A £1.8-MILLION pilot of a scheme to create a “sustainable future” for places of worship was announced by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, on Saturday.
The scheme will be piloted in Manchester and Suffolk from the autumn, and run for two years. It includes a £500,000 “minor repairs fund”, which “eligible listed places of worship” in the two areas will be able to access.
The rest of the money will fund two sets of advisers, who will work with those taking care of the buildings, and local communities.
Fabric Support Officers (FSOs) will provide “high quality advice and develop maintenance and repair plans”, ensuring that “routine repairs can be addressed immediately and prevent the development of more costly problems”.
Community Support Advisers (CSAs) will help those looking after buildings “to identify and strengthen relationships within their local area and develop greater community partnerships”.
The plan suggests that the Government has accepted, at least in part, the recommendations of The Taylor Review of the Sustainability of English Churches and Cathedrals, published in December (News, 22 December). This envisaged that the Government would spend £15 million a year on a national network of FSOs and CSAs, in addition to a £15-million minor-repairs fund.
It also recommended, however, a £36-million major-repairs fund, taking the total to £66 million a year — higher than the £42 million available currently through the Listed Places of Worship scheme. It recommended that £2-3 million be spent piloting the approach.
The pilot has been extended to include all faiths and denominations — provided that the buildings are listed — and projects are expected to start in the autumn. The support officers will be based with the C of E dioceses of Manchester and St Edmundsbury & Ipswich.
A spokeswoman from the diocese of Manchester said that maintaining its church buildings, particularly listed buildings, presented a “financial challenge” for the diocese and the worshipping communities.
“The Bishop of Manchester and the diocese as a whole, very much welcome the opportunity to be part of the pilot. The two Officers will add extra capacity and essential advice to enable us to work in creative ways and develop learning that can be shared, ensuring sustainable maintenance and repair plans.
“Access to the funding will help churches ensure that essential repairs are undertaken in a timely way to avoid initial deterioration of the fabric, keeping them in better repair for community engagement and use.”
The Bishop of the St Edmundsbury & Ipswich diocese, the Rt Revd Martin Seeley, said that the diocese was “delighted” to take part in the project.
Ordained and lay leaders in both dioceses also welcomed the pilot, although more radical changes were proposed.
On Tuesday, the Lay Chair of Woodbridge Deanery, St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, Tony Allwood, said that the deanery, which has 35 churches, almost all listed buildings with most in rural situations, would “welcome any assistance with their maintenance and widening their use within the community, and look forward to seeing more details”.
He explained: “Often the large rural congregations for which they were built have moved away, and their maintenance is now funded by a small congregation. These local people know the needs, both of the fabric and the local community, but often lack the resources. The minor repairs fund could be very helpful.”
The Vicar of Felixstowe and Rural Dean of Colneys, the Revd Andrew Dotchin, said that his diocese had 478 church buildings, of which 457 were listed.
“In the vast majority of our parishes they remain the only public building available for the community. The Post Office, the shop, the pub, and even the village school have been closed down, and there remains no building other than the church to hold together past history, present community, and future generations.
“The money that this project provides will be a godsend, but, even more precious, will be the expertise made available to enable faithful people to continue to do what they have in many cases done for over 1000 years, build the Church and nurture the community.”
Phillip Blinkhorn, who chairs the Manchester diocesan board of finance, said that many churches already opened their buildings for community use “and all are encouraged to do so where possible”.
He added: “Maintaining and repairing buildings can put considerable pressure on parish resources. It’s not just a matter of the cost of repair, we also need appropriate expertise to help in devising and managing repair programmes — expertise that is not available in every parish in areas of significant deprivation.” The diocese looked forward to working with the advisers “in maintaining our living history and exploring new ideas to extend community use of a precious asset community”.
The Team Vicar of St James and Emmanuel, Didsbury, Canon Lisa Battye, issued a more qualified welcome. The scheme “may help some of us with some of the maintenance needs of the listed properties that the Church, which is overwhelmingly amateur in the sense of being staffed almost entirely by volunteers, is required by law to maintain on behalf of the nation,” she said.
“What I really think is needed, though, is for the Government wake up to the need to provide real support places for the provision of places of worship in the way that happens in France.”
She explained: “In France, Church and State collaborate regarding the maintenance of their historic church buildings for the sake of the well-being of the communities that both are serving, and local councils are empowered to apply for and receive grants from central government for the routine maintenance of the external fabric of the churches and churchyards in their areas.”
Such a system would, she suggested, “free the Established Church in our country from maintenance work that drains our energy — energy which the country needs us to be able to put into providing outreach initiatives such as youth and children's work and local support for the elderly, lonely and vulnerable within the communities that everyone needs the buildings for”.
The pilot will take place against a backdrop of long-running debate about the sustainability of the C of E’s 16,000 churches, 78 per cent of which are listed. The Taylor Review suggested that the “vast majority” were “in an improved state of repair”, after an “exceptional high” of public funding in 2014-16 (£115 million a year, on average).
But it argued that the C of E should prepare for reduced reliance on government funding, and called for “a cultural shift in attitudes towards church buildings such that communities realise they are resources they can use and congregations have the confidence to share space and where appropriate to ask for a fair income”.
When the review was published, some questioned the wisdom of its recommendations (Letters, 5 January).
Changes have already been made to arms-length sources of funding in recent years. The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) closed its Grants for Places of Worship in September, a decision which also resulted in the loss of the technical oversight of projects provided by Historic England (HE), although HE still helps to fund Support Officers, currently employed in ten dioceses.
HLF remains the single largest source of grant-funding for places of of worship, through its Heritage Grants and Our Heritage schemes. The deputy chief executive of Historic England, Deborah Lamb, said on Saturday that the charity was “excited by the potential of this pilot scheme, and look forward to playing our part in its success”.
The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, who is lead bishop for cathedrals and church buildings, suggested that the pilots would “model a new type of partnership between the Church and the Government, investing in people and buildings side-by-side”.
In January, the Church’s own review of cathedrals diagnosed “a level of systematic under-funding that needs addressing by Church and State”, and recommended that the Government be approached about a state contribution to a “national cathedral fabric fund” (News, 19 January).