Rural parishes face greater risk of losing churches to disrepair

THREE-quarters of churches at risk of falling into disrepair in the East of England are located in rural areas, a survey has found.

The first ever sample survey of the region’s 2,305 listed places of worship suggests that around 14% are potentially at risk of needing urgent major repairs - most of which are found outside large towns and villages.

English Heritage found that rural churches are nearly 50% more likely to be at risk than those in urban communities.

The survey, which is part of the Heritage at Risk initiative, also found that, without external funding, congregations struggle to cope with the responsibility of looking after their parish churches.

Yet nearly half the region’s churches, temples and chapels are designated Grade I-listed buildings, denoting outstanding national significance.

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While some are still at risk, two notable church projects, which have benefitted from community support and fundraising, are giving hope to others.

St Ethelbert, in Tannington, mid Suffolk, is a well-maintained 14th-Century church. The 250-year-old lead roof of the church tower needed reparation work and in 2009 was repaired with English Heritage grant funding.

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St Mary’s, in Redgrave, faced a repair bill of �500,000 when passed into the Churches Conservation Trust’s care, after becoming redundant from Church of England worship in 2005.

A regeneration team fixed the roof and helped form the Redgrave Church Heritