HL Deb 22 January 1975 vol 356 cc108-11

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows :

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they propose to make a contribution to the appeal fund for the restoration of Canterbury Cathedral; and if so, how much.


No, my Lords. Successive Governments have maintained the position that their powers to make grants for the repair of buildings of outstanding historic or architectural interest should not extend to cathedrals as ecclesiastical buildings in use.


My Lords, while thanking the noble Baroness for her reply, may I ask whether she would not agree that buildings like Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey are in the nature of national shrines and really should not be allowed to deteriorate significantly, particularly at times like these when the costs of repair are so high and probably beyond the means of the local authorities involved?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, the potential for raising funds for cathedrals is enormously great. In fact in recent years over £3 million has been raised for St. Paul's Cathedral and £2 million for York Minster. It is this potential for voluntary fund raising which makes them rather lower candidates in the list for Government funds.


My Lords, that is, of course, the only answer the noble Baroness could give under the present dispensation, but can she say whether a new dispensation for grant aid from the State to churches is being worked out, and when she will be able to announce details of it?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, discussions with the Working Party of the General Synod are continuing. When they are completed and a decision has been taken my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will be making a Statement.


My Lords, are the Government aware that there is no legal prohibition upon the Historic Buildings Council making grants to churches?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, in return for a long-standing agreement whereby churches are exempted from statutory control for repairs and demolition, they have undertaken to finance the upkeep of their buildings without recourse to State assistance, and this has continued until now.


My Lords, if York-shire can raise over £2 million for York Minster, would it not be possible for the rich South-East to raise the money for this purpose?

The Lord Bishop of LEICESTER

My Lords, while appreciating very much the remarks of the noble Baroness, may I ask her whether she will confirm that the rather terse reply that she gave to the first Question did not imply any fore-closing of the issue that is now under discussion between the Working Party and Her Majesty's Government?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, the reply that I gave in answer to the first Question was along almost exactly the same lines as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State gave in a Written Answer to a similar question very recently in the other place. As I have explained, the Working Party discussions are going on, but I am sure that the right reverend Prelate will understand that I am not in a position to make any statement about that matter at the moment.


My Lords, I suppose that I ought to disclose an interest as my name appears on the literature of the appeal. Is this not all a little unrealistic? Do not the Government realise that some of these buildings are not simply little boxes for Anglicans to worship in according to their own peculiar tenets but form part of the national heritage, and form places of pilgrimage for Christians and others of all denominations from all over the world, and probably attract a great deal of foreign currency? What will happen to the Government if this place is allowed to fall down? Does not the noble Baroness think that she will look pretty silly?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, if it fell down on me I should look pretty dead, In reply to the noble and learned Lord's question, of course these buildings are part of the national heritage, and that is why there have been discussions in this Working Party set up in 1971—and the discussions have continued—and why there will soon be a Statement from my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. But the fact remains that cathedrals attract a good deal of voluntary funds and, as I am sure the noble and learned Lord will appreciate, there are probably greater demands for survival in the field of our national heritage.


My Lords, would not my noble friend agree that while we all desire to see these big boxes preserved, in these times of financial stringency there is much greater call for any spare finance to be handed over in order to build the smaller boxes in which ordinary people can live more habitably?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, there is always a question of priorities in trying to make a small amount go a very long way, and this is one of the problems.


My Lords, does not the noble Baroness think it intolerable that discussions which were started in 1971 should still be continuing in 1975 over a problem which, due to inflation, becomes more and more urgent every year? It is not only the great cathedrals that are concerned. There are many cathedral like parish churches in places which have practically no inhabitants to keep them up.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I do not think that one can entirely blame the Government, and if one is blaming Governments it involves two Governments anyway. These matters take a considerable time, and there are a number of parties concerned in this.

The Lord Bishop of LEICESTER

My Lords, may I ask one more question that would perhaps be easier for the noble Baroness to answer from the heart? Will she confirm that there is at present the power for local authorities to assist in these matters, and that in the major cathedral appeals this has been one of the most vital conditions for success?

Barones BIRK

Yes, my Lords, there is provision.


My Lords, would not the noble Baroness agree that how-ever splendid the response to previous similar appeals, the capacity both of individuals and institutions to respond today to such appeals is being greatly eroded by current taxation policies?


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether the Church Commission is at liberty to make contributions for this purpose?

The Lord Bishop of LEICESTER

No, my Lords.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I gather that the answer is, No.