We must support our historic churches - Nigel Huddleston

AS the Minister for Sport, Heritage and Tourism, I am always heartened to see our historic churches and places of worship of all faiths evoke passion and commitment.

Churches like St George's Church in Leeds are having to conform to social distancing - even for weddings. Photo: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

Our historic churches have served as focal points for their local communities for tens, hundreds and even thousands of years.

Across the country, historic parish churches are the lifeblood of the communities they serve and the Government support the maintenance of historic churches throughout the UK through the listed places of worship grant scheme.

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The vast majority of historic working churches are listed buildings, and are therefore eligible for support under the scheme, which was established in 2001 to provide grants towards VAT paid on repairs and maintenance.

The Government is committed to preserving historic places of worship like York Minster.

Since its inception, the scheme has made grants totalling more than £285m and has played a significant part in ensuring that listed places of worship are in their best overall condition for many years. The scheme presently handles around 7,000 claims a year, is open to all faiths and denominations and is delivered UK-wide.

In 2012, my Department and the Treasury became joint funders of the scheme, with the annual funding increased to £42m. The level of funding 
is guaranteed up to March 31, 2021, and any extension to the scheme is on hold until the completion of the spending review.

Further, since 1994, the Heritage Lottery Fund has awarded more than £985m to more than 6,400 projects supporting the UK’s places of worship.

In response to the extraordinary times we are now all facing, the fund has refocused its efforts to provide a package of emergency support to help the country’s heritage sector.​

The Government says it recognises the historical value of local churches.

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I have had weekly calls with representatives from the heritage sector about the impacts of Covid-19, including representatives from the Church of England.

Those calls have been incredibly useful and the Government is committed to supporting all heritage organisations, including historic places of worship through the coronavirus outbreak.

To help our historic places of worship get back on their feet, it is important that we help them reopen as soon as possible and as safely as possible.

The heritage working group that I chair, together with the places of worship working group, chaired by the Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, have provided input into the guidance we published last month.

That offers in-depth guidance for places of worship, with specific advice for those based in historic buildings. The Government are keeping their advice under close review.

In response to feedback received from organisations across all sectors, the Government has announced an unprecedented stream of support schemes.

The highly visible job retention scheme is one part of that, but, with regard to support specifically targeted at the heritage sector, Historic England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund are also administering grant funding worth more than £55m.

The grants will help organisations, voluntary groups and self-employed contractors to survive the immediate challenges posed by coronavirus.

Historic England launched a second emergency fund on June 9 to help to fund urgent maintenance repairs and investigations for heritage at risk. The fund ​will award grants of up to £25,000.

We recognise that, notwithstanding these generous support schemes, there will still be challenges for our historic places of worship.

They will face these challenges over the coming months as we resume normal activities following the pandemic, and we are committed to keeping the dialogue going and seeking to support this sector in whatever way we can.

I know how important our historic churches are and want to see them and the country recover and thrive.

Our historic churches are vital assets, treasured for their heritage, community and social value, and they must be protected for generations to come and this Government will continue to vigorously support them.

Nigel Huddleston is a Culture Minister. He spoke in a Commons debate on historic churches – this is an edited version.

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