HL Deb 22 April 1969 vol 301 cc378-90

3.0 p.m.


My Lords, the problem with which this Bill and the associated Pastoral Measure of the Church Assembly have been framed to deal is the product of many complex social, religious and economic forces operating over a long period. Among them are the movement of population away from the country to the towns and from the centres of towns to the outskirts, the decline in churchgoing, the incidence of taxation upon those who in the past have contributed largely to the upkeep of out parish churches, and in recent years changes in the concept of what a church is intended to be and to do. In one sense no ancient or beautiful building consecrated to the service of God can ever be redundant, for it is a perpetual reminder in materialistic surroundings of spiritual values; but in another sense it is as certain as anything can be that hundreds of churches throughout the land will no longer be needed in the foreseeable future for the precise social purpose for which they were built.

No one likes to see the church where he has himself worshipped, and beside which his forefathers are buried, closed or demolished. Proposals for closure or demolition are almost always fiercely resisted by the parishioners concerned. The sharp controversy which we see at local level has been reflected at the national level, but there is now at length a real prospect that this problem can be taken out of the field of controversy. The Bill which I am now commending, and the Pastoral Measure from which it springs, are the result of more than ten years of discussion. The proposals for dealing with redundant churches have the agreement of all who have been most closely concerned with this problem, and if everything works out as intended, in future no church of architectural or historic interest should be lost even when it is no longer needed for worship.

I turn now to the Bill itself. It is a short Bill of only seven clauses and its purpose is to enable the State to join with the Church for the first time in a programme for the preservation of places of worship which are no longer needed for that. It enables the Minister of Housing and Local Government to assist in the preservation of places of worship belonging to the Church of England; it enables the Minister and the Secretary of State for Wales to acquire redundant buildings belonging to other Christian denominations and to other faiths altogether—synagogues and mosques. The Bill was not amended during its passage through the House of Commons.

The Pastoral Measure of 1968 set up two bodies: the Redundant Churches Advisory Board and the Redundant Churches Fund. I will describe in a moment what these two bodies do. And the Bill now before the House enables the Government to pay £200,000 over five years to the Redundant Churches Fund which will actually own some redundant churches. The Church Commissioners will pay another £200,000 over the same period. Future periods and amounts are to be specified by order. As well as this £400,000, one-third of the net proceeds of the sale of redundant churches and their sites will be credited to the Fund up to a maximum of £100,000 in any five-year period.

Now, my Lords, I will describe what would happen to a redundant church under the provisions of this Bill. It is extremely complicated, but it is what the church authorities themselves have hammered out under the Pastoral Measure, after many years of debate. The full procedure, summarised from the Pastoral Measure, 1968, is this. The pastoral committee of a diocese are under a duty to review arrangements for pastoral supervision. Before making recommendations to the Bishop for a pastoral scheme, they must ascertain the views of the interested parties, who will include the local planning authority. This is the first time that the State, in the shape of the local planning authority, comes into the picture.

If a declaration of redundancy is proposed in regard to any particular church as part of the Pastoral Measure, the Council for the Care of Churches must be consulted. The pastoral committee recommendations find their way to the Church Commissioners, who send copies to interested parties, including, once again, the local planning authority—this is the second time. The Church Commissioners consult the Advisory Board for Redundant Churches set up under the Pastoral Measure for any proposed declaration of redundancy which involves the demolition or alteration of a church. They then prepare a draft scheme which is served on interested parties including the local planning authority. This is the third bite of the cherry by the local planning authority. If it contains a declaration of redundancy, it is served also on the Redundant Churches Advisory Board, and public notices are given in local papers and on church doors. The matter is then at large for written representations.

If the Church Commissioners decide to make a pastoral scheme, they secure the consent of the Bishop and submit the scheme for confirmation by the Privy Council. They must give notice to all interested parties, including the local planning authority—this makes their fourth appearance—and to all who have made written representations, and publish a newspaper notice explaining the right of appeal to the Privy Council. Appeals to the Privy Council are heard by the Judicial Committee.

