Nigel Huddleston – 2020 Speech on Historic Churches

The text of the speech made by Nigel Huddleston, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, in the House of Commons on 16 July 2020.

First, I offer my sincere thanks to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is a very good friend, for introducing this debate on this important issue. As always, he spoke with great eloquence and knowledge about the matter. His passion for the Church and churches came through clearly, and we all know that that passion is shared by many of our constituents right across the country.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) for his comments, in particular about the important community asset that is St-Mary-at-the-Quay church. My understanding is that the Churches Conservation Trust is working to ensure that the space is able to reopen and serve his community again.

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. 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. The hon. Member for Strangford raised many important points, and I hope to give him some of the assurances he was seeking.

Supporting historic churches protects our cultural heritage and our community cohesion. Although heritage is a devolved responsibility, I am pleased to say that the Government support the maintenance of historic churches throughout the UK through the listed places of worship grant scheme. The vast majority of historic working churches are listed buildings, as the hon. Gentleman said, and are therefore eligible for support under the scheme, which was established in 2001 to provide grants towards VAT paid on repairs and maintenance.

Since its inception, the scheme has made grants totalling more than £285 million 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 £42 million. The level of funding is guaranteed up to 31 March 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 £985 million 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, temporarily halting new awards through its core programmes to provide a package of emergency support to help the country’s heritage sector navigate the covid-19 crisis.​

Covid-19 has had a profound impact on many of the individuals who regularly attend our places of worship and are responsible for their everyday care. It has affected the income of places of worship, including income derived from regular giving, tourism, venue hire, fundraising and many other measures, as the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned. It has also affected the schedule of repair and maintenance for many places of worship, and over the past few months, 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 provided valuable insight into the challenges that grassroots organisations and churches have been facing and the support they require.

The Government are committed to supporting all heritage organisations, including historic places of worship, through the coronavirus outbreak, and I would like to explain a couple of the measures we have taken. 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 my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), have provided input into the guidance we published last month on the safe use of places of worship during the pandemic. That offers a blueprint for safe, socially distanced worship from 4 July onwards. It offers in-depth guidance for places of worship, with specific advice for those based in historic buildings. Hon. Members will be aware that places of worship are still operating under a number of restrictions in terms of the types of activity that can be carried out. The Government are keeping their advice under close review and will continue to work with places of worship on the issue.

I will also set out some of the financial support package that we have recently launched. In response to feedback received from organisations across all sectors, the Government have 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 £55 million.

That funding comprises the Heritage Fund’s £50 million heritage emergency fund, which was launched on 1 April and is already helping places of worship right across the UK to respond to the crisis by supporting them while closed and preparing them to reopen, and Historic England’s covid-19 emergency response fund, which was launched on 17 April and extends a safety net worth £2 million to small heritage organisations. 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 9 June to help to fund urgent maintenance repairs and investigations for heritage at risk. The £3 million fund ​will award grants of up to £25,000. Of course, listed places of worship are not precluded from the support package for the cultural sector recently announced by the Chancellor, the £1.57 billion fund that the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned. The new funding will mean an extra £188 million for the devolved Administrations, including £33 million for Northern Ireland and £96 million for Scotland, while Wales will receive £59 million.

That funding will support our vibrant culture and heritage sectors, supporting hundreds of projects. It will also protect hundreds of jobs in our heritage construction industry through a £120 million capital investment programme supporting highly specialised skills and businesses such as architects and woodwork restorers.

Jim Shannon

I did ask whether there would be any help for the choirs and the choristers, because I understand, and the Minister understands, the importance of encouraging and retaining the choirs. We cannot lose that talent either.

Nigel Huddleston

It is not a debate without an intervention, as well as a main participation, from the hon. Gentleman. The eligibility criteria for that grant are still to be detailed, but they will be released very soon, certainly by the end of July. Hopefully that will give him further guidance.

Finally, on covid funding, the charity support fund is a £200 million fund to support registered or excepted charities, including eligible historic places of worship, to provide essential services for vulnerable people affected by the current crisis. 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.

My thanks again to the hon. Members who have contributed to today’s debate. 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.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)

It should be noted that, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) almost always intervenes in Adjournment debates, he did not spoil his record as he managed to intervene in his own Adjournment debate. That is quite an achievement, but it was an excellent debate.