HL Deb 25 October 2004 vol 665 cc1143-62

7.40 p.m.

Lord Harrison asked Her Majesty's Government:

What contribution they make to maintaining the architectural heritage of England's churches; and what is their view on combining the function of churches as places of worship with other ways of serving the whole of their local communities.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, today is my wedding anniversary. Nearly a quarter of a century ago my wife and I, loyal members of God's opposition, were happily married in Chester's modern but anonymous register office. Later Chester's then MP, Gyles Brandreth, pioneered legislation enabling unconventional venues to host civil weddings, thus satisfying people's need to marry locally and in buildings of distinction.

Why not have a third option; namely, being married in a civil ceremony performed in a couple's local church? Indeed, why should not the local church house other non-religious activities for the local community? Is it not time to put England's church buildings back at the heart of the very communities which in the past built, succoured and developed them? Most of the buildings are beautiful and many are at the heart of the local community, but they are also sadly now underused and need repair as congregations diminish, finance shrivels and modern legislation such as the DDA beckons.

My debate tonight suggests that England's churches are a shared responsibility for churchgoers, for non-churchgoers and for the Government alike; and if we truly value our local churches, it is literally time to stop the rot.

This summer the Harrison family holidayed in East Sussex where we came across the magnificent church of Lydd, dubbed locally as the "cathedral of the marshes", such is its towering grandeur. But on talking to older parishioners kindly welcoming visitors to the church, we learned of a dwindling congregation of some 30 hardy souls. We were grateful to these volunteers for keeping the church open for our benefit. They told us of the desperate need for maintenance and repair funds. We gave a donation on leaving and purchased a guide book to the church, itself lovingly written by some unseen Milton. But each of us here tonight could furnish similar examples of fading finances and congregations.

No wonder the Church of England's repair bill is something like £80 million a year, of which only some £30 million is reimbursed through grants from the state. Tonight I confine my remarks to the buildings of the Church of England, although my thoughts may have application to other denominations and faith groups.

There is a pressing need to bring people and resources back into these venerable and venerated buildings. Some churches with enlightened leadership have made a good start in welcoming non-religious activities consonant with the need to respect faith and fabric. We are used to beautiful churches echoing to heavenly music in concert recitals in local churches. We are perhaps less used to the idea of black-tie dinners for corporate functions, as pioneered at Ripon Cathedral, where a champagne reception held at the west door was followed by a dinner served in the nave; or the sight in some local churches of football fans watching Euro 2004 on large screens in the transept. But why should Highbury and Old Trafford he the only cathedrals packed with worshippers?

Others have gone further. St Paul's Church at The Crossing in Walsall is an outstanding example. By installing a mezzanine floor, the upper floor—presumably now with a superior view of the stained glass windows—is maintained for traditional Sunday church services. On the ground floor a chapel is maintained for daily worshippers, while the remaining space is allotted to retail units, offices and even an examination hall for a local college. It is a happy marriage of religious and non-religious activities, which now draws 3,000 people through the doors each week in a city centre location that had previously lost 5,000 from the local electoral roll and is a benefit to all in the local community, including a revived church.

However, the Church itself must be more nimble in instituting change and innovation. It cannot afford to harbour prejudices—for example, excluding judo clubs on the tenuous grounds that judo resonates of a rival religion. Surely there is more to be gained from rubbing shoulders, not cold-shouldering the world outside. Why should not the local bridge or chess club meet in the local church? What about old persons' luncheon clubs, ending with the flourish of a rousing round of bingo? Why should not the local church house other local services, such as the post office, library or bank, sharing premises with parties which have common needs with the church, such as secure buildings, for instance? It makes economic sense.

I ask the Minister and, indeed, representatives of the Church here this evening, whether research has been undertaken to establish the viability of billeting such local services in churches; or, for instance, have the Government asked the English Tourism Council to speak to the Church about locating tourist information centres in appropriate church settings, to the mutual benefit of each party?

What about markets in the nave, as suggested by the venerable Geoffrey Sidaway of Gloucester, echoing the use of medieval churches as the regular place for the community to meet and trade? Why not today have farmers' markets in the nave, especially before harvest festival?

I believe that it is time for all of us—government, the Church and the local community—to be radical and co-operative to make a reality of Archbishop William Temple's observation that: Churches are the only co-operative society … that exists for the benefit of its non-members".

I address each party in turn. First, I shall deal with central and local government. I ask my noble friend the Minister what assessment has been made of the grants given to the Church through English Heritage, the Heritage Lottery Fund and historic churches funds, and indirectly through, for instance, VAT remission—a matter warmly welcomed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, whose track record on these issues is well established?

Incidentally, I was pleased on another family holiday in Lincolnshire to come across EU-funded guides extolling the remarkable history and beauty of local churches. I wonder whether government are talking to our EU partners about the upkeep and use of church buildings—surely, a problem we share.

I recap: will the Government undertake to talk to the Church about developing a strategy for public money spent on church buildings so that we can assess value for money, as well as the appropriate size and directions of the budget? Indeed, do the Government believe it is right to suggest to the Church, as the quid pro quo for receiving these grants, a programme of widening the access to the broader community? And I have in mind more than a physical access that implementing the DDA would encourage; we need a truly open-door policy for all.

I turn to the Church. Is it mentally prepared to throw open its doors, within reason, to all the community, and to encourage other non-conventional activities, consonant with a civilised and caring society? Such a change in attitude can have startling consequences: a new warmth and openness, which will encourage local people with organisational and financial skills to help the Church because they value the building, if not the message. The Church's dire need for such skills is highlighted by Trevor Cooper in How Do We Keep Our Parish Churches? Returning to the Disability Discrimination Act, help in kind in installing ramps, toilets and kitchens might be an appropriate contribution from local builders, plumbers and electricians, if the object were to help the wider community rather than the narrower Church.

My colleague in another place Frank Field, chair of the Churches Conservation Trust, suggests that local trusts might be asked to run historic churches in the absence of viable congregations. But why not make a virtue of enlisting the help of the local community? Why not recruit non-believers on to local church boards or the rosters of volunteers who keep our churches, such as that in Lydd, open for the benefit of us all? And what of the proposal of the dean of Chester Cathedral to issue citizenship cards to local people, inducing a sense of ownership of a prized landmark, the local cathedral?

Matthew Arnold's sea of faith may still be receding, but it is time now for the Church to undergo a further sea-change in its engagement of the local community and to cast off the idea that you must be a Christian to use your local church. Incidentally, there is anecdotal evidence that, where such openness is practised, congregations have returned. Has the Church the wit, wisdom and willingness to grasp that opportunity?

Responsibility also falls on those of us who do not go to church other than as visitors or for our friends and relatives who do. Incidentally, when I return, I love singing as gustily as anyone the hymns I learnt as a schoolboy. I may not believe the words but I do not see why God should have all the best tunes. But we stay-aways also have a responsibility for our local churches. We should be their local flying buttresses, supporting the fabric and foundation of our local churches, for if we lose these local jewels we will be partly to blame.

My wife and I value the local church bell that tolls near our house. It sounds a note of optimism that there is such a thing as society. Now is the time for all of us to bring up to date that ancient idea of the church building being at the heart of the local community. I hope that tonight's debate lays a foundation stone for that shared hope.

7.53 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of London

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for initiating the debate. The noble Lord is in this matter what, I believe, Americans call a "non-remunerated endorser". The same cannot be said for the Bishop of London, and I must declare so many interests it is almost tedious: not only as the chairman of the Church Heritage Forum, which handles business relating to the Church of England churches and cathedrals nationally, but as a partner in innumerable fundraising projects.

The noble Lord made a very important point about the engagement between the Church through its buildings and wider society. A sample of my own current preoccupations perhaps illustrates the work already being done and the current close connection between churches and culture, churches and regeneration strategies, churches and the wider sympathetic but non-worshipping community.

St John's, Hoxton, for example, has a wonderfully restored partnership between a very vigorous local community in Hoxton, where it is undoubtedly the most beautiful and historic building left, English Heritage and a whole raft of community organisations such as an employment project for people suffering with disabilities and an opportunity for families under stress to find neutral ground where they can meet.

I am just about to rededicate Christchurch, Spitalfields, which, with its school, has had a history of service to a very necessitous local community. It has been the centre for a programme of rescuing people from alcohol addiction and is also the venue for a prestigious summer music festival.

Last week I had a meeting with the vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields. We are engaged in raising about £34 million to refurbish the church as a landmark on that world square. The church is home to two congregations, one international and the other a growing Chinese church. But the money is also necessary to develop the facilities of the social care unit, which among many other things has helped countless rough sleepers off the streets, into accommodation and into work. There is also an educational dimension to the project and an arts theme. St Martin's is one of the most popular concert venues in London.

St George's Bloomsbury, another Hawksmoor masterpiece, rather fancifully constructed in the 18th century on the model of the mausoleum of Halicarnassus—with George I there instead of Mausolus—is currently shrouded in polythene and scaffolding. It is so close to the hearts of the local community that the local pizza parlour has devised a special San Giorgio pizza, the profits of which go to the restoration. I could go on, as the variety of uses is huge. As the noble Lord said, we must find reasonable and appropriate uses. I can assure the Minister that I shall not personally be submitting an application for a licence to turn St Paul's Cathedral into a casino.

We have been able to achieve some progress on all those sites because of partnerships. We are very grateful for the help and funding that come already via English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund. We understand the pressures on them and can celebrate the fact that our partnership has grown in mutual understanding over the past few years. But studying the returns to questionnaires sent to all the parishes in the country in 2003 reveals that the repair needs now for only two dioceses, Chelmsford and Norwich, would absorb the total amount of grant money available from English Heritage and the HLF for 2004–05. That is some of the research that supports the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Harrison.

That figure and many other statistics are available in the report launched last week, Building Faith in our Future. I should be very happy to supply any noble Lord with a copy. It is also available on our web site. This report does not whinge but is written with justifiable pride in the achievements and generosity of tens of thousands of volunteers who have ensured that our buildings are in a better state of repair than for a millennium. The question is whether that achievement is sustainable.

The report makes very clear that the points that we are making apply not only to Church of England churches, as the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, underlined, but to many places of worship, including synagogues and Wesley's chapels. But it is certainly true that the bulk of the responsibility is upon the shoulders of the Church of England, custodian of 13,000 listed churches. Noble Lords may therefore ask—and it has been asked—why we do not share more with, for example, other Christians. In many places we do and the possibility of that already exists. In the City of London alone our current ecumenical partners sharing church buildings include Mar Toma, Antiochian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian Lutheran, Romanian, Philippine Charismatic Episcopal, Indian Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Scottish Presbyterian congregations. I had better cease there or I shall start chanting. We offered to give one historic church to one of those partner bodies. It investigated the figures, looked at how much it would cost to maintain, and said, "No, thank you very much".

Noble Lords may also ask why the buildings are not more accessible. Many are, as I have hoped to underline, thanks to volunteers. We are particularly grateful for the assistance of the Friends of the City Churches, people like those mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, who love the buildings but are completely independent. However, accessibility and proper presentation take investment, as noble Lords will see from the salaried help and the budget necessary to show the Jewel Tower just across the road to good advantage. If we really want to get the educational value and heritage value out of a medieval tower, the investment must be considerable.

I do not want to take advantage of the happy circumstance of the lengthening of the debate, but, in the limited time available, I must make one major point. The contribution of the heritage agencies is vital, but the resources to release the full potential of such important community buildings should How not only from worshippers and heritage organisations but from the other sectors and budgets on which church buildings already have a measurable impact.

The figure in the research that has been done recently that I find surprising comes from research jointly undertaken with English Heritage in 2003. It suggests that a staggering 86 per cent of the population had visited a church or other place of worship in the previous 12 months. They came for many reasons: music, theatre, school productions or worship. The cultural outreach of church buildings was demonstrated in the recent parliamentary debates in your Lordships' House on the Licensing Bill. Many voices were raised on behalf of church buildings, urging their exemption from any onerous licensing system. They included the voices of parliamentarians who, like the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, would not wish to identify themselves as practising members of a particular religion. We recognise and welcome that.

The report gives chapter and verse on the wider cultural impact of church buildings and the considerable contribution that they make to local economies. A recent study shows that visitors to cathedrals alone generate £91 million in direct spending to enrich the relevant local economy. I love Wells, but how many people would visit the city and spend money there, were it not for the glorious cathedral? The volunteers based in church buildings also contribute socially, by offering a wide range of community support services. In some cases, we have been able to cost the value of that voluntary effort.

The Church of England is regarded—even legally, in some respects—as a public utility. As we in the House know, however, the Church is supported largely as a private charity, something that is, unfortunately, not understood widely in the country at large. In other European countries, a more realistic contribution to the maintenance of the historic fabric seems to be possible, in view of the considerable social benefits that church buildings offer to the whole community. I must make it clear that, as far as concerns the Church of England, we are not advocating any French solution, in which the state would undertake to maintain all ecclesiastical buildings more than 100 years old. We value the partnership model and the stimulus that it often provides to local community action, but we need more help.

We are extremely grateful for what the Chancellor has already done in the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme, and we are particularly grateful for the comment made by his department that the scheme would last until at least March 2006. However, we strongly support the Government's negotiating position in Europe, aimed at bringing about a permanent change in the VAT regime. It would be a great boon to hard-pressed communities if VAT were simply lower in the first place, without the necessity to pay it and then reclaim it.

I listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, and am sympathetic to his point that it is also for the Church to develop a new attitude. Our prayer must be "Let there be a revolution", but we accept that it ought to include the petition "Let the revolution start with us". The Church must, at every level, be more and more serious about engaging with other stakeholders and potential partners and, where appropriate, changing its regulations to permit greater shared responsibility for church buildings.

Our contribution has been a kind of Green Paper. We have proposed an agenda that seeks the views and responses of the large number of people who are concerned with the issue. There is a disposition in the Church to be adventurous, and we need the help of the House in identifying new ways for the Church, the steward of so many of the most cherished community symbols and facilities, to freshen and resource its already deep connection with all the people of England.

We hope, by the end of the process, to have a clearer idea of what faith communities are doing already through their stewardship of their buildings. It is considerable, and we need to map it and be clear about it. By the end of the process, we must be clearer about what more we, as faith communities, want to do. We hope, by the end of the process, to be clearer about what the Government and the wider community really want in that delicate balance between conservation and the thorough use of the buildings in the service of regeneration strategies. We hope to understand and put figures on the additional resources that will be necessary and where they will come from.

In conclusion, I thank the noble Lord very much indeed for allowing us to ventilate the subject this evening.

8.6 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for initiating this timely debate.

My colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, has been, as he told us, instrumental in promoting a coherent national strategy on church buildings in the Church of England. That is necessary partly because our ancient parish churches are cared for as a result of the best sort of localism. Thousands of volunteers maintain and raise funds for that priceless part of our national heritage, which is why, strangely, our parish churches have perhaps never been so well cared for as they are now. Most of them are loved, but the costs are spiralling and grant aid seems to be reducing. Rightly or wrongly, that is the perception.

I am far from convinced that the next generation of Christian people in the Church of England will want to give so much time to maintaining our architectural heritage as is the case with the present generation of Anglican Christians. Somehow, the impression is abroad that the Church of England is subsidised by the state, whereas the true position is almost precisely the reverse, as far as our built heritage goes and in most other ways. That is why this debate is so timely.

The diocese of Norwich contains a greater concentration of medieval churches than anywhere else in western Europe. It is reckoned too that almost half of all visitors to Norfolk visit a parish church during their stay; they can hardly avoid it—there are so many of them. More than half a million visitors come to Norwich Cathedral each year. It is, I am told, the biggest tourist attraction in East Anglia, although it does not set out to be one. As an economic driver for the city of Norwich, the cathedral's contribution to local spending and in support of other businesses must be enormous.

Theme parks and casinos are now more commonly spoken of as wonderful economic drivers for a town, city or region. There is something that seems to prevent us acknowledging churches and cathedrals in quite the same way. On the church side, we do not normally calculate those things in case we are regarded as unspiritual. On the tourism side, there seems to be a coyness about the promotion of churches and religious buildings, perhaps because the secular mindset takes over and then their significance is underplayed.

It is time that we put that right. As the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, has reminded us, these are community buildings. The Church of England has never regarded them as exclusively for worship—think, for example, of the concerts everywhere to which my colleague referred. Yet it is noticeable that this is how some of the funding agencies seem to regard them. I have been told more than once that the village hall is for everyone, but faith-based buildings are not. If the people of this country are not to be separated from their own heritage, that argument, which has become very fashionable, needs countering.

Some of our parish churches have been transformed for wider community purposes, and to good effect. The nave of one of our Norfolk village churches is already effectively the school hall and gymnasium for the very cramped village school next door. That is achievable only if pews are removed. But the passionate defences mounted by some people for that backbreaking form of seating never fails to astound me. I notice that the defences of pews are normally mounted by those who never sit in them. I am not saying that people here do that, of course, because we are very comfortably upholstered.

If we are again to use the naves of our parish churches for community use—for which the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, pleads, and I agree with him—just as they were in the Middle Ages, then we have to get away from thinking that our churches as we have received them, furnishings and all, are what they are meant to look like. Conservation is not the enemy of community building, but it can be if interpreted too narrowly.

Last year, some professional, independent research was undertaken about the community work and social outreach of churches within the city of Norwich. In fact, it was limited to all the churches that lay within the inner ring road. So it was not the total city by any means. We are not short of churches there.

The research was not about the state of the buildings, but about the communities who worshipped in them and what the people who worshipped there did for the wider community around and about. The results were astonishing. We really had no idea that our churches ran so many luncheon clubs for the elderly, children's holiday schemes, drop-in facilities for the homeless, bereavement counselling groups, mother and toddler clubs, youth groups and all the rest.

The number of volunteers involved and the number of hours that they gave to this wider community work was calculated. If that work was removed, it would take at least 80 full-time community workers to replace it. Calculating the contribution to the community by multiplying the number of volunteer hours spent on such activities in our churches by the minimum wage meant a contribution of nearly £700,000 per annum to the local economy.

This debate is not simply about opening up unused church buildings for use by the wider community; it is about something much subtler than that. It is about the connectedness between our churches and wider community life. As a result of that research and its consequences, a month ago we had a reception for more than 200 Christian volunteers engaged in community work in Norwich at which the chief executive of the county council and many others from our local authority simply said, "Thank you".

It is difficult to underestimate the social glue provided by our Church communities and the social capital that they build. All of that is equally true in rural areas—perhaps even more so. But we face a very significant problem in the most rural locations. Last Sunday week, I was rededicating All Saints, Brandon Parva in Norfolk after a major restoration. English Heritage had contributed generously, but nothing at all would have happened were it not for the determination of a small band of local people. The total population of this rural parish is 38. I have more than 100 parishes in my diocese where the total population reaches only double figures and, in a few cases, not even that. All Saints, Brandon Parva has no electricity, no running water or any other services apart from godly ones. It is not any good suggesting that it should be turned over to community use since that assumes a scale of community which does not exist. Many architectural jewels are in this predicament and there needs to be special help for them, otherwise we shall lose them over the course of time.

It has been my experience that there is good understanding at ministerial level of these matters, along with a readiness to work with the Church, given its substantial contribution to community service. I do not think that attitudes are always quite as enlightened or informed among the staff of some government departments and agencies. That is why last week's initiative and debates like this are so important. There is indeed a word to be spread.

8.15 p.m.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords, I rise to speak briefly in the gap, having consulted the noble Lord, Lord Phillips. I speak as an ordinary worshipper in Anglican pews and one who, since our own hamlet does not possess a church, worships at least once a year in a score of different churches.

I declare an interest as a former chairman of the Churches Conservation Trust. I am a peripatetic disciple of Betjeman's 1958 Collins Guide, with its brilliant preface of three score or so pages by the poet laureate as he then was not, and I am an admiring and travelling addict of Sir Simon Jenkins's discriminating choice of the country's 1,000 best churches. The views in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, which crowned his happy initiative of launching this subject for debate tonight, are echoed by Sir Simon Jenkins in articles that he has written on the same subject and I concur with them both, within reason.

As a practising Christian, however, I wish mildly to rebut the plaint of the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, about declining congregations, diminishing funds and deteriorating fabrics, although of course the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich indicated just how severe the problems are in certain parts of that famous diocese.

The parish church from which eponymously I derive my title is medieval, Grade II listed and last restored in 1862. It is, roughly speaking, in a dispersed rural parish containing around 100 people in the parish proper and another 100 in our own adjacent, dispersed hamlet, who render to Caesar their local government rates to Sutton Mandeville while being attached ecclesiastically elsewhere.

Last year, the diocesan architect confronted us with the challenge of raising £65,000, primarily for our splendid tower. Your Lordships can calculate what that means in terms of the number of parishioners I mentioned on a per capita basis. Are we downhearted? We are not. We gave ourselves three years to raise the money and, in the year since we started, we have already raised half of it. The church is our only community building in the parish itself, although there is a notable 14th century pub in our neighbouring hamlet. Every household in the parish has contributed to the appeal. The whole parish cherishes the church as our only communal building, and the congregation—a pretty intimate one, I acknowledge—feels spiritually enlarged and communally enthusiastic in being engaged on this great project, and to the glory of God.

8.18 p.m.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno

My Lords, I venture as a non-Anglican, a Methodist, and as a Welshman from the other side of Offa's Dyke, to enter briefly into this discussion. Yesterday morning I was in a village church. It had around 25 members. The bill for repairs will be in the order of £52,000. However, on top of that is the 17.5 per cent rate of VAT. That could well be the straw that breaks the camel's back. Today, new facilities covering access and health and safety issues have to be brought in as a result of regulation. It is also the case that most church buildings are ageing and require a great deal more money to repair and maintain than more modern ones.

Yesterday, people were discussing how on earth to face the bill, when on top the builders have to charge 17.5 per cent VAT. My sole contribution to the debate, therefore, is to ask the Government what plans they have to reduce or remove VAT on all church buildings of all denominations in the United Kingdom. If the Government do not move on this, we shall have derelict buildings, ones that could be useful in the community. They will become eyesores, thus detracting from community use.

I plead with the Minister and the Government to let us know how they can help with the imposition of 17.5 per cent VAT that really can close the doors of so many churches.

8.20 p.m.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for introducing the debate. It was very imaginative of him, particularly as I understand—perhaps I have got it wrong—that he purports not to be a member of any faith community. I take my hat off to him; we should have debated this issue long ago.

I must confess that I am a complete church nut. I was born in the village of Long Melford, which has a wonderful church; I was baptised in the village of Acton, which has the finest military brass in England; and I have lived and worshipped all of my life in St Gregory's church, Sudbury. It is a wonderful church which retains to this day in its vestry—the right reverend Prelate will be interested to hear this—the head of Simon of Sudbury, one of his predecessors, who got it wrong in 1381.

The Lord Bishop of London

My Lords, he became Archbishop of Canterbury.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, he became Archbishop of Canterbury but, before that, he was the Bishop of London.

The churches and cathedrals of this country are astonishing and I think we underestimate them. There is nothing remotely like them in the world. They have been saved from the endless ravages of the wonderful French, Italian and other continental churches. We have been relatively free of civil wars—at least, our civil war was relatively minor in terms of desecrations—and free of invasions. We have today a stunning collection of 15,000 or 16,000 medieval churches and cathedrals.

I agree with noble Lords who have made the point that we do not make the best of them, either in terms of tourism or, dare I say it, in terms of communal activity. Although the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, said that it is time to stop the rot and that churches should be nimble on their feet—and so they should—we heard from the right reverend Prelates the Bishops of London and of Norwich just how much the churches are doing, and doing so open-mindedly.

Again, I come back to my home town of Sudbury. We have a redundant church in the middle of the town on the market hill—St Peter's—which is a model of what a church can and should be. It has not been deconsecrated, but on Friday it was the farmers' market, as the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, said; on Saturday it was a craft market, selling Christmas cards; it has concerts; it has organ recitals; it has lectures; it has plays; it has any damn thing. Indeed, that is how medieval churches were.

I totally agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich that pews are an encumbrance. In fact, they are a late, 15th century addition to the churches. Many churches would be better off releasing their potential for activities by making them at least more mobile.

Let me give a few key statistics. I feel very strongly that, although the Government do a certain amount, they do not do nearly enough. Pray the Lord that we should relapse into the French situation where there is far more state funding but at a price that is unthinkable and with a consequence that is unthinkable. However—I am sorry if this sounds ungrateful—by my reckoning, the totality of state funding for our churches and cathedrals is a pathetic £12.5 million per year.

The Government are apt to sweep into this sum the much larger amount expended by the Heritage Lottery Fund. But that is not government money; the Government have no right to include that in their statistics. Indeed, when in opposition, the Government were very vociferous in saying that the lottery money was the citizens' money and must not go to relieve government funding.

Compare that £12.5 million per year—£3 million from the DCMS to the Churches Conservation Trust and the Historic Chapels Trust and £9.5 million last year to English Heritage to be spent on churches—with the £85 million spent on Welsh Channel 4. Now I think Welsh Channel 4 is terrific—I do not say anything against it—but it is an extraordinary comparison. Eighty-nine million pounds is spent on the British Library, which is a wonderful institution from which I would not take a penny away. But £12.5 million for 16,000 churches, cathedrals and chapels, which create and beget a huge amount of tourist revenue, is not good enough. Seventeen million pounds is spent on royal household buildings. That is fine—but £12.5 is really not enough to spend on churches.

As for closures, all the noble Lords who have spoken have agreed that churches are a linchpin of village communities in particular. More and more is being done to draw more activities and people into churches, whether those people are believers or not. That is working and will go on working, provided that there are enough people in the village to make it a practical possibility, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich said.

Let us consider the facts: churches have been closing at the rate of 25 a year over the past decade, pubs at 250 a year, village post offices at 250 plus a year, and Methodist chapels at 100 or thereabouts a year. I am not sure about the rate at which schools have been closing, but it is far more than 25 a year. I would guess that shops are closing at around 250 a year, like the village post offices. All that means a winding down of focal points of activity and communality within village communities. It lends ever more force to the point made by other noble Lords, of the importance of retaining and indeed enhancing the role of churches in communities.

I should like to see some thought given to hypothecation. I put it no more highly than that, and I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, will give it one of his sideswipes when he comes to wind up. But I do not see why we should not at least think about that notion. It is not a concept that we have ever admitted into our Exchequer thinking, but I do not see why we should not allow taxpayers to direct up to, say, one-half of 1 per cent of tax to be paid to the churches in their dioceses. Countries such as Germany and Sweden, for example, allow a much more ready and easy means for citizens to support their churches.

We have heard already that many people who do not worship regularly nevertheless have a passionate interest in maintaining their churches. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, mentioned that with regard to his village. It is staggering the extent to which villages have rallied round churches that they enter only for births, marriages and deaths but which they are passionate about. If I may say so, "tens of thousands of volunteers" should read "hundreds of thousands of volunteers"—indeed, millions of volunteers. Someone should calculate just how much money has been raised in this country by hard graft in villages and towns throughout the land to preserve the churches. We may be glum about some things, but the fabrics of churches stand better today, I suspect, than at any time since the mid-Victorian period—so we do not want to get too gloomy. So it is that I reiterate to the Government the thought that they might hypothecate or allow hypothecation of a limited amount of tax.

We should also give more support to the Churches Conservation Trust, which currently has 334 churches under its control. The research done by Trevor Cooper of the Ecclesiology Society shows that the rate of closure of 25 a year is likely to rise to 60 a year, whatever we do in the short run. The Churches Conservation Trust and the equivalent body for chapels do a wonderful job, maximising the use of churches, as the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, has urged upon us.

I should also put in a word for what the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd-Webber, has done through his Open Churches Trust. He put £1 million into that project a few years ago, and it is now spending about £100,000 a year to keep churches open. Their projects have spawned a great deal of emulation throughout the country, and to great effect. One must also not forget the other particular benefactor of village churches, the Garfield Weston Trust, which puts in around £3 million a year—so God bless him.

I also urge that there should be more education. By that I mean local education of local children. We do not do enough in the churches and get the children from schools into the churches to show them what phenomenally exciting places they are. They are living museums and living treasuries of art and skill. We should think of the extent to which ecclesiastical buildings—churches, chapels, cathedrals—represent a celebration of the artisanship of often 10 centuries, sometimes more; St Gregory's, Sudbury, for example, is an eighth century foundation. They are astonishing survivals of the wonderful skill and love poured into these extraordinary buildings. Children, be they from homes where people have no interest in issues of faith and belief, are easily excited when taken round by someone who understands the building and is enthusiastic about it. We could do more on that front.

Finally, I believe that no one so far has mentioned tithes. Tithes gave huge support to the maintenance of churches. Tithe redemption charges were collected when I started work. They constituted a huge amount of money pouring into the upkeep of at least the chancels of churches. That is no longer the case and merely serves to make my overwhelming point, which is to ask the Government to think more in the round regarding the role of churches in our community life, to think more about their policies on social exclusion, community enhancement and revitalisation and to step back and consider whether what is being done is enough and is being done in the best way. With those thoughts I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for introducing the debate.

8.31 p.m.

Lord Luke

My Lords, I would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for initiating this debate and to thank all those who have contributed to it. I say once again that I very much enjoy these Unstarred Question debates. If I may so, the quantity of speakers is not very great but the quality of the speeches is enormous. We are having a debate about the state of England's churches and we can rustle up two Bishops. If the House of Commons held a debate on England's churches—which I very much doubt would occur—it cannot rustle up two Bishops. That is part of the reason that this House contributes so much to the life of this country.

The debate is, indeed, timely with the launch of the Church of England's paper, Building Faith in our Future at the start of this week. I am sure that your Lordships will join me in welcoming the report and in congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London on his work on it.

I draw a lot on what has already been said when I say that we must work to get rid of the perception that a church is just a fusty building used only on Sundays. All places of worship are many things to many people, and not just to their particular faith members. They provide communities with a powerful sense of place and are often on sites of great archaeological and historical importance. One has only to look at the churches that are featured on the BBC's excellent fundraising programme "Restoration" to see the feelings that places of worship can evoke, and not just among their local communities. I would like to pay tribute to all the hard work done by the volunteers, often unsung, who continue to do so much to care for churches, for monuments, for battlefields, for parks and for gardens in our country.

Does not the Minister agree with me that places of worship play an important role in achieving some of the Government's own targets for community regeneration and social cohesion such as tackling rural exclusion? Therefore, we need to do all we can to encourage investment in them. I read that recently the Bishop of Exeter and various other members of the Church rode round his diocese on vintage motor bikes to highlight the need for such funding. I am not suggesting that we should do anything quite like that, but it shows how inventive some people can be in a good cause.

Can the Minister respond to the call by the Church of England for the doubling of annual grants to English Heritage for the repair and maintenance of historic churches to something like £20 million? In December 2001, English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund estimated that the annual demand for funds was £100 million, of which £55 million was estimated to be for urgent and essential fabric repairs. Can the Minister inform the House what the figures for 2003 are, and how much Her Majesty's Government have provided help to meet the shortfall?

In light of that, we on these Benches very much welcome the fact that full VAT is at least being refunded on repairs to places of worship, under the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme, which is now extended until March 2006. It is a step that has been very long overdue. How many churches are in a desperate state because of the delay? I am pleased to say that our colleagues in the European Parliament continue to argue for the need to make that a permanent reform. We have consistently opposed tax harmonisation in Europe. Can the Minister inform the House of the current status of negotiations reached by Her Majesty's Government on that point?

I fully support the Church of England's call for partnership with the national, regional and local bodies, as well as government at all levels, to regenerate and safeguard the role of places of worship for a wide and often unacknowledged range of activities. From an example such as St Paul's, with its great history, we all know that places of worship are a strong part of our tourism industry. However, I am delighted to hear that it will not become a casino. We have heard that historic cathedrals alone generate an estimated £91 million per annum for the economy through tourism. Meanwhile, any state aid for their upkeep remains very limited.

Not only is state funding very limited, but the week before last, Tessa Jowell was reported as seeking a new round of cost-saving from bodies which manage, fund and police the protection of listed buildings. I understand that the suggestion is to merge several bodies. Various voices have come out against that, such as Matthew Saunders of the Ancient Monuments Society, who is dismayed at the idea, which has already been rejected before being mooted again. He said: With a body like the Churches Conservation Trust you should treasure its specialist knowledge not merge it, unless compelling reasons are found for doing so". Can the Minister explain in more detail the compelling reasons for the proposed mergers?

The title of the debate calls for recognition of what the Government have done to maintain the architectural heritage of England's churches. Noble Lords will then forgive me if one area about which we are particularly concerned is the proposed changes to the listing procedure that protects so many of our places of worship and other national treasures. The consultation paper Protecting Our Historic Environment: Making the system work better says that, in the future, listing should be undertaken, in the context of the future of the area in which the building stands". Although it is always important to weigh up the pros and cons of such situations, one cannot help but think of the example of St Mary's in Harmondsworth, which is much to the inconvenience of the Department for Transport because it is Grade 1 listed and happens to lie in the path of Heathrow's proposed third runway. It is perfectly fair for the Government to justify why the listing of any particular building needs to be overruled, rather than preventing listing due to what may or may not be convenient. If that idea were carried through, it would surely mean the end to listed buildings anywhere outside our major cities, just in case in the future it might become inconvenient. I therefore support our current system of listing, and question the need to make the suggested changes. I will watch with very great interest what happens in that respect.

I have but touched on the range of issues discussed today. I am sorry that I have not had the chance to discuss the difficulties of conservation—bats in belfries, for instance. However, I have asked the Minister a number of questions and I am giving him ample time to reply to all of them. I believe that in these increasingly uncertain times, we cannot underestimate the importance that places of worship play in our social fabric, both locally and nationally, for faith members, tourists and unbelievers alike.

8.40 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord McIntosh of Haringey)

My Lords, I, too, am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Harrison for introducing this debate and for attracting the speakers to it that he has. I suppose it is a slight paradox that a debate about churches should be opened and closed by atheists, but that is what you get for your money this evening.

Despite not being members of Churches, my noble friend Lord Harrison and I find ourselves in very considerable agreement with what has been said throughout the debate. I had the privilege last week of being invited to Lambeth Palace for the launch of the document, Building Faith in our Future which has been referred to by a number of speakers. I was delighted because it gave me my first chance not only to see the wonderful guardroom at Lambeth Palace, which I had never seen before, but also to hear the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London and Viscount Norwich speak on the subject.

I made a minor contribution myself, welcoming the fact that the Church of England is thinking seriously about the issues surrounding its built heritage, highlighting the fact that central government are not the only player—I shall go into more detail about that—and encouraging the Church to be visionary in its thinking about how to build new partnerships to sustain the ecclesiastical built heritage and to breathe new use into it. That is exactly what we have been talking about this evening, and it is right that we should.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London is to be congratulated on the report, along with all the other people who produced it. The Government will of course respond to it properly in due course, but I can already say that we accept a good deal of the analysis of the problem and many of the solutions. After all, the Church of England has 4,200 Grade I listed buildings—45 per cent of all Grade I listed buildings in England.

I can confirm what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich said. A survey carried out for the Church of England and English Heritage showed that 85 per cent of people in this country visited a church or a place of worship in 2002. Unfortunately for the Church of England, only a minority visited for the purpose of weekly worship, but still, these are enormously popular places, and they deserve to be.

The Church of England repair spend in 2002 was £93 million. I shall be talking about where that money comes from in a minute. Incidentally, let me say to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, that I am talking about the Church of England because it was referred to at the launch. Of course, in all these matters, we are concerned with all other Christian denominations. Indeed, there are listed buildings from non-Christian faiths, and they have to be taken into account as well.

Clearly, church buildings make a key contribution to the landscape, rural communities, urban regeneration, education, culture and tourism. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Luke, they contribute to the Government's stated objectives, particularly those of social inclusion.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London said that churches were public utilities—not quite in the sense of gas and electricity, I suppose, but I know what he meant.

Perhaps I may answer the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, on an even more mundane point. He asked about the Disability Discrimination Act. I have to answer by saying that Churches are service providers within the provisions of that Act, which came into force at the beginning of this month, and that they are therefore covered by it. So churches have to make reasonable efforts to comply, as do all service providers.

The report recommends more public funding of repair and maintenance of historic churches. I avoided making any commitment when I spoke last week at Lambeth Palace and I shall continue to avoid making any commitment now. We welcome the report's suggestion that there should be a new cross-departmental group to consider the impact of policies on places of worship. It said that there should be better partnerships, faith representatives on regional cultural consortia including regional development agencies and local strategic partnerships. We welcome those recommendations. It also said that there should be more recognition of the contribution that cathedrals make to their communities. Again, that makes good sense to us.

