Below, Luke March, Chairman of the National Churches Trust explains why church buildings need the support of the next Government.
When the country goes to the polls next week, around one fifth of polling places will be in church buildings. But that’s not the only reason why church buildings need the support of the next Government.
The UK’s 42,000 churches, chapels and meeting houses are renowned for their history, architecture and sheer variety, unmatched anywhere else in the world. However, their future is not guaranteed.
Recent years have seen many positive changes in how the UK’s church buildings are supported. There have been much closer partnerships between those involved in looking after church buildings at the national, denominational and local level – which means that best practice and new ideas are shared more effectively.
But looking ahead, much remains to be done and there are some real challenges.
Despite excellent work undertaken by many churches around the country, there is still a backlog of repairs. Much more can also be done to make churches a valuable and valued resource for local communities.
Organising this work and raising the necessary funds falls on congregations which in many places are growing smaller, particularly in rural areas. The care of these buildings often falls to a small number of volunteers belonging to a church. In many areas there are too few volunteers. If these important buildings are to be kept open and in good repair, it is important that the wider local community is able to play a part in looking after them.
Ensuring church buildings stay open
The National Churches Trust is dedicated to supporting places of worship of historic, architectural and community value used by Christian denominations throughout the UK and ensuring they stay open to benefit local people.
That’s why we are asking all the main political parties standing in the December 2019 General Election to support our five point ‘Church Buildings Matters’ Manifesto.
These are a mix of administrative, legislative and financial measures, designed to be delivered over a full five-year term Parliament.
Vital public service
Church buildings provide a vital public service by providing a place where people can meet, collaborate and build community. Many are already used as community hubs for activities including playgroups and nurseries for children, drop-in centres and lunch clubs for older people and venues for concerts, exhibitions and public celebrations for the whole community.
Use of church buildings for community activities, in addition to worship, increases their long-term viability. Additional uses bring in new people who then have a stake in the future of the building. It can also generate much needed revenue.
However, many church buildings cannot be used to their full potential as they lack basic facilities such as toilets and kitchens. The Church of England estimated in 2017 that only half of its churches have a kitchen and one third lack toilet facilities.
The situation is likely to be similar, if not worse, in buildings belonging to other denominations.
Churches Community Facilities Grant Programme
To celebrate HM Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee in 2022, the National Churches Trust is asking that the new Government institutes a one year Churches Community Facilities Grant Programme.
This would be a £10 million capital-only grant scheme. Grants would be made available for the physical improvement of churches by the installation of toilets or kitchens up to a total of £20,000.
If the maximum amount were to be claimed for every grant, a £10 million fund could help pay for the installation of 500 toilets or kitchens – a match-funding scheme could help pay for 1,000.
A crack down on metal theft
We are also asking the next Government to crack down hard on metal theft and heritage crime. The Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 was introduced to tackle rising levels of metal theft. The purpose of the Act was to reverse the upward trend in levels of metal theft through stricter regulation of the metal recycling sector to make it more difficult to dispose of stolen metal.
Despite the introduction of the Act, partly due to the involvement of organised crime and also because of increases in the price of some metals, over the last few years there has been a marked rise in the incidence of the theft of metal, and in particular lead, from church roofs.
According to the Office of National Statistics, metal theft offences increased by 25% in the year ending March 2018. A survey conducted by VPS Security Services found thousands of reports of church roofs being stripped of lead in the 12 months leading up to April 2019, averaging 37 incidents a month.
The 2013 Act needs to be strengthened by measures including creating a new offence of selling scrap metal to a dealer for cash, alongside the existing offence of buying for cash. Also needed are increased penalties for those who break the law.
The effect of lead theft on churches can be devastating. One striking example was when 20 tonnes of lead – the entire roof – was stolen from All Saints’ Church in Houghton Conquest, Bedfordshire in October 2018. It is estimated that this crime might bring the thieves £25,000 but it will cost the church £400,000 to replace the roof, with only a small proportion of these costs covered by insurance.
Churches are greatly loved by the public. A 2016 ComRes opinion poll showed that more than four in five Britons (83%) agreed that the UK’s churches, chapels and meeting houses are an important part of the UK’s heritage and history. The poll also showed that 57% of British adults believe it is the government’s responsibility to help fund repairs.
Symbols of continuity
At a time of debate about national priorities, church buildings stand as symbols of continuity, providing us with a deep connection to previous generations.
In good repair and with the right facilities to allow greater community use, church buildings, chapels and meeting houses can continue to play a vital role in the life and well-being of the nation for many, many years to come.