the secular authorities can do.

The church of Holy Trinity in Rugby was a listed church which was recently demolished. Bowing to opposition to the proposed demolition of that grade I listed building, the Church Commissioners agreed to hold a non-statutory public inquiry. The inspector's report said that the church should not be demolished until all of the possibilities for re-use had been more extensively explored. My right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), then the Secretary of State for the Environment, went even further and said bluntly that Holy Trinity should not be demolished. Nevertheless, the Church Commissioners decided to ignore the recommendations—the inquiry was non-statutory, after all—and the church was demolished in June 1983.

Other examples of listed Anglican churches demolished include St. Edward Holbeck in Leeds, St. James's in Pentonville, London, and the Church of the Saviour in Bolton. I estimate that since Parliament passed the Redundant Churches and other Religious Buildings Act 1969, some 70 listed Anglican churches have been demolished.

There is a multitude of possibilities for the re-use of redundant churches. The redundant mediaeval churches at Orton and Little Oakley in my constituency of Kettering are now used as training centres for stonemasons. The church at Newton, also in my constituency, is now used as an educational field centre for the training of schoolchildren. The example that hon. Members are probably most familiar with is the outstanding baroque church of St. John's in Smith Square, which is now a concert hall.

Re-use schemes such as those serve to preserve important church buildings while making them useful for the community. I believe that more churches would be thus treated if listed building consent were required before an Anglican church could be demolished. That is not to say that the statutory system for secular listed building control is perfect, but it has many strengths. Relying upon advocacy and public protest, the secular system allows the local authority, the amenity societies and the general public to challenge in an open inquiry anyone who wishes to demolish a listed building. Naturally, if the case for demolition is weak, the weaknesses will be revealed at the inquiry.

I believe that my Bill need have few, if any, financial implications for the taxpayer or for the Church. Of course, if we are to preserve more churches for the sake of architectural interest, the resources of the redundant churches fund which was set up by the Redundant Churches and other Religious Buildings Act 1969 will have to be increased. I believe that it could be increased through an appeal for public donations and not by an additional burden on the taxpayer, who already pays two thirds of the annual cost of replenishing the redundant churches fund. or, for that matter, by the Church which provides the balance. The redundant churches fund has hardly exploited its ability to raise money by public subscription and donations and should do so in future in order to maintain more redundant churches.

There is no reason today why redundant Anglican churches should continue to be treated differently from any other listed church or listed building because, after all, once redundant, the building is effectively secular. The present exemption from listed building control for redundant Anglican churches must be withdrawn to help to preserve those churches of England which constitute such an important part of our heritage. I believe that my Bill would go some way towards doing that.

My Bill is supported by all the national amenity societies: the Ancient Monuments Society, the Civic Trust, the Victorian Society, the Georgian Group, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and SAVE Britain's Heritage. It is also supported by the Association of District Councils and the Association of County Councils and by other bodies concerned with the care of churches, including Friends of Friendless Churches, the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the Council for the Care of Churches and the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England.

3.54 pm
Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)


Mr. Speaker

Does the hon. Gentleman seek to oppose the motion?

Mr. Jessel

Please. I think that it should be put on record that there are some arguments against the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), although I know that he means well.

In my constituency there is a redundant church, the church of St. Albans at Teddington. If my hon. Friend's Bill were to go on the statute book, the Church of England may be forced to find about £1 million to maintain the fabric of a redundant church for which it has no use when the living church has moved across the road to St. Mary' s, Teddington. St. Mary's is an old and beautiful church with a flourishing congregation.

It does not seem right that the Church of England, which is in an exceptional position because it happens to have an exceptionally large number of churches through its heritage of church buildings—many of which are of architectural interest, but many of which are not—should be forced to provide such large sums instead of being able to devote all of its resources to the purposes of its ministry. Its purpose is not to serve as a public museum organisation, and if society and the community at large want redundant churches to be preserved they should find the resources through their own organisations—Parliament, Government, the ministries and local government—and not expect the Church of England to deplete the funds that might be used for missions, pensions for clergymen's widows and so on.

Therefore, I feel that my hon. Friend's Bill is not entirely reasonable, and I cannot support it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Roger Freeman, Mr. Gerald Bowden, Mr. Andrew Faulds, Mr. Neil Hamilton, Mr. Simon Hughes, Mr. Roy Jenkins, Mr. Robert Rhodes James and Mr. Richard Wainwright.