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In case disaster strikes

31 March 2017

Paul Wilkinson hears reminders of the need for church insurance

When disaster strikes: flood damage inside the church hall of St Michael’s, Mytholmroyd

When disaster strikes: flood damage inside the church hall of St Michael’s, Mytholmroyd

ALL too often, of late, congregations have had to face the prospect of finding tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds, when the roof has blown off, or flash floods have inundated the nave. After the initial trauma has been overcome, the first task facing the church­wardens and treasurer is to check the insurance policy.

Ecclesiastical Insurance, which covers 95 per cent of Anglican churches in the UK, and all
but one of the cathedrals, believes that the vast majority these days are properly insured. PCCs “understand their responsibility”, Ecclesi­ast­ical’s principal risk-management surveyor, Kevin Thomas, says.

“They understand that they are the gate­keepers of heritage; that they are here as its caretakers for only a short period of time. Some parishes do have a contingency fund, but, gen­er­ally, most churches are not wealthy enough to set money aside. But they do take our advice and insure appropriately; so if, say, a major fire does occur, we can put them back as they were before.”


IN THE case of the Grade I listed St Mary’s, in the village of Brent Eleigh, near Lavenham, in Suffolk, it was a £15,500 bill to restore a 13th-century wall-painting defaced with a chisel by an unseen vandal last year (Feature, 17 March). Regarded as among the best examples of medieval artwork in the country, they were discovered only in 1960, under layers of lime­wash, where they had remained undam­aged for 700 years.

Plaster had been gouged off three pictures that formed a reredos: the central one depicted the crucifixion, with two supplicating figures of Mary and John; it was flanked on one side by the figures of St John, and an angel swinging a censer, and on the other by a representation of the harrowing of hell.

“To us who inhabit the church for reasons of faith, duty, and obligation, the paintings are just ‘there’: we don’t really notice them,” the PCC treasurer, Derek McBride, said. “They are just a bit of old wallpaper; but to many more they are a national treasure.”

But for a benefice with a congregation of between 30 and 40 — including just four from the village — funding their restoration could have been an impossible challenge. Fortunately, “the insurance company agreed to everything. The only quibble the loss adjuster had was the cost of a written report on doing the repairs,” Mr McBride said. So far, £1100 has been spent on stabilising the damaged plaster, and the insurance will cover the £14,400 cost of restora­tion, to be done later this spring.

Their £1400 annual premium was money well spent, Mr McBride said. “The insurers have been entirely supportive of the mess we were in. Something like this hits you pretty hard. There is an emotional cost as well as a financial cost; so to have someone holding your hand in the way our insurer, Ecclesiastical, did is a great comfort. We were very relieved that there would be no need to start fund-raising.”


IN THE Yorkshire Pennine village of Mytholm­royd, it was a natural disaster that devastated the Grade II listed St Michael’s. On Boxing Day, the River Calder, which runs within yards of the church, burst its banks, reaching a flood level higher than anything previously recorded (News, 1 January 2016). “The water was four foot deep inside the church and our hall next door,” the Vicar, the Revd Cathy Reardon, said. “You could just about make out the tops of the gravestones in the churchyard.” 

Once the parishioners could get inside, they found everything covered in dark, slimy mud: hymn books, wall hangings, computers, and kitchen equipment were all ruined. “Fortun­ately, it had just lapped at the foot of the altar; so that was safe. But beautiful mosaics behind will need repairs,” she said.

“However, we are insured. There is always the temptation to under-insure. You wonder: ‘What are the chances of a fire? Maybe we could do just half the value?’ But when it comes to floods, our churchwarden knew the score. The insurers were on the scene within two days. And, because Ecclesiastical are specialists in church property, we don’t need to explain to them about the importance of things like the registers, or things given in memory of people. They understand: they knew that the registers would need restoring.”

The repairs are ongoing, and Mrs Reardon hopes to hold her first service in St Michael’s since Christmas 2015 at about midsummer. So far, the bill is £300,000: another £100,00 still has to be spent on restoring the organ. “It could well be half a million pounds by the time it is all over,” she said. “It’s eye-watering, but I tell my­­self: ‘I’m insured, it will be fine.’”

She has been impressed at the way in which the insurers are working with the church architect to suggest how they can better protect their buildings in the future. “Part of the work is looking at future resilience. For example, we will plaster down to floor level, as that will dry more easily next time. We are also in­­corporating special air-bricks that can be closed when water threatens.

“The vestry safe was fireproof, but let in water through the keyhole; so we are having a new one in a higher place. It is in the insurance company’s interest to do this in the long term. They are open to financing preventative
meas­ures as well as just covering the damage.”


CONSULTATION with insurers is equally im­­portant when the work is a scheduled, planned event, to ensure that potential unpredicted risks are avoided.

“Send us your plans, and keep us involved along the way, as there may be issues in terms of security, fire, health and safety, and so on,” Mr Thomas says. “It may be that the church sud­­denly becomes more hazardous because of building materials on site, and they might have to close and lock the church for the time the work is being carried out.

“Small, routine works are usually covered under their policy, but if it’s major works — contracts over £150,000 — they or their arch­itect need to tell us as much information as possible so we can make a judgement whether we want additional protections or controls put in place.”

Insurance companies now also expect the work to be done by experienced contractors. “The days are gone when people could do DIY work on churches. Most contractors who work in this sphere have experience, and are special­ists. We would not normally step in, but we do visit churches on a regular basis, and, if there is a major work — say, involving scaf­folding — we would probably want to see that what is going on is safe and secure.

“PCCs are very responsible these days about not bringing in outsiders to work, except possibly for very minor jobs, such as fitting a plug point.”


ROD PENMAN, the head of sales at Zurich Insurance, which covers some churches and charities connected to churches, says that the company likes to be involved when new de­­velop­­ments are planned, to ensure that po­­tential hazards are countered. “The classic example is sprinklers: they are a lot cheaper to include in the original construction than retro-fit,” he said.

“Some people say: ‘Don’t talk to insurers, because the premium will increase if you tell them too much, but it’s actually the other way round: if an underwriter has to guess some information, they will guess on the high side. The more certainty they have, the better price they will offer.

“We want the customer to engage in the process, then we can give good advice, and, if we know they are thinking about it, then that’s the sort of customer we appreciate.”

Zurich issues an annual guidance-scale to inflation in conjunction with the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, so that customers can see how rebuilding costs can increase. It also has an online advice and information service (newsandviews.zurich.co.uk).

Further information can be found on Eccle­­siastical’s website (www.ecclesiastical.com/churchmatters). The insurer also has a risk-advice phone line that offers expertise from trained professionals.


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