Church Commissioner Questions – Bats, Buildings, Elections

During the regular slot for questions to the Church Commissioners in the House of Commons on 11th December 2014, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Rt Hon Sir Tony Baldry MP, was asked about maintenance of cathedrals, church repairs, bat damage in churches and general election hustings. A full transcript is below.

Church Commissioners

14.01 CCQ BaldryThe right hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

English Cathedrals (Maintenance)

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): [Question:] What representations he has made to the Chancellor of the Exchequer on funding for maintenance of the fabric of English cathedrals that are older than 500 years.

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Tony Baldry): The first world war centenary cathedral repairs fund has so far allocated £13 million to 41 cathedrals, both Anglican and Catholic, across England. The third and final round of this scheme closes on 17 January.

Michael Fabricant: My right hon. Friend will know that Lichfield cathedral is more than 800 years old—and its wiring is almost as old. If that wiring is not replaced, Lichfield cathedral will have to close because of insurance regulations. Will he make representations to ensure that the cathedral gets the money it urgently requires to replace its wiring and remain open?

Sir Tony Baldry: I was grateful, as I am sure the whole House was, to the Chancellor for allocating £20 million for cathedral repair. I anticipate that Lichfield will apply in January in the third round of this scheme for about £1 million to, as my hon. Friend says, rewire and re-light the whole cathedral, and I hope that Lichfield is successful in that bid.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Will the right hon. Gentleman make sure that when any restoration takes place he addresses the role of wildlife? He may have heard recently about the falcon living happily above York Minister, but will he ensure that bats are preserved in this country? They should not be persecuted; we do not want bats and badgers exterminated in our country. Will he make sure that bats are protected?

Sir Tony Baldry: There is a question on this issue later on the Order Paper. May I say to the hon. Gentleman that churches and cathedrals are places of worship—they are not field barns—and it is not appropriate for bats to urinate and defecate in churches, where people are trying to worship and have broader community activities, such as toddlers groups and lunch clubs for pensioners? We have to find a way in which churches can exist as places of worship without being disrupted by bats.

Mr Speaker: I am sure that “Baldry on Bats” on BBC Parliament will be an unmissable fixture.

 

Churches (Bat Infestation)

Mr Andrew Robathan (South Leicestershire) (Con): My right hon. Friend will know that I love bats—

Mr Speaker: The right hon. Gentleman has bats on the brain.

Mr Robathan: Sorry, sleeping in the rafters.

Mr Speaker: We will hear more about that in a moment. It sounds racy and intoxicating.

Mr Andrew Robathan: [Question:] What recent estimate he has made of the costs to churches of damage caused by bat infestation.

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Tony Baldry): “Baldry on Bats” part 2: the full financial cost is difficult to calculate, but the damage to local and nationally significant cultural heritage is substantial. Approximately 6,400 churches are infested with bats.

Mr Robathan: Having come down from the eaves and woken up, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he has had any discussions with English Heritage, which, after spending a lot of money on restoring churches, then finds that environmental authorities do not allow the exclusion of bats from churches? It will not harm bats to be excluded from churches. They did not start there; they started in trees and other such places. We need to exclude them from churches because they are doing a huge amount of damage and wasting taxpayers’ money that has already been spent on restoring churches.

Sir Tony Baldry: I understand my right hon. Friend’s concerns. St Nicholas church in Stanford-on-Avon in his constituency is one of the worst affected churches in the country. We are carrying out research and work with Natural England, and we hope that that will offer solutions for managing bats in the worst affected churches in the country and, most significantly, financial help in carrying out those plans. Such work does help. My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) has in her constituency St Hilda’s church in Ellerburn, which has successfully excluded bats from the interior of the church, and has now allowed the congregation back in the building to worship. Adaptations are also being made to Natural England’s licensing system, which will make it easier for consultants to carry out licensed bat work in churches.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): I raise this point with some trepidation as the right hon. Gentleman got very cross with me when I raised it in a Westminster Hall debate on the same topic, but does he not accept that the Bat Conservation Trust has been doing some good work with some churches in helping to enable bat populations to live side by side with congregations? In some instances there are ways of managing this without causing a problem. Does he support the trust’s work?

Sir Tony Baldry: The Bat Conservation Trust is a worthy partner, but it and the hon. Lady must accept that churches and cathedrals are not field barns; they are places of worship.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): What about the Baldry conservation trust?

Mr Speaker: We are not talking about the Baldry conservation trust, Mr Sheerman.

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Will the full might of the Church of England be deployed in support of the Bat Habitats Regulation Bill, which is due for a Second Reading on 16 January 2015? That Bill would protect churches and deregulate the system so that bats did not get a free ride inside our churches.

Sir Tony Baldry: As I think EU Commissioners have acknowledged, no one expected the EU habitats directive to cover places of worship.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend for his solicitous concern about the number of years that the congregation was excluded and bats seemed to be given a higher right of entry to the church than the congregation. We tried to do as the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) proposed—allowing bats in the roof, with the congregation below—but it was simply incompatible.

Sir Tony Baldry: I am glad that after all this time we have managed to solve the problem at St Hilda’s at Ellerburn. It demonstrates that with perseverance and working together with Natural England, it is possible to come up with a solution that enables congregations to worship but does not harm bats.

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): When I opened the Christmas fair last Saturday in Wessington church, I had loads of conversations with everybody, including the vicar. Not once did they ever mention that there were bats around. It is just conceivable that the bats were not there because the beast of Bolsover was in the church.

Sir Tony Baldry: “Baldry on Bats” part 3 has not contemplated the idea of getting the hon. Gentleman around to every church that is infested with bats to exorcise them, but it is certainly worth considering.

Mr Speaker: Indeed. Who knows? There might be a debate on the matter. I call Mr Oliver Colvile. Not here.

 

General Election Hustings

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): [Question:] What guidance the Commissioners are providing to parishes wishing to hold hustings before the general election.

Sir Tony Baldry: The Church of England intends to partner with other local churches to put on hustings for the 2015 general election and will adapt guidance published by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland and other organisations for use in its parishes.

Martin Vickers: Churches Together was one of only two organisations that arranged meetings prior to the last election where all candidates appeared. It is vital that we do all we can to encourage such meetings. As well as guidance, can my right hon. Friend give any additional help and support to individual parishes or Churches Together to arrange such meetings?

Sir Tony Baldry: I assure my hon. Friend and the whole House that all guidance produced for parishes for hustings meetings at the general election will comply with both the Charity Commission regulations regarding political activity and those of the Electoral Commission. As some of us know from previous general elections, Churches Together is experienced in organising hustings meetings in constituencies across the country. Those have been widely welcomed because they enable questions to be put on issues that might not otherwise be raised during a general election campaign, and I very much hope that will happen as much as possible at the general election next year.

 

Church Repairs

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): What support is available for churches in need of repairs.

Sir Tony Baldry: In the autumn statement the Chancellor of the Exchequer kindly extended the listed places of worship grant scheme, for which I am extremely grateful. This will be a one-off grant of £15 million to enable listed church buildings of any denomination to apply for assistance with repairs to roofs and rainwater guttering.

Mr Nuttall: Can my right hon. Friend give the House any further details about the criteria for applying for a grant and what the deadline is? I understand that there is a fairly tight time scale in which churches must apply if they want to make use of the scheme.

Sir Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend is right. The time scale is quite tight. Any church that has problems with its roof or its guttering should apply for funding. There is a website, www.lpowroof.org.uk, which shows all the details. Grants are available from £10,000 to £100,000. Repairing roofs is often unglamorous but very necessary work and there are a number of churches that require repairs to their roof.

As this is the last Church Commissioners questions before Christmas and the last question before Christmas, may I share with the House an observation? I saw yesterday in St Ethelburga’s church in the City, an old Saxon church that was bombed by the IRA and rebuilt, on the eastern window the prayer, “O pray for the peace of Jerusalem”.

Sir George Young (North West Hampshire) (Con): Further to the reply that my right hon. Friend has just given to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) about the rather challenging deadline for bids, 31 January is the date by which churches have to get in their bids and my right hon. Friend will understand that vicars have seasonal commitments during the next few weeks. Is there any flexibility in that deadline for those who cannot meet it?

Sir Tony Baldry: If my right hon. Friend has a church in his diocese that wants to submit a bid, I am sure that the diocesan advisory committee and the diocesan office in the diocese of Winchester will make quite sure that it is submitted properly and fully by the deadline.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I very much welcome the answer given by my right hon. Friend. The Holy Trinity church in Twydall in my constituency is in urgent need of repair and would qualify. Rather than having to look this up on the internet, have all churches been written to as a matter of urgency with an explanation of the criteria and how to apply for this funding?

Sir Tony Baldry: I have written to every right hon. and hon. colleague in the House explaining how they apply for these funds, and the churches and cathedrals division in Church House has written to every bishop, archdeacon and diocesan advisory committee. So there can be no excuse for anyone within the machinery of the Church of England not understanding that these grants have been made available by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. They are there and ready to be taken up, and if any parish that has problems with a roof or guttering gets in touch with its diocesan office, it should be able to get a properly submitted bid in on time.

(via Parliament.uk)