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Maggie Durran: Heritage expertise

03 April 2007

We received a grant from English Heritage in the 1980s, but are loath to ask for a repair grant again, as it seems we would have to sign a contract that would give English Heritage a say in whatever we do in the future. Is that the case?

I HAVE a short answer for you: yes, there is an expectation that English Heritage would have to be consulted about repairs in the future.

A slightly longer answer is that English Heritage is represented on your DAC, so it will get to comment on any works, regardless of this clause. In fact, English Heritage has too few staff to run around the country checking whether any church is making repairs when it shouldn’t. But there is a very constructive principle behind this issue.

English Heritage is funded from the public purse. Of its funds, a generous amount is invested in repairs to churches listed Grade I or II* through the Joint Repair Scheme for Places of Worship. So, because public money is being spent on your church building, it follows that not only is public access desirable, but that future works do not detract from the quality of the building and therefore waste the investment.

The general standard is that we should repair the building with appropriate materials: usually, that means materials just like the original. Newer materials are used only if they are proved to be better. Remember that in the 1950s and ’60s many well-meaning architects repointed listed churches with modern cement rather than with traditional lime-based mortar, and caused immense damage to older brickwork. We now have to repair their work at much greater cost.

The contemporary approach is to repair and conserve — that is, repair things as we received them. We don’t usually attempt to restore — that is, go back to how things once were. To what stage would we go back? The Victorian alteration? The Georgian reordering? Or the medieval layout, with all the implications of having no heating, lighting, or organ?

In every building where even drastic work has to be undertaken, decisions are made about conserving, not restoring. My own church, which is Georgian, has to be repainted, but is going to be painted with its Victorian colour scheme, not an earlier one, not least because we have a Victorian painted ceiling covered with angels and words of praise. English Heritage helped us to discover and then choose this scheme.

Overall, I find that English Heritage is fully aware that we need to add to the uses of our church buildings if we are going to be able to pay for them in the future, and it is therefore supportive of changes.

  Where there are stories of churches that have, for example, failed to get permission to remove pews, a close examination of the case usually shows that the church in question has not shown evidence that change is essential to meet current or future needs. But I know, too, that there are some pews that are of such significance that change would always be opposed.

So, the contract says we must consult English Heritage in the future; but I have found that this makes for a productive and constructive relationship.

Send your questions to Maggie Durran at maggie@churchtimes.co.uk

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