THE National Churches Trust has unveiled plans for safeguarding church buildings in the long term, amid fears that the closure of ring-fenced funding schemes will force poorer churches to compete with large organisations.
In its annual review, published on Wednesday of last week, the chairman of the Trust, Luke March, described the contribution of the Government-supported Listed Places of Worship grants, and Heritage Lottery Funding (HLF), which is sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, as “extremely instrumental” to the long-term sustainability of church buildings.
But he had been “disturbed” when HLF confirmed that it was to absorb its £25-million Grants for Places of Worship fund into its existing heritage programmes for all buildings (News, 7 April). Its funds are to be redistributed through two existing HLF programmes, in September: Our Heritage, for grants up to £100,000; and Heritage Grants, for grants of up to £5 million.
“It is vital that the HLF’s move to make churches compete with the wider heritage sector for funding does not result in a significant loss of grants for urgent structural repairs,” Mr March wrote.
He laid out a five-point plan to safeguard the future of churches. It includes a new website, Maintenance Booker, that provides professional resources for churches; the provision of extra facilities, such as lavatories; the promotion of tourism, particularly through its website, ExploreChurches; keeping churches open but safe from vandalism; and securing long-term funding.
A spokesman for the Trust said last week that ring-fenced state funding for churches had been “amazingly successful” in supporting historic churches of all denominations, since 1977, but that the concern was that churches would struggle to compete for funding against other organisations.
“Denominations which regard a church as a sacred space may be particularly affected, as they may find it impossible to meet funding criteria which demand high levels of community use.”
The annual report states that since its creation ten years ago, the Trust has awarded more than 1600 grants, totalling about £15 million, to support Christian places of worship across the UK. This includes £1.4 million last year to help carry out repairs and other building projects at 166 places of worship. Its total income was lower than in 2015, however, owing, the report explains, to a particularly generous legacy that year.
But the figures also revealed a significant disparity between the regions. Most of the grants in the past decade were awarded in the south-west of the UK, including South Wales (477), while East Anglia received 332 grants, and the north-west, 328. This was compared with a total of 60 in Scotland, and ten in Northern Ireland.
The spokesman for the Trust said that these areas were being prioritised in its three-year plan to 2018. “These areas of the UK have in the past received lower levels of grant funding from the Trust, partly as we have received very small numbers of grant applications, and some of these have not met our funding criteria.”
Scotland had received 11 per cent of NCT grant funding last year, he explained, and spending in Northern Ireland and the north-east of England was due to increase “significantly” next year.
“We will continue to work with local partners to improve the quality and quantity of projects coming to the Trust from our priority areas, and believe that this will help ensure that our funding is evenly distributed across the UK.”