Bishops call for £50m fund to save cathedrals

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SENIOR Bishops and other members of the House of Lords have called for a new £50m fund to support England’s treasured cathedrals amid ongoing fears about their conservation.

The Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt Rev Stephen Platten, was among several leading Church figures who backed calls from fellow peers in the Lords this week for more state aid for the nation’s finest religious buildings.

The Bishop warned that English Heritage’s budget was under pressure and described how cathedrals have to compete against other churches for maintenance grants “in an open market”.

Backing calls from Grimsby-born Conservative peer Lord Cormack for a specially-allotted £50m cathedrals fund, the Bishop said it would be a small gesture for the Government to make.

“Let us go for the £50m,” he said. “If you compare the amount of money with the fuel excise duty that has been so much in the news in the last few days, or, indeed, the £1.3 billion that will go to the European Union – doubtless for good reasons – £50m is as nothing.”

Wakefield Cathedral has just embarked on a much-needed £2.5m renovation programme following a lengthy fund-raising campaign.

Across the country, a survey in 2009 showed £110m is needed up to 2020 to maintain England’s cathedrals.

Lord Cormack, who now lives in Lincoln, said: “All too easily we take for granted the beauty and dignity of our cathedrals and their surroundings.

“We also tend to take for granted the glory of the music and the excellence of the craftsmanship.

“Even the fact that cathedrals continuously patronise the arts in the best possible way tends to be taken for granted.

“When we take these things for granted, we ought to remind ourselves that they do not just happen; they all come at a price.”

Spelling out the difficulties authorities face in maintaining these ancient buildings, he added: “We have to recognise there is no automatic direct funding from the state to support our cathedrals,

“To a large degree the cathedrals are still self-financing.”

The Church faced a battle earlier this year when Chancellor George Osborne announced plans to start charging VAT on alterations to listed buildings.

The move would have meant projects such as the Wakefield Cathedral restoration immediately requiring a further 20 per cent on top of the money already raised.

The Chancellor eventually performed a partial U-turn, contributing £30m to Church coffers to cover the VAT on renovations to religious buildings up to 2015.

Lord Cormack welcomed that measure, but warned it did not go far enough.

“Let us remember each cathedral is at the centre of a series of buildings,” he said.

“The cathedral is responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of often incredibly important medieval and later buildings.

“The VAT exemption does not touch anything other than the actual place of worship.

“It is also limited to the year 2015, so there is no certainty of continuity. That is a pity and a great worry.”

The Government insists it is taking significant steps to support England’s cathedrals, however.

Speaking for the coalition, Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Northover said: “The Government are very much committed to supporting the preservation of cathedrals.

“We offer support for cathedrals through English Heritage, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the listed places of worship scheme and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)’s capital grant, as well as schemes run by other departments.

“DCMS has committed more than £500m to heritage organisations across the spending period.”

The Bishop’s speech: Page 17.