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Church roof repairs challenged in court

05 October 2012


A KENT parish's PCC did not seek professional advice before replacing its lead roof-covering with a synthetic alternative, because it had a continuing dispute with its inspecting architect, and decided it had "enough in-house skills to take the matter forward".

After a series of metal thefts, the PCC of St Mary the Blessed Virgin, Eastry, stripped the remaining lead from the roofs of the north and south aisles, sold it, and re-covered the roof with the artificial non-metal alternative known as Ubiflex. It is now seeking a confirmatory faculty to authorise the works ( News, 28th September).

At a hearing of Canterbury Commissary Court, held in the church on Wednesday, Commissary General Morag Ellis QC was told that a churchwarden, Robert Barwick, used a telephone directory to find a builder to carry out emergency repairs to the 13th-century church, after discovering rain pouring into the building on a Sunday morning in June 2011. The builder was eventually paid £95,000 to replace all the lead on the north- and south-aisle roofs with Ubiflex.

Mr Barwick, chairman of the PCC's fabric sub-committee, was asked to explain why he described the work as permanent, when a statement from the builder described it as a "temporary repair". Mr Barwick replied: "It was more permanent than tarpaulin, and it was more permanent than putting lead up there, which would just disappear again."

He said that he expected that the covering would have "mid-term durability", since its specification stated that it could last for up to 20 years. "The material has been up there for more than a year and has been severely tested by the extreme wind and rain. The longevity has yet to be proved, but it has done its job."

He sought to justify the work carried out by the church: "What we did, at the end of the day, was not to destroy the heritage of the building, but to protect it."

He said that the insurance company had "pulled the rug from under their feet" by valuing the stolen lead at just £5000; and that the police had made no arrests.

Canon Martin Roberts, who was due to stand down as temporary Priest-in-Charge of St Mary's yesterday, after pastoral reorganisation, told the Commissary General that she should "not underestimate the degree of hurt, despair, and anger" caused by the thefts.

Many people in the Church and throughout the nation, he said, believed that the amount of lead stolen from churches was so great that the replacement of lead with lead was an invitation to the thieves to come back.

He admitted that mistakes had been made, and that, "with hindsight", correct procedures should have been followed; but he said: "I do not think there was any negligence by the PCC in the management of the building."

The Commissary General told the hearing that a draft restoration order - whose details had not been disclosed when the Church Times went to press - had been prepared by the Archdeacon of Ashford, and had received wide general support from the parties to the case, including English Heritage, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and the local planning authority.

Judgment is not expected to be given for a few weeks.


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