On 24th May 2023, the House of Lords debated the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill in Grand Committee. The Bishop of Bristol tabled amendments to the bill that would remove the existing confusion in law on whether local authorities can offer grants to places of worship:
After Clause 214, insert the following new Clause—
“Removal of prohibition on local authority from making grants to churches etc.
In section 8(1)(i) of the Local Government Act 1894 (works to church property), omit “, not being property relating to affairs of the church or held for an ecclesiastical charity”.”
Member’s explanatory statement: This amendment would remove the prohibition concerning churches and ecclesiastical charities in section 8(1)(i) of the Local Government Act 1894 and would ensure that local authorities’ spending power under section 8(1)(k) could be used to make grants to places of worship.
The Lord Bishop of Bristol: My Lords, I am pleased to speak to my Amendments 485, 505, 510 and 512. I thank the Government for making time so soon after the conclusion of the debate on Monday. I declare my interests as a board member of the Church Commissioners, as set out in the register, and as the Church of England’s lead bishop for church buildings. Noble Lords will also recall the debate on Amendment 163, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, which took place earlier in Committee on 15 March.
I tabled these four amendments to clarify the issue of local authority funding responsibilities for all Christian churches, including parish churches. The Bill affords the opportunity to bring much-needed clarity to this issue and resolve a long-standing problem. I am delighted to say that these amendments have received strong cross-party support, and I am particularly grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Best, and the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, for acting as sponsors. The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, is unable to be in her place today, but I am assured of her continued support for these amendments.
I am pleased to say that these amendments also have the backing of the Church in Wales, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, and the Methodist Church, among others. The National Association of Local Councils and the Society of Local Council Clerks are supportive, as are many in the heritage sector. Last June, I had the pleasure of meeting the right honourable Robert Jenrick MP, who, as a former Secretary of State for Communities, made clear his personal support prior to returning to government in a different role.
Parish churches are vital to the flourishing of their local communities. The Warm Welcome campaign, for instance, saw millions benefit from spaces for relationships, community building and practical support over the last hard winter period. Clarifying the current confusion in law would help local churches continue to play such an important role in their areas.
In many parts of the country, churches are the only community buildings open and available to all. The National Churches Trust’s House of Good report, published in 2021-22, estimated the social and economic contribution of UK Church buildings across all generations to be £55 billion, using the Treasury’s own calculations. It found that investing £l in a Church project returned £16 of community benefit—not a bad return on investment.
My amendments would remove the prohibition on parish councils funding places of worship in the Local Government Act 1894, which conflicts with the Local Government Act 1972 and the Localism Act 2011. This causes local councils to be reluctant to grant aid to places of worship, for fear of legal challenge. To reassure the Committee, the Localism Act enables all faith communities to apply for grant funding.
Specifically, my Amendment 485 would insert a new clause to remove the prohibition concerning churches and ecclesiastical charities in Section 8(1)(i) of the Local Government Act 1894. It would ensure that local authorities’ spending power under Section 8(1)(k) could be used to make grants to places of worship. Consequently, Amendment 505 would provide for this new clause to extend to England and Wales. Amendment 510 would provide for the new clause to come into force two months after the Bill receives Royal Assent, and Amendment 512 would amend the Bill’s Long Title to include reference to the new clause’s subject matter.
I turn to the Minister’s letter to all Peers of 27 January 2023. She will be aware that I wrote to her in response on 21 February and thanked her for her reply, but I feel that a few clarifications need to be put on the record for the Committee. The Minister mentioned in her letter that the current set of laws applies solely to Church of England parishes. However, it is worth noting that the scope of Church buildings impacted extends beyond those in the Church of England. Indeed, evidence collected by the Historic Religious Buildings Alliance shows that the ban on local council funding is also being applied to other Christian denominations. The Minister also said in her letter that there is limited evidence that this is an issue. I urge her to consider the case studies that the Historic Religious Buildings Alliance sent to her on 15 February and the lengthy correspondence that her department has had on this matter with the Church of England over many years.
Finally, the Minister mentioned in her letter to Peers that only the courts are empowered to give an authoritative interpretation of the law. I am sure she will accept that the cost of bringing a legal case will be prohibitive to a parish. In contrast, the minor change these amendments seek to make would resolve the question of interpretation simply and effectively, without the necessity for such action.
Meanwhile, church buildings continue to lose out on an important funding opportunity, with negative consequences for our national heritage and for the communities they serve. Those who give their time and resources to support their parish are too often unsung heroes who should be thanked for their continued generosity. These are important community buildings, over 12,000 of which are of particular historic interest. I stress that this proposal would place no new funding obligation on local authorities; my amendments would not entail any additional cost or demand on them or on His Majesty’s Government.
In closing, I thank the parish councils team in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, who have been in touch with officials at the Church of England’s National Church Institutions to indicate that the Government are exploring their options following the Historic Religious Buildings Alliance consultation. I hope the Minister will be able to be more forthcoming with details.
I very much look forward to hearing the contributions of other noble Lords on these amendments. I beg to move.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Lord Best (CB): My Lords, I support the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol. I will speak to Amendments 485, 505, 510 and 512 in her name and mine, and those of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews. I declare one or two interests that have not been relevant before: until last year I was a Church Commissioner, and my wife is a member of our local parochial church council.
The amendments would clarify a grey area of the law and ensure that local parish and town councils can make grants, if they wish, to projects that involve ecclesiastical buildings. At last, we have an amendment that costs the Government nothing, does not require anyone to do anything they do not want to do, helps build and sustain local communities, chimes with the principles of devolved decision-making, involves no political controversy and deprives lawyers of undeserved fees for pointless legal cases.
