No change on chancel repairs

26 October 2012

THE Government is "not persuaded" that chancel-repair liability (CRL) needs to be reformed, the junior Home Office minister Helen Grant told MPs last week.

Mrs Grant made her comments in response to a debate sponsored by the MP for Mid Worcestershire, Peter Luff (News, 13 October).

Mr Luff told MPs that, after the Aston Cantlow case, "the then Government reflected on the advice that they had received from the General Synod of the Church of England, the Law Society, and the Law Commission, that the liability was an archaic law that should be scrapped, and ignored that advice.

"They were right to do so. The major institutions that own land to which the liability attaches can afford the burden, and budget for it. To remove that useful source of income from the cash-strapped Church would provide a windfall for some very rich and privileged institutions."

The Government of the day amended the Land Registration Act 2002, requiring PCCs to register CRL by October 2013. Otherwise the right to enforce it would lapse when the property was next sold. This has led to a situation where many private homeowners, previously unaware that their homes were subject to CRL, have been informed that the right was being registered.

"PCCs generally do not want to enforce the liability against their neighbours and friends. If they enforce the liability for the first time in living memory, they incur the wrath and indignation of the householders and landowners who were living in happy ignorance of their liability. If they do not, they become personally liable for the repairs and lose all grant aid from English Heritage.

"It is no surprise to me that, since I began this campaign, I have heard from parishes and dioceses the length and breadth of England," Mr Luff said. "The issue is alive again, and communities around the country are living in fear."

He used the debate to call on the Government to introduce "a simple piece of legislation . . . to ensure that, where a PCC acts on the advice of the Charity Commission and chooses not to enforce the liability, its decision is binding in perpetuity and cannot be revisited."

He said that the law at present meant that, where a PCC did not register CRL, the liability would remain on the property until it first changed hands after October next year. "In practice, therefore, every landholder aware of his liability, which continues until the time of first sale after October 2013, cannot obtain insurance, and, until his property is sold, could still face the possibility of a future PCC coming after him for the costs of chancel repair."

The MP for Llanelli, Nia Griffith, urged the Government to abolish CRL; while the MP for Stafford, Jeremy Lefroy, highlighted research by the Team Rector of Penkridge, the Revd Greg Yerbury (Letters, 5 October), and warned: "The matter applies not just to rural parishes, but to many urban parishes as well."

Mrs Grant said that she did not "underestimate the seriousness and difficulty" of CRL, and "the problems that they can cause for communities", but said that she was "not persuaded that any change in the law is necessary. In most situations concerning private property rights, only the parties directly involved are engaged; but with chancel-repair liability the surrounding issues may be important for the relationship of the clergy, congregation, and wider community in parishes where the liability exists and may be enforced."

She said that the requirement to register CRL by October next year did not create any new liabilities, but merely "removes the uncertainty and unpredictability . . . that currently surround the possible existence of chancel-repair liability."

PCCs, she said, "cannot wish away their responsibilities, and, in any event, the providers of public funding for the maintenance of historic buildings will almost certainly take a close look at the reasons behind any decision not to register or enforce the liability".

During the debate, Mr Luff criticised the advice given by the Church of England to parishes, and said that he hoped that the debate would "focus the national church authorities on what I see as serious neglect of their responsibilities".

The debate took place in Westminster Hall; so there was no motion or vote.

Commons response. In the House of Commons, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Sir Tony Baldry MP, gave a written answer on Monday to a question on CRL.

The MP for Stafford, Jeremy Lefroy, had asked: "How many acres of land are encumbered by chancel-repair liability by the merging of tithes with the land, either by deed or under Section 1 of the Tithe Act 1839?"

Sir Tony replied: "The Law Commission's 1985 report Property Law: Liability for chancel repairs estimated that around 3.75 million acres in total carried chancel-repair liability. It is thought that some 1.5 million acres of this land is land in which the rent charges have been merged."

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