Local planners may gain part control of cathedrals

by
02 November 2006

CATHEDRALS and other church buildings could soon be under the partial control of local authorities if they agree to government proposals published this week.

The proposals appear in a report, The Ecclesiastical Exemption: The way forward, from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

Under the new scheme, the Government wants churches to enter into voluntary management with English Heritage and local authorities. The resulting agreement would give the secular bodies a say over the church sites.

At present, the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, and United Reformed churches in England and Wales are exempted from local-government planning regulations because they have their own planning procedures. The exemption covers the inside and outside of the buildings they use for worship, but not the churchyards.

The new arrangements would be called Heritage Protection Partnership Agreements (HPPAs), and would run for five to ten years. While English Heritage would represent the country’s interest in these historic buildings, local authorities would be partners in such agreements.

The Government intends to create a single designation system, pulling together listed buildings, scheduled ancient monuments, registered parks, gardens, and battlefields.

The partners would agree a vision for managing the whole site as a single entity. HPPAs would work at diocesan level or with groups of parishes. Cathedrals would set up their own HPPAs with their local authority, and with English Heritage.

Once an HPPA was set up, similar work on any of the sites covered by the agreement could be carried out without returning for a fresh agreement.

The system would be voluntary. But if a church refused to be involved, only its buildings would be exempted from planning. Proposals that would affect archaeology or other “heritage” elements on the remainder of a church site, from the graveyard to the lychgate, would be subject to the new unified authority.

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The report acknowledges that there could still be conflicts of interest, as English Heritage staff would act as partners in both HPPAs and in the denominational system. Under the new arrangements, English Heritage would have the statutory responsibility for designating the lands and buildings as historic assets.

But the report says that the system is not meant to affect the operation of the ecclesiastical exemption. Those parts of a site that are already exempt under the 1994 legislation would continue as such.

Canterbury Cathedral — already a World Heritage site — and Rochester Cathedral have agreed to test the idea in a pilot project, due to start later this year. The dioceses of Bath & Wells and Lincoln are discussing pilot schemes. The results will be “reflected” in the 2006 Heritage Protection White Paper.

The report shows that the Government’s initial proposals for “high-level management agreements”, through which the exemption scheme would operate, were criticised for being “heavy-handed” and undermining the role of diocesan chancellors.

It also shows that there was considerable opposition to English Heritage overseeing the management agreements, as it would potentially create a conflict of interest.

“English Heritage’s viewpoint would be too secular to enable them to maintain the right balance between heritage and mission in any management agreement,” say critics of the proposals in the report.

On Monday, the head of the Cathedral and Church Buildings division of the Archbishop’s Council, Paula Griffiths, welcomed the report. 

The heritage-protection adviser for English Heritage, the Revd Peter Beecham, said that the Church’s policy document Faith in the Future called for the Church to be involved in partnerships that would make it accessible to the community. These new arrangements would link the churches with the Government’s main review of heritage for the country, he said.

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