Perhaps I may answer the points raised in the Unstarred Question about the contribution made by government. I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London for expressing his appreciation of what we do. In particular, he referred to the listed places of worship grant scheme, which is our alternative to VAT exemption—and this is my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts. For reasons of which I think he will be well aware, we cannot change EU directives on VAT by ourselves. We have been trying for a number of years to secure a permanent reduced rate for repairs and maintenance to listed places of worship—and, indeed, for other listed buildings. We have not succeeded so far. That does not mean that we are not still trying or that we do not take this matter seriously in the European context.

In 2001, the Chancellor reimbursed listed places of worship for VAT spent on repair works until April this year. It was the difference between the full amount of VAT and 5 per cent, which is a reduced rate that applies in some European countries. Since April 2004, it has related to the full rate of VAT.

The point about the scheme is that it is demand led; there is no expenditure cap. All eligible claims are paid. In deciding the criteria, we mirror what would be allowed under European Union VAT rules so that some matters are included. However, more than 5,000 listed places of worship in the UK have claimed, and £23 million has been paid out to date, including more than £17.5 million in England. It is a grant scheme financed purely by government money. The intention is to continue it to March 2006.

I turn to English Heritage funding, part of which is government money. In 2004–05, the current year, £10 million is English Heritage money and £15 million is Lottery money from the Heritage Lottery Fund. I am not making any claims about that being government expenditure, as the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, thought I would. It is targeted at essential structural repairs to listed places of worship. In addition to that scheme, there is the English Heritage cathedral repair grant scheme, which was set up in 1991. It offered cathedrals £2 million in grant funding for the current year, with Lincoln, Salisbury and Durham receiving a quarter. A grant budget of £ 1 million has been allocated for cathedrals next year.

I acknowledge that all such grants are matched at least, if not more, by historic churches preservation trusts and other forms of fundraising, including local fundraising of the type described by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke. However, this is an important contribution. It recognises that our historic churches are legitimate public attractions. In answer to my noble friend Lord Harrison, we cannot make access a condition because we must consider the merit of the repair works first, but, certainly within the limits of the directions which we can give to the Heritage Lottery Fund and to English Heritage, access is clearly an important consideration.

Incidentally, I can put the mind of the noble Lord, Lord Luke, to rest about the supposed mergers of heritage bodies. There are no plans to merge the bodies; there are plans to see whether savings can be made from, for example, merging back office functions, but English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund are very different in their definitions of heritage and in their geographical scope.

No reference has been made to the Landfill Tax Credit scheme, so suffice it for me to say that that makes a contribution. As Building Faith in our Future confirms, it made a contribution of around £2 million to the Church of England churches in 2002.

I am glad that reference was made to the Churches Conservation Trust, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, but also by other noble Lords. We are a statutory funder of the Churches Conservation Trust and have been since 1969. We give £3 million a year to it and the Church Commissioners give the remaining 30 per cent. I have been pleased to be able to visit CCT buildings this year. More than 1 million people have visited them. The CCT is keen to increase community use of the buildings. As my noble friend Lord Harrison rightly said, Frank Field, the chairman, is particularly keen on that. If I give the example of St Paul's in Bristol, which is used by a circus training company, noble Lords will see that the buildings are available for quite imaginative uses.

To my surprise, no reference was made to the Pastoral Measure 1983 on the community use of churches, but I point out our support for moves by the Church of England to extend the use of church buildings beyond core worship and mission and we applaud the examples to which reference has been made. My noble friend Lord Harrison cited the example of St Paul's at the Crossing in Walsall. It retains a sacred space for worship, but much of the building is converted for other use—a mixture of shops, conference facilities and function rooms. That is a good example of the way in which the Church is moving towards community use.

The noble Lord, Lord Luke, saw a threat in our reform of listing procedures to cover the area in which the building exists. That already happens to some extent and I assure him that there is no excuse in that phrase for any weakening of listing procedures. It simply means that urban townscape is a relevant consideration when we look at the listability or otherwise of any building.

I turn finally to the Question that was asked at the start of the debate by my noble friend Lord Harrison. Yes, we strongly agree that there should be wider community use of churches. I was delighted that the right reverend Prelates the Bishop of London and the Bishop of Norwich gave explicit support to that. Cultural contributions can be made by churches. The work of volunteers is highly valuable. Local economies can benefit hugely, particularly from tourism. We think that there are opportunities for regeneration and, as I said, we believe that all those fit in with the Government's own targets.

I liked, in particular, the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Harrison that churches could be used for non-religious weddings and ceremonies. The Church of England may like to consider that, but perhaps it is a more heterodox view.

In conclusion, we very much welcome the thrust of the debate. We are grateful to my noble friend Lord Harrison for raising it and, without actually promising the £20 million for which the Church of England asked last week, we shall do everything in our power to continue with the collaboration, if I may put it that way, between Churches and government over the best use of our historic churches for all our people.

Lord Luke

My Lords, before the Minister sits down and with the permission of the House, I should like to correct one thing. Although I am a very bad Christian, I am not an atheist.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I did not say that the noble Lord was.

House adjourned at four minutes before nine o'clock.

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