The amendment addresses the situation facing a local council that wishes to support a local initiative by an ecclesiastical charity. Making grants to such bodies toward building works of any kind was prohibited by Section 8 of the Local Government Act 1894. It is believed that the Government intended to remove this barrier to local grant-making through Section 215 of the Local Government Act 1972, but doubts remained as to whether the 1972 Act achieved this intention.
Lord Cormack (Con): The great thing about these amendments is that they would not oblige anyone to do anything but would enable local people—because very often the parochial church council and the parish council are very similar in composition—to help the building that, in most cases, is dearest to their hearts. So I make a real appeal to my noble friend the Minister. The noble Lord, Lord Best, put it so beautifully: it costs nothing; it avoids protracted legal wrangling and filling the pockets of lawyers. They are just enabling amendments to allow local people to help the building that, in many cases, means most to them.
I speak as one who is of the Church of England, of course, but I am very glad that the Catholic bishops have signed up to this, and the Methodists and others, because sometimes it is a Methodist or Roman Catholic hall or church in a suburb or a small urban area that is vital to youth groups or kindergartens. I was passing a church hall in London only the other day that is home to a kindergarten.
All I say to my noble friend is that there are very few things that we debate in your Lordships’ House that would put no cost on government. This is something that enables. I beg my noble friend to accept the spirit of these amendments so that, on Report, we could have something that we can all support, ideally in the Minister’s name.
Lord Stunell (Lab): My Lords, I support the amendments in this group. We had a clear and compelling case put to us by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol. I thank her very much for that. She was very ably supported by the noble Lord, Lord Best, who emphasised what, to me, is the really significant part of the value that would come from the passage of these amendments.
Clearly, the heritage angle, which is one that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, dwelt on effectively, is important. However, in the context of the levelling-up Bill, I say to Ministers that the social and community impact of investment by parish councils in their local facilities is a key part of ensuring that we have some levelling up. Perhaps principally in rural and suburban areas, but throughout the country, it is absolutely normal—I would say commonplace—for church buildings and buildings for those of other faiths to be used by the local community for a wide range of community functions, such as recreational functions, learning and educational functions, and food banks, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Best.
Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con, Department for Levelling Up): My Lords, first, I thank the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Bristol, my noble friend Lord Cormack and the noble Lords, Lord Best and Lord Scriven, for raising these amendments. They highlight the confusion around the prohibition in the Local Government Act 1894 and therefore attempt to clarify the basis on which local authorities are able to provide support to churches and other places of worship.
Amendments 485, 505, 510 and 512 aim to do this by removing some of the wording from that Act. Amendment 504GJJ, which has been withdrawn from the Marshalled List, would have aimed to do that by providing that the powers in the 1894 Act could be used to provide support to places of worship to ensure that, where they are used to offer support and services that are of benefit to the wider community, the facilities could be maintained and operated safely and effectively by, for example, helping meet the costs of maintenance and repairs. However, the Government do not consider that these amendments would be effective in achieving these aims.
The intention of the Local Government Act 1894 was to provide a clear separation between the newly created civil parishes and what are now parochial church councils. However, the Government do not consider that it includes any general or specific provision that prohibits parish councils from funding the maintenance and upkeep of churches and other religious buildings. Parish councils have other powers that enable their contribution towards the upkeep of these buildings, if it were deemed to be within their local communities’ interest to do so. However, I understand the confusion and I thank the noble Lords who have raised these amendments. We have heard their concerns that the law may be ambiguous, and I know this is of great concern to parishes and noble Lords. I can assure them that we in the department are considering this issue carefully and will reflect on the comments made during this debate.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab): Yes, it was promising. It is good that the department will look at this matter, but I hope that, as part of that reflection on the matter, the department will get the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol in and speak to her and other people. It is one thing that we are all saying that it is fine, but if the department gets legal advice that it is not fine, no one will do anything, will they? That is the basic problem we have here: there is legal advice saying this is not fine. Then people will be nervous, saying “If I do this, I will be going beyond my powers”. That will cause all sorts of problems. If there is ambiguity here but all of us agree that what has been suggested is a good thing, I really do not understand why we cannot clear up the ambiguity. I hope that we can address that. If we all agree that it is good, then let us make it absolutely crystal clear and not leave it so that we have problems with legal opinions that are different from what the Government are saying.
The Lord Bishop of Bristol: My Lords, I thank the Minister and my fellow sponsors for a useful and effective debate. I thank them for their support in clarifying the law. Rather naughtily, I wonder, if there is not yet enough commitment for the Government to bring their own proposals, whether the Government might fund the legal case that might otherwise be necessary to create clarity on this issue. I hope that the Minister hears that there is real confusion in localities about this and there is inhibition to supporting these ecclesiastical charities.
I hope very much that the Government will be persuaded to bring their own amendments on Report. My fellow sponsors and I stand ready to offer to help in any way. For instance, we could convene representatives of not just the Church of England but other denominations. I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Stunell and Lord Kennedy, for mentioning the ecumenical aspect of this. At this stage, it is necessary to achieve the clarity that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, very pointedly mentioned. I look forward to working with the Minister and her team ahead of Report; I hope that will be possible.
I conclude that these amendments are necessary, as I have stated. They would enable all Christian denominations, like all other faith communities, to continue to live out their calling and provide a space to support those in need in their communities. However, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment standing in my name on the Order Paper.
Amendment 485 withdrawn.
Amendments 486 to 491 not moved.
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