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St Clement's is closed for renovation - but not, presumably, funded by chancel repair liability.

The spectre haunting the Old Town

When John Dawes and his wife decided to move to the Old Town to spend their retirement years, it never occurred to them that they might be letting themselves in for the upkeep of local churches – a prospect faced by all Old Town house-owners. Nick Terdre reports.

What their solicitor told the Dawes was that under laws dating back to Tudor times, churches dating from that period have the right to raise funds for the repair of their buildings from property owners living on former church land – the so-called chancel repair liability.

The Church of England derives a certain income from chancel repair liability. However, many parishes have not made use of this source of income in modern times, for which reason it is not very well known. But it hit the headlines in 2003 when Andrew and Gail Wallbank received a demand for almost £100,000 from their local Parochial Church Council (PCC) for the upkeep of Aston Cantlow church in Warwickshire.

They bravely decided to fight the demand, leading to a protracted legal battle in which the Law Lords eventually ruled in favour of the parish council, landing the Wallbanks with a bill of some £350,000 including legal costs and leaving them ruined. They had based their case on the Human Rights Act, but, as John says, “The Law Lords ruled that the act did not apply as PCCs are private bodies.”

It was an obvious injustice, and the remedy was in the hands of the government – change the law. But successive governments have refused to do so as it would entail them compensating the Church for the loss of income.

PCCs are charities, so in John’s view, he faces an anomalous situation in which a charity, rather than politely requesting support, demands payment with the threat of legal action if refused.

 

The view from Lambeth Palace

John Dawes

Taking out insurance provides protection. But John is offended by the very principle, and decided to take up the issue with the CofE. He wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury to ask how “…you can endorse such demands on defenceless pensioners like ourselves,” and why the Church, “seemingly contrary to the perceived teachings of Christ, thinks it morally justifiable to…threaten to extort money by virtue of this outdated ancient decree…”

In his reply, the archbishop’s chief of staff pointed out that, given the “…very onerous responsibility” faced by the Church for the maintenance of historic churches, “…it is difficult to see how the Church can reasonably be expected to abandon the right to chancel repair liability without adequate compensation. We would certainly be open to legislation that extinguished the liability if…the Government were willing to accompany it with a compensation package. However, we have no reason to believe that the Government is prepared to contemplate that.”

PCCs also find themselves in a cleft stick. If they decide not to exercise their right to chancel repair liability, this failure to ‘maximise their assets’ may be penalised by other sources of funding deciding in consequence to turn down their applications – as English Heritage has apparently threatened to do.

 

Registration process

In his letter the Archbishop of Canterbury’s chief of staff wrote that they were not aware of any case in which someone who had bought a property without knowing that it was subject to the liability had subsequently faced a demand for payment. But following the Wallbank case, the government set a deadline of October 2013 for PCCs to notify the Land Registry of the properties they reckon to be liable for chancel repair.

This will help clarify which properties are at risk. Once the registration process has been completed, it will not be possible to levy funds on any properties not registered.

Conversely it may open the way to the exercise of the liability on a more regular basis against properties which are registered – including in the Old Town. It will certainly have the effect of reducing the value of affected properties.

Meanwhile John has also written to All Saints and St Clements PCC asking whether they have enforced the levy at any time in the past and if they intend to do so in the future. In reply they say they have referred the matter to the archdeacon at Lewes, although, as John says, they have all the details to hand in their archives.

He has also taken the matter up with local MP Amber Rudd, who rather sidestepped the issue by sending the correspondence on to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and asking for his comments. She has just reported that the Treasury has referred the matter on to the Justice Secretary.

“I’m sure we’ll end up paying the insurance,” John says. “But what niggles me is that no other charity has the power to take you to court and demand money.

“I’m not doing this because I’m anti-Church. I think we all have a responsibility for our ancient buildings. But is this really morally the right way to look after our heritage in the 21st century?

“Between the somewhat laissez-faire attitudes of Lambeth Palace, who have been neglecting this matter for nearly 10 years, an MP who seems not to have an opinion on the effect this will have on her constituents, and the PCC attempting to deal with complex issues well above their remit, little people like me don’t stand a chance.”

 

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Posted 10:50 Wednesday, Aug 8, 2012 In: Home Ground

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