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Energy costs soar despite Church’s bulk-buying scheme

10 March 2023

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THE Church of England’s bulk-purchase scheme, Parish Buying, which seeks to support parishes with their costs, says that it is struggling to keep prices down in the current energy crisis, despite having the collective buying power of thousands of churches.

Parish Buying was set up in 2011 to use the combined buying power of the Church of England’s 16,000 churches to negotiate competitive prices with suppliers across a range of different contracts, saving the churches time and money (News, 12 January 2012). Its principal activity is energy, which currently accounts for more than 80 per cent of its income.

Its website, parishbuying.org.uk, states: “At the heart of the Parish Buying service is the vision to give churches back some time and money which can then be spent on mission within their communities: feeding the hungry, supporting the vulnerable, and sharing the good news.”

Despite this vision, small parishes are seeing steep rises in their energy costs and finding them unsustainable. One Lincolnshire parish that uses Parish Buying said that it had recently been faced with a threefold rise in its Energy Standing Charge.

Penny Pringle, the PCC secretary of St Andrew’s, Burton upon Stather, said that the gas standing charge had recently risen from £2.79 per day, in October 2022, to £10.42 per day, which, she said, was an “unrealistic and excessive increase”, considering that the church was heated for only three hours a week.

“I think all the parishes are struggling,” she said. “We can’t keep the building warm. It’s an ancient Grade I listed building, which leaks air and hot air like a sieve. We have this lovely new boiler put in, and we can’t even afford to turn it on.”

Mrs Pringle said that she had been shocked to discover the parish was tied into the contract with its supplier through Parish Buying for a further six months, so was unable to look for another supplier with a lower standing charge. “When we add in the electricity standing charge as well, it’s costing over £4000 before we even turn the fridge on. It’s impossible to keep the church going, because we have a congregation of about 20, all over-70s, all on pensions,” she said.

An agent from Parish Buying, who contacted Mrs Pringle about the standing-charge rise, said that the main reason for the increase from last year, according to the energy suppliers, was the cost of unidentified gas, which is directly linked to wholesale gas prices and has risen over the past 12 months in the whole industry.

Parish Buying said that it was working to see if these costs could be mitigated for small users in the coming contract years, starting this September.

A spokesperson said: “The Church of England is working to help mitigate the impact of rising energy bills. The Parish Buying service provided by Church of England Central Services is already using the collective buying power of 3500 churches to keep the price of gas and sustainably generated electricity as low as possible through membership of its Energy Basket.

“Parish Buying also offers fixed-term energy contracts to churches, as well as making available some energy-efficiency solutions such as energy audits, solar panels, or under-pew heating.”

Last year, the Church of England announced an additional £15 million for dioceses to help churches that are struggling to pay energy bills. The Energy Costs Grant was distributed to dioceses to enable them to help PCCs to cover the increased cost of heating and lighting church buildings this winter.

Questions have also been asked in the General Synod about parishes’ being unable to benefit from the Government’s support scheme. The Revd Charlotte Cook, who replied on behalf of the Archbishops’ Council, said that parishes did not qualify for the Energy Relief Scheme for non-domestic customers because the price of electricity and gas in the “basket” was below the minimum threshold at which government support was offered.

“Parish Buying buys the energy for the Energy Basket in advance, so was able to offer a lower unit price to its thousands of members than the Government-guaranteed level,” she said.

“We are also seeking guidance on whether parishes qualify for the Government’s scheme for energy- and trade-intensive industries in 2023-2024 that was announced recently.”

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