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Law change that could unlock precious money

22 March 2024

Good news: parish councils can now make grants for churches’ repairs and green projects, writes Stephen Trott

ARE you wondering how to fund repairs to your church tower? Or how to afford Net Zero in your parish church and hall? Thanks to an obscure change to a piece of Victorian legislation, there is very good news in 2024.

Until 1868, the parish vestry (which also appointed churchwardens at the annual meeting) was able to fund church-building repairs by setting a church rate, which was enforceable in law. It was, understandably, deeply unpopular, given that large sections of the population were not churchgoers, and enforcement of the rate was abolished that year, leaving churches to find other sources of funding.

In 1894, the Local Government Act was passed, creating parish councils: a secular version of the vestry, with powers to raise rates for the work of the new civic parish. All of the civic functions of the vestry were taken over by the new parish council, expressly excepting any responsibilities for the church or for ecclesiastical charities.

It was entirely appropriate for those who framed the 1894 Act to ensure that the new parish council was not given control of church buildings or charities.

But the question long remained whether parish councils were empowered, if they chose, to make grants to churches and church charities for their activities in the community on the same terms as other community organisations and charities. Not everyone goes to church, but, equally, not everyone is a supporter of the cricket club, which can receive grant aid for the maintenance of its pitch and pavilion.

LOCAL councils are members of the National Association of Local Councils (NALC), which provides legal advice to parish councils; and the NALC’s view, stated in 2018, was that it was unwise for any council to make grants to churches or to church charities, since it was not certain that they had the power to do so, as the wording of the 1894 Act was unclear on this matter.

There has been long discussion between the Church and the Government, however, about the restriction of grant aid of this kind — not least because it discriminates against the Church, and most probably all other religious denominations and bodies, in parishes in which everyone else can apply for financial support. Churchgoers pay their council tax like everyone else.

The wonderful news for parish churches where the PCC is wondering how to afford major repairs, or the replacement of their gas boiler with a green heating system, or the installation of solar panels, is that, as of 26 December 2023, the law has been changed by the Government expressly to enable parish councils to consider making grants for such purposes.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous, in the House of Commons, and the Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, in the House of Lords, Michael Gove’s Levelling up and Regeneration Act 2023 includes an amendment to the Victorian legislation to make this possible; and it came into effect on 26 December.

THE NALC has now withdrawn its advice, LO1-18, Financial Assistance to the Church, and has issued a new document, L02-23, Power to fund works to property relating to affairs of the Church or held for an ecclesiastical charity, in which its former advice on funding for the Church or church charities has been replaced.

The practical outcome is that any religious organisation, including the Church of England, can now apply for grants for its work in the geographical area of the parish council.

Since parish councils consist of elected councillors, they are free to approve, or not to approve, any such application, like any other request for grant funding. But, in many thousands of places, there is considerable good will towards the heritage buildings that have stood at their heart for hundreds of years, and towards the church, which is their oldest and often most active community association.

Our priceless church buildings are part of everyone’s heritage, local and national, and our members play a huge part in conserving and repairing them. It is for everyone’s benefit if both the old stones and the living stones are able to prosper, for the sake of the wider parish and community.

So, if your PCC needs assistance with repairs or green projects, now is the time to talk to your parish councillors, and to apply for help. A huge thank-you to Mr Selous and Bishop Faull!

The Revd Stephen Trott is Rector of Pitsford with Boughton, in the diocese of Peterborough. He was a member of the General Synod for 29 years.

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