A DEDICATED repair fund is needed to help places of worship cope with the burden of maintaining buildings, representatives from churches engaged in a project for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) have said.
There was also concern among many of those taking part in the project that the National Lottery Heritage Fund was proving increasingly difficult for places of worship to access.
It is now 16 months since the launch of a pilot scheme, which has been trialling the recommendations of the Taylor Review on the sustainability of C of E church and cathedral buildings. The Review concluded that churches should prepare to rely less on government funding, and called for a “cultural shift” in which communities contributed to their upkeep (News, 21 December 2017, 6 April 2018).
In September 2018, a pilot scheme was launched in both Greater Manchester and Suffolk, to trial some of the Review’s recommendations. These included a national network of Community Development Advisers (CDAs) to congregations on building relationships and using their buildings to meet local needs; a network of Fabric Support Officers (FSOs) to work closely with them to plan and execute works; and a Minor Repairs Fund. For the pilot, a fund of £1 million, divided between the two areas, was capped at £10,000 per grant, towards a total project cost of £15,000.
An interim evaluation of the pilot, which is due to run until March, was published by the DCMS on Monday. It is too early, it says, to say what the outcomes have been, but it summarises learning to date. There was more engagement with the pilot in Suffolk, where 197 places were in touch with the team, compared with 97 in Greater Manchester.
The two FSOs spent much time supporting the grant-application process, particularly in Suffolk. Many congregations “found even this light-touch application process daunting”, the report says. “The ‘human element’ of the FSO role has been greatly appreciated.”
Interviews with CDAs identified several challenges: some places wished to focus their attention on charitable outreach, rather than activities that might raise income; some were located near several other community facilities or other places of worship; and turnover of volunteers was also a challenge. Four workshops were held, but the attendance was about half that intended.
Most applications for the Minor Repairs Grant (54 out of 66) were successful. But the report notes that there was disappointment about the capping: even access to carry out repairs in large churches could cost thousands of pounds.
Places of worship reported that the grants and FSO support had meant that they had “brought forward maintenance and repairs works that otherwise would not have happened until later, if at all”. They also reported that CDAs had helped them to develop new ideas about community engagement, although they had not yet been implemented.
In addition to an annual £15-million minor-repairs fund, the Taylor Review called for a £36-million major-repairs fund. The pilot evaluation reports that: “Every place of worship and external stakeholder interviewed felt that there was a high demand and a need for a major repair fund.”
Many interviewees also expressed concern that the National Lottery Heritage Fund was proving “increasingly difficult for places of worship to access”. They drew attention to competition with professional bodies that are also eligible; an emphasis on community criteria; and the demoralising effect of being turned down.
A separate report for DCMS on past funding schemes notes that grants represent nine per cent of parish churches’ overall income, but almost half of annual capital expenditures. Although the Taylor Review suggested that community engagement was the key to ensuring the sustainability of the Church’s buildings, the report notes a “paucity” of evidence.
A survey by BDRC Continental, in 2010, found that maintenance and repairs were a “constant major concern” for more than 60 per cent of recipients of a Listed Places of Worship grant, and 74 per cent reported that it was “very or fairly difficult” to raise funds.