A pastoral scheme can provide directly for the demolition of a redundant church only where a new church is to be provided and if the Advisory Board certify that the old church is of little value historically and architecturally. In all other cases the future of the church is decided under a redundancy scheme which can provide for appropriation of the church to other uses or for preservation by the Redundant Churches Fund, or, failing either, for demolition.

The procedure for a redundancy scheme—and I would remind your Lordships that this is the smaller matter which concerns one or two churches only and not the larger pastoral scheme—is this. When the declaration of redundancy takes effect, the building vests in the Diocesan Board of Finance and there is normally a waiting period of up to three years during which the Board look after the building and the Diocesan Redundant Churches Uses Committee try to find an alternative use. After the waiting period the Commissioners can prepare a redundancy scheme. First, they must consult the Bishop and, if demolition or preservation is proposed, the Redundant Churches Advisory Board also. A copy of the draft scheme is served on the Diocesan Board of Finance, the local planning authority, the Advisory Board and, where they are involved, the Redundant Churches Fund. There must also be a newspaper notice inviting written representations.

The Commissioners then consider; and if they decide to make the scheme they submit it for confirmation by the Privy Council. In cases of redundancy schemes, as opposed to pastoral schemes, there is no provision for appeal to the Privy Council. This is not simple; but equally it is not the kind of procedure which is going to ride roughshod over local feelings and over the best available architectural advice. Those are two sides of the same coin.

My Lords, I am now in a position to tell the House the membership of the Advisory Board for Redundant Churches and the chairmanship of the Redundant Churches Fund. The Advisory Board is appointed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, jointly, after consultation with the Prime Minister. The Chairman is to be Sir Eric Fletcher, who is well known to all in your Lordships' House not only as an ecclesiologist but also as a very eminent Parliamentarian in the House of Commons. The members are the noble Viscount, Lord Esher, the architect and author of the recent report on York; Lady Radnor, who has had years of experience on the Historic Buildings Council; Sir Francis Hill, the historian of Lincoln and a man of wide experience of local government; the Reverend Basil Clark; the Reverend R. L. S. Milburn, the Dean of Worcester; Mr. J. Brandon-Jones, a member of the Historic Buildings Council and leading light of the Victorian Society; and Professor Nikolaus Pevsner, in a way the founder of large-scale architectural and historical studies in this country.

The Redundant Churches Fund, the body which is to own certain redundant churches, will consist of a Chairman and not less than four or more than six other members to be appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Archbishops submitted through the Prime Minister. So far, only the Chairman has been appointed. He is to be Mr. Ivor Bulmer-Thomas, whose work as the founder and President of the Friends of the Friendless Churches, is, I think, known and appreciated by all who care about these matters.

As noble Lords will have seen from what I have said, if there is a new full-time use to which a redundant church can be put, whether for worship by another denomination or as a museum or as part of a university—or even, as I have seen in the case of one church, as a theatre—the right time for this to be arranged is while the church is still in the hands of the diocesan authority. It is only when no proper full-time use can be found that the church can come into the hands of the Redundant Churches Fund. But that is not the end of the matter, so far as use is concerned, because the Fund is allowed not only to permit the use of the church for occasional acts of worship—so much is obvious—but also, under Section 45 of the Pastoral Measure, to permit its occasional use for any other purpose they consider suitable. I very much hope—and I believe that my hope will be shared by the Church authorities and the members of the Fund—that it will prove possible for these powers to be used ingeniously and energetically so that we do not have simply a series of beautiful shells which may be coldly inspected by tourists and scholars but, so far as is humanly possible, a series of beautiful buildings in pleasing and decent, if intermittent use.

Just a word, my Lords, about the size of the problem. It is very hard to gauge this, but here are some facts which may assist one to a picture. There are 9,976 churches listed by my right honourable friend as buildings of architectural or historic interest. The Archbishop's Commission on redundant churches which reported some years ago estimated that nearly 800 churches would become redundant by about 1980 and that about 440 of these would be churches "with a high degree of special interest". The same Report estimated that the Redundant Churches Fund might be asked to accept responsibility for as many as 300 or 400 churches, and these, of course, by definition would be from among the 500 or so redundant churches of special interest. It may be that the figure of 300 or 400 will, or should, prove to be in the nature of a maximum.

