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Gloom at the top

by
10 May 2013

CHURCH roofs are a target not only for metal thieves, but for all sorts of other dangers, both natural and man-made.

Fires are the biggest hazard for roofs of old churches. Insurance claims after a roof fire can run into many millions of pounds. The cause is often an electrical fault, but sometimes it can be arson. An arson attack on St Barnabas's, Erdington, in 2007, gutted the church, and it had to be almost entirely rebuilt at a cost of £5 million.

In cases such as these, it can be hard for a church to protect itself. But PCCs can safeguard against fires caused by electrical faults by ensuring that the wiring of the church is checked every five years by a qualified electrician.

Fires can also be caused by lightning conductors that are not maintained, Kevin Thomas, of Ecclesiastical Insurance, says. "If they aren't maintained, they absorb the lightning, but don't discharge it, causing a fire." General storm-damage, from falling trees and strong winds, is also an ever-present risk to church roofs.

Church roofs have also been subject to stone-thefts, particularly in areas such as the Cotswolds, where stone roof-tiles are expensive, and there is a thriving second-hand market for them. Cotswold-stone tiles are a traditional roofing material, but to cover a 10ft × 10ft area would cost between £2000 and £5000. Some churches have been stripped of £20,000 of tiles.

Insurance figures suggest that thefts of stone tiles may have peaked in 2010 at £200,000; and, owing to alarms and increased vigilance from the police, they subsided to £15,000 in 2012.

But there are also other threats to church roofs which it is not possible to insure against: beetles, dry rot, and damp. These "gradual" threats should be picked up in quinquennial inspections, and rectified over time, before the problem has become too costly.

Churches and other heritage buildings frequently suffer from damp and decay as a result of fluctuating temperatures, caused by the buildings' being infrequently used, and water penetration from poorly maintained drains and gutters.

Damp leads to fungal decay in wood, and provides the perfect habitat for infestations such as woodboring beetles. Oak is the most vulnerable timber. If it is not discovered in time, the bill for beetle infestation can amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds. St John-in-Bedwardine, in Worcestershire, had to remove its eight bells, and stop its clock, after death watch beetles were found in the tower. The restora- tion work, which was paid for by fund-raising, cost £250,000. Restorers discovered that a roof that had leaked for years had created the perfect conditions for the beetles.

The important thing for churchwardens who think their church has a problem with damp, or beetle infestation, is not to call in an expensive specialist immediately, but to speak to the DAC first. English Heritage, and ChurchCare - set up by the Cathedral and Church Buildings Division of the Archbishops' Council - have plenty of advice on their websites.

www.churchcare.co.uk
www.english-heritage.org.uk

 

Number and cost of roof-tile-theft claims from Church of England churches:
2010  nearly 30 claims, costing more than £200,000
2011  more than 20 claims, costing nearly £40,000
2012  more than ten claims, costing more than £15,000

Number and cost of fire claims from Church of England churches:
Arson claims:
2010  more than 30 claims, costing more than £2.7 million.
2011  25 claims, costing more than £360,000
2012  more than 20 claims, costing more than £440,000

Electrical-fire claims:
2010  more than ten claims, costing more than £1.7 million
2011  more than ten claims, costing more than £1.8 million
2012  fewer than ten claims, costing more than £85,000


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