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National Churches Trust draws up blueprint to show how to save churches from closure

25 January 2024

Support charity seeks £50m p.a. state funding to clear backlog of repairs


Sir Philip Rutnam, who chairs the National Churches Trust

Sir Philip Rutnam, who chairs the National Churches Trust

THE future of church buildings is the single biggest heritage challenge facing the UK, and a national plan is urgently needed, the National Churches Trust (NCT) says.

The support charity launched its latest campaign, Every Church Counts, at a reception in the House of Lords, on Wednesday. The latest figures show that 3500 churches closed in the past ten years, and more than 900 buildings are now on Historic England’s At Risk register; 20,000 of the 38,500 remaining church buildings have statutory listed status. Fifty-three buildings were added to the list in 2023.

Climate change is one contributor: existing roofs, gutters, and downpipes cannot cope with the more frequent and heavier rainfall. But it is not only nationally significant heritage that is at risk, the charity warns; nor is it only about access to Christian worship and services such as weddings and funerals.

Places of worship are hubs of community support, it says. Many host foodbanks and warm-spaces initiatives that counter social isolation and loneliness, and they are also a focus of local cultural life. The social and economic value of church buildings is estimated to be at least £55 billion a year: roughly twice what is spent on adult social care by local authorities.

The challenge is nationwide: in Wales, about one quarter of the historic churches and chapels have closed in the past decade, and a similar number are now at risk. Scotland’s At Risk register includes 182 historic religious buildings. The charity notes that the Church of Scotland is planning the closure of as many as 30 to 40 per cent of its churches.

Volunteers, “including hard-pressed clergy”, are primarily responsible for the maintenance and repair of church buildings, but few have any training in building management, the NCT says. It is calling for the establishment of a network of professional church-building support officers over the whole country, to provide expert help.

It is also calling for the increased use of churches with spare capacity to house community services. The Government, the charity says, “should ask local authorities and public bodies to make use of churches and church halls to host public and community services”.

Because the backlog of repairs for C of E churches alone is at least £1 billion, there must be more funding to save this priceless heritage, the campaign says.

It acknowledges “the considerable financial support already provided by heritage bodies and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport [DCMS]”. But it estimates that it will need at least £50 million of additional annual public funding for repairs, with proportionate funding provided for devolved administrations. Private philanthropy also has a part to play, the campaign suggests. It proposes a national government-supported matched-funding scheme.

 It describes church tourism as “an unrivalled national asset”, and calls on the DCMS, in conjunction with national and regional tourism bodies, to commission a national study of ways to boost it. Churches should also be helped to open regularly throughout the week, “to enable them to better connect with local people and attract visitors”.

The campaign concludes with a call to “speak up for churches. What is needed more than ever is a national plan for the future of church buildings.” It calls for more advocacy from heritage bodies, Christian denominations, and “the many other people who use, love and value church buildings to ensure churches are seen as an asset and not a burden”.

The chief executive of the NCT, Claire Walker, described Every Church Counts as offering “a blueprint of how churches can be saved for the future. In the coming months we will work with our partners to see how the ideas can be implemented, so that the UK’s wonderful inheritance of church buildings can continue to benefit local communities and the nation as a whole.”

Sir Philip Rutnam, who chairs the NCT, said: “One of the recommendations we make is for more funding for church buildings. Repairing the roof of a historic church can cost well over half a million pounds. Although congregations raise a great deal of money locally, more financial support is urgently needed.

“More support is especially needed for churches in more deprived areas, such as inner cities and coastal towns. These churches often do a tremendous amount to support local people, but struggle to raise money to repair buildings, with many facing closure.”

Historic England acknowledges its work: “The listed places of worship in England provide spaces for worship as well as social and community events, allowing people to gather for a wide range of practical and spiritual reasons. Most provide a haven for individuals needing a quiet, safe and peaceful place to take a break from daily worries, isolation and anxiety, irrespective of their own beliefs.

“They continue to accommodate celebration and grief, shared and private experiences, art, music and sculpture, toddler groups, political hustings, wellbeing groups and addiction-support sessions. These are significant spaces in which human experience has been, and continues to be, both welcome and supported.”

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