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Dioceses given £9 million for church buildings support

09 November 2023

Specialist advisers plus ‘stitch-in-time’ grant funding

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DIOCESES have been given £2.8 million by the Archbishops’ Council to employ church-buildings support officers (CBSOs) to advise on the upkeep of buildings, it was announced on Thursday. A further £6.2 million has been allocated around the dioceses for making grants of up to £12,000 for repairs.

‘The building-support officer was cheaper than a repair’

The funding comes from the £11-million Buildings for Missions fund announced by the Church Commissioners in the triennium (2023-25) spending plans set out last year (News, 13 May 2022). The money — supplemented by dioceses to varying degrees — will enable the employment of 30 CBSOs to advise on “the management, conservation, repair and development of church buildings, including community use alongside worship”. Diocesan job advertisements suggest that the salary will range from £30,000 to £35,000.

Thirty dioceses will have a CBSO, some sharing officers. Six will be recruited as apprentices, and will take part in a two-year specialist course at Strode College, Somerset, to help to build “a skilled workforce of historic environment professionals with specialist knowledge of churches”, the press release says.

Every mainland diocese (plus Sodor & Man) has also been allocated a share of the £6.2-million Minor Repairs and Improvements Grant Fund, which is designed to pay for urgent repairs, including “stitch-in-time” projects that could save money in the long term. The press release says that the fund is “intended to target need and grants will be prioritised accordingly”.

Both strands of the £11-million fund are based on recommendations of the government-commissioned Taylor review of the sustainability of English churches and cathedrals (News, 22 December 2017). This concluded that churches should prepare for reduced reliance on government funding, and called for a “cultural shift” in which communities would contribute to their upkeep.

It recommended a national net­work of community support advis­ers (CSAs), who could advise congrega­tions on building relationships and using their buildings to meet local needs, and a network of fabric sup­port officers (FSOs) to work closely with them to plan and execute works. It was envisaged that this would cost the Government £15 million a year. It also recommended that the Government provide a £36-million fund for major repairs, and a £15-million fund for minor repairs.

A pilot, including a £1-million minor-repairs fund, with a cap of £10,000 per bid, was established in Manchester and Suffolk in 2018; each area was assigned one FSO and one CSA. All places of worship were eligible for support (News, 6 April 2018).

A final evaluation heard that the repairs had brought works forward by “perhaps two to five years on average” (News, 16 October 2020). More than 80 per cent of applications were approved. It suggested that this was “likely to have prevented irretrievable loss of historic fabric and to have saved notable costs”. Additional funding of £140,000 had been raised locally. The evaluation also concluded that the two sets of officers had helped churches to make higher-quality grant applications and to write formal maintenance plans.

The total number of C of E churches in the two areas was 709. The report suggested that working with about 80 listed places of worship per year was “feasible” for FSOs, and that a CSO might be able to offer “intensive support” to a maximum of five at any one time. Churches that received this level of CSO support reported “early signs of progress through key steps towards enhancing community engagement”. But the report found “limited evidence within the timeframe of the pilot to test whether enhanced community engagement activities lead to greater self-sufficiency financially. . .

“Indeed, in some cases, providing those activities, especially to vulnerable groups, required the listed places of worship to commit volunteer time and money rather than increasing funds. It is not the case that more people using the building, or joining more activities, will necessarily produce more income.”

It also highlighted varying demand for community spaces: in some areas, more convenient or established places were already available (Letters, 5 January).

A key finding was high demand for a major-repairs fund, with a “large reported conservation deficit”. In just one diocese — Norwich — this deficit, based on quinquennial inspections between 2012 and 2017, was estimated to be £63 million.

The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous, told the House of Commons in September that the average annual cost for the maintenance and repairs to parish churches alone was estimated at £150 million. It is understood that work is under way to secure funding from a range of sectors, including the Government, with the CBSOs — whose posts could combine aspects of both the FSOs and CSAs — expected to help churches to complete successful grant applications.

The Taylor report suggested that a greater level of support from the Government should not be expected. The Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme (LPWGS), set to run until 2025, enables applicants to apply for a grant to cover VAT costs incurred by building repairs. Grants are also made by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, but Friends of Friendless Churches has highlighted the fact that its dedicated stream of funding for places of worship ended in 2017, and that the amount distributed has since fallen by almost two-thirds to £10 million (News, 22 September). Charities say that more funding is urgently needed.

The director for cathedrals and church buildings for the Archbishops’ Council, Emily Gee, said this week: “Churches are wonderfully supported, year in year out, by volunteers who give their time and financial support so generously. This funding will help foster robust and flourishing congregations and release resources, energy, and potential for mission and outreach.”

The Bishop of Ramsbury, Dr Andrew Rumsey, joint lead bishop for church buildings, said: “Our churches and cathedrals are invaluable signs of our Christian presence and heritage. It is essential that we protect and sustain them as centres for worship and community service. . .

“With more church buildings officers in dioceses, I believe we can help parishes to apply for external funding, plan building projects, and see more churches flourish as houses of hope and holiness.”

The remaining money from the Buildings for Mission fund is to be awarded to invest in digital provision, and to provide “seed-corn funding for management partnerships to provide maintenance services and insurance for groups of churches”.

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