It may be of interest for the House to be reminded of what is done abroad about this problem. In France, cathedrals belong to the State and parish churches to the local authorities, and that is that. In Bavaria, where most of the German architectural heritage is by way of churches, and in Spain, Italy, Denmark and other countries, monumental churches, by and large, belong to the State, and that is that. In Holland, on the other hand, churches still belong to the Church as they do in England.

At this stage, I shall not speculate on the place which may prove to be occupied by the present Bill in the developing saga of relations between Church and State in this country. This Bill is limited simply to the care of churches from which the worshipping population has moved away and which are therefore redundant. The question of any State responsibility for the great majority of churches which are still in use for worship, and likely to remain so, is one which, as I have told the House before, the Government are content to leave where it is; that is, with the arrangement of 1913 by which cathedrals and churches were exempted from State control of historic monuments and as a corollary received no State aid towards maintenance; unless indeed the Church itself were to wish it otherwise, in which case the Government would study any formal proposal from the Church with an open mind. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Kennet.)

3.15 p.m.


My Lords, the whole House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, for the understanding and succinct way in which he introduced this Bill. As he said, it is in its full extent, when coupled with the Pastoral Measure, a very complex puzzle of proposals; though this particular Bill is merely the small last piece that completes the whole jig-saw. The House will also be specially grateful to the noble Lord for taking this opportunity to announce the names of the Advisory Board for Redundant Churches and the Chairman of the Redundant Churches Fund. I think that in the first case the names he has given us will fully meet the main requirement, which was that this Advisory Board should command the full confidence of all the many parties interested in this complex problem. So far as the Redundant Churches Fund is concerned, I am sure that this marks a very happy climax to the crusading work of Mr. Ivor Bulmer-Thomas on behalf of friendless churches.

I think the noble Lord was wise to stop when he had dealt with the redundant churches and not to take us any further into the whole question of State aid for churches and cathedrals now in use. The comprehensive way in which he introduced the Bill has, at any rate for me, cleared up any doubts or questions that I might have had about it. The single point that I am left with—perhaps the right reverend Prelate, the Bishop of Lincoln, will deal with it—is whether I am right in assuming that a building which has been transferred under Clause 4 of the Bill to the Minister of Housing and Local Government can be restored as a place of public religious worship for use by members of any religious creed. That is my reading of the Bill and I should like to be assured on that point. Apart from that small detail, I should like to join the noble Lord in wishing the Bill a Second Reading.

3.17 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to join in the general welcome which this Bill received in another place and which I believe it will receive in your Lordships' House. Before speaking on some of the provisions of the Bill, or the reasons for it, I should like to pay tribute to the people of this country who have maintained the parish churches of this land. I think that but for the support which we have received, not simply from practising or regular members of the Church of England but from members of other Churches and from people of good will, it would not have been possible to maintain the parish churches in their present state of repair.

In the course of my speech, my Lords, I shall from time to time refer to my own diocese of Lincoln. I shall do that only because there are particular figures which I think could be equally applied to other dioceses. The diocese of Lincoln has over 700 parish churches. The greater number are mediæval; most of them are country churches. I estimate that since the ending of the war we have, in Lincolnshire, raised something like £1 million for the repair of parish churches, and in addition we have raised a quarter of a million for the repair of the Cathedral.

I think it also right to remind your Lordships that every parish church is now required to have a quinquennial survey of the fabric. The reason very often why we have been faced with staggering costs for church repairs is because for long periods there has been only very superficial work done on the fabric. The quinquennial survey ensures that a building is regularly surveyed by a qualified architect and that work is done which, had it been left, might have cost many thousands of pounds and which could not be remedied by the spending of a matter of £100 or £200. I do not think it an exaggeration to say that at the present time, generally speaking, the parish churches of this country are in as good a state of repair as at any time since the period of the great Victorian restoration of church buildings. Nevertheless, we cannot avoid the issue that some churches are clearly redundant. The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, gave some reasons.

Of course, this is no new problem. Professor Beresford reckons that there are something like 100 villages in Lincolnshire which have disappeared. All those villages had churches. Many of the churches have disappeared, too, but some are left, often standing out remote in the marshland or out in the wolds, with no population of any kind in their immediate vicinity. In rural dioceses such as Lincolnshire and, I would add, Norfolk and Suffolk, where the drifting of population from the country to the towns has been going on over the last 100 years, villages have deer-cased in population. There are villages in Lincolnshire which, even in the last quarter century, have lost half their populations and, as noble Lords are aware, as a result of modern agriculture, there is no longer the work for people in the country. In a county like Lincolnshire, remote from the industrial areas, if there is no local work then people move away. And we are not at the end of this process of depopulation.

Many of our small villages are populated mainly by old people. There are now villages with 12, 14 or 20 people, but these may often still have a large parish church. We have made a careful survey of the whole of Lincolnshire. This was done area by area by groups of local people. It was not something which had been imposed from the centre. Local commissions in every area were appointed to look at the pastoral needs of the Church and as a result they have made recommendations concerning redundant churches.

I give your Lordships these figures because I think they help to understand the size of the problem. In Lincolnshire alone there were 57 churches which are no longer used, or used only on very rare occasions. There were a further 42 churches which seemed likely to come into the same category in the fairly near future, and in addition there were 66 parishes which had a population of only 100 people. We can see that this means a very considerable problem, not simply of church buildings but of something which to my mind is infinitely more important, the whole question of neighbourhood and community in the country. I can think of a district in mid-Lincolnshire in which there are four mediæval churches, two of them of quite magnificent splendour, all roughly within a mile or a mile and a half of each other. The total population of the district is less than 400 people. Clearly, it is beyond the possibility of a local community to raise sufficient money for the maintenance, let alone the restoration, of such splendid buildings.

There is a further point which I believe is of importance. I admire tremendously the efforts, the ingenuity and the persistence with which church people raise money for the support of their churches but there are times when I am bound to ask: is it right that all this money should go towards church buildings and perhaps not enough towards those great objects with which Christian compassion should really be concerned? I recognise that these buildings are part of our national heritage. They are monuments of our social as well as our religious history. They witness to the faith of past generations. But it can happen, I believe, that their continued maintenance as church buildings can be to the detriment of the present Christian community and its influence in the whole life of the neighbourhood. As I understand it, the point of a parish church traditionally has been that wherever people live and work, there should be a church, with its ministry, its pastoral care and its worship, in the midst, to give a depth and dimension to the life of the whole community. This, I believe, is a positive element in the building up of community.

At the present time in the countryside we are faced with a major social problem. It is the building up of a new community life. Country life is sound and prosperous, but unless men and women living in the country have a feeling of belonging to a neighbourhood they may get disheartened and drift to the towns. In some cases the old villages are no longer villages, but simply hamlets, and they have to be made part of a larger neighbourhood and community. And I believe that the Church must be in the forefront of this whole movement. Of course, it involves many other problems—education, social recreation and all the rest—but if we insist on trying to maintain every church as a centre of worship for the Christian community we may in fact be doing grave disservice to the nation. What we need to do is to build up Christian communities capable of influencing the neighbourhood and of helping to create standards of life. To do this it is essential that churches with five or six people meeting in them must be closed. They might be used for occasional services but certainly not as regular places of public worship, and the churches as such cannot be expected to carry the cost of preserving those buildings which, rightly, should be preserved.

In the towns the principle is much the same. Perhaps I may illustrate it in this way. In the towns of Lincoln and Grimsby, the areas occupied by houses are just twice as large as they were before 1939, yet the population is just about the same: there has been very little increase. What has happened, of course, is that people have moved out from the bad crowded housing of 19th century industrialism into the well-planned suburbs of these towns. And the first duty of the Church is to provide churches there, where the people live; and to do that we must close some churches which are no longer required by the people who live in the town centres. The saddest thing of all, when we come to try to close one of these older churches is that the people who most bitterly oppose the closure are often not people who live in the parish but people who used to live there and who have moved out into new neighbourhoods. Instead of joining themselves with the new Christian communities, they cling on, in a nostalgic kind of way, to the churches of their upbringing, often of their early spiritual experiences. None the less, if we are to fulfil our duties in the new neighbourhoods, some of these churches in the town centres must be closed.

I believe that the provisions of this Bill are a reasonable compromise. I am rather frightened that perhaps in some ways the process may take too long; that buildings may fall into disrepair because nobody will be greatly concerned to see to their maintenance during the waiting period. I believe that the Bill provides a proper opportunity for all people, not just the Church but everyone who has an interest in our ancient heritage of parish churches, to make their protest and their opinions known. It provides an opportunity to find alternative uses for church buildings. I think that we have to be a little less rigid in our views about what is and what is not a proper use for a church building. But in the end, I believe that the measure will provide for some of those buildings to be retained and maintained by the Redundant Churches Fund.

I am afraid I do not know immediately the answer to the point which the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, made, as to the bringing hack into use of such a church. I have always thought that, just as the Redundant Churches Fund could allow a building to be used on occasions for services of public worship, if there were an overwhelming demand for a church to be brought back into full use—for example, because of the building of some new town—this would be possible under this Bill.

3.31 p.m.


My Lords, I should like first to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, on the lucid way in which he expounded this remarkably difficult exercise in bureaucracy—which is what it is—to deal with this particular problem. I am glad that the right reverend Prelate spoke about the diocese of Lincoln, because that is the rural diocese of this country that will present the great rural problem of depopulated villages and so on. I am deeply distrustful of any figures which anybody gives as to the number of redundant churches. It depends really upon where you draw the line, because with the ever-spreading motor car it is certainly possible to say that villagers ought to be prepared to motor a certain number of miles to their church. That in turn, of course, will immediately throw up an enormous quantity of redundant churches: and these are going to be the most difficult of all to deal with.

What is an historic church in a small hamlet to become? At the best it can become a sort of museum, where tourists occasionally stop and ask somebody for the key, perhaps paying 2s. 6d. for the privilege, and go in and look at and photograph the church and so on. Nobody is to know whether those tourists are there with good intentions or not. As one who is concerned with the insurance of churches, I can only say that there are more and more thefts of the contents of churches every day. I can quite see that these country churches, if they have to be kept (and they will have to be kept), will be an absolute magnet for all the lead thieves and thieves of ornaments. Are they to be kept as an absolute shell, or will there be some brass candlesticks, crosses and lamps in them? These, so far as I can see, will disappear very quickly in present circumstances. And once the lead has gone off the roof it has to be replaced with something else at vast expense. That will be the headache of the Redundant Churches Commission. There is a much more reasonable chance of being able to find some alternative use for town churches. One has heard of their use as libraries, museums, boys' clubs and the like, though one or two churches I have seen did not seem to me to be useful for anything except a badminton club. But they are much easier to use.

However, owing to the tremendous opposition to declaring any church redundant that is always raised, we have this appallingly long bureaucratic process before we can do anything about it. During that time the responsibility for the church falls on to the diocese; and as chairman of the Diocese Board of Finance, I do not at all like the idea of having to finance, possibly for three years, some large church in an area frequented by hooligans, to try to preserve it from destruction while some very worthy body tries to find some use for it. There again, the question of theft arises. If you lock the church the thieves will get on to the roof; and if there is any lead there it will go. I am afraid, knowing the nature of the problem, that this appalling bureaucratic process is inevitable. One can only hope that as time goes on we shall surmount our difficulties; and, of course, the better we surmount them and the easier it becomes to find proper alternative uses for redundant churches, the more redundant churches will be thrown up.