The government has agreed to amend its Levelling-Up Bill, currently in the House of Lords, to clarify the law around the ability of parish and town councils to fund churches – meaning that they would be able to do so without fear of legal challenge.
Speaking in the House of Lords at the end of May, Bishop Viv sought to clarify a grey area of law allowing great access to local grants for all churches.
Bishop Viv urged the government, “to clarify the issue of local authority funding responsibilities for all Christian churches, including parish churches.”
Existing legislation, some dating back to 1894, offers Parish and Town councils conflicting instructions on whether they can support bid for grants for building works in ‘ecclesiastical buildings’.
Consequently, up to now, councils have been reluctant to make grants to local churches.
Baroness Jane Scott, Heritage Minister in the Lords, has now confirmed that the government will introduce its own amendment to the same effect as ours, moved by Bishop Viv.
Bishop Viv’s amendments would simplify the situation and allow local bodies to act in favour of all churches.
“Parish churches are vital to the flourishing of their local communities,” said Bishop Viv. “The Warm Welcome campaign, for instance, saw millions benefit from spaces for relationships, community building and practical support over the winter period. Clarifying the current confusion in law would help local churches continue to play such important roles in their areas.”
The Treasury has calculated that investing one pound in a church project, returned £16 of community benefit. “Where else could you get as good a return as that?,” asked Bishop Viv.
The amendments had the backing of Church in Wales, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, and the Methodist Church, amongst others. The National Association of Local Councils and the Society of Local Council Clerks are supportive, as are many in the heritage sector.
Responding to the debate Baroness Scott of Bybrook, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department for Levelling-Up, Housing and Communities rejected the suggestion that there was any, 'provision that prohibits parish councils from funding the maintenance and upkeep of churches and other religious buildings.'
However, she told their Lordships: “We’ve heard the concern that the law may be ambiguous. I can assure them that we in the department will consider this issue carefully and will also reflect carefully on the comments made in this debate.”
Presuming that the government’s Levelling-Up Bill passes – which, because of the government’s majority, it is expected to – this will therefore resolve this once and for all, and a democratic, grass-roots means of supporting church buildings will be opened up. (It is important to note that the change would not require local councils to give financial support to church buildings – merely enable them to do so, should they wish.)
Because this is a devolved matter, the change will only apply to England, but our hope is that resolution of this issue in England will prompt the Welsh Senedd to take similar action to assist churches there.
You can watch Bishop Viv's full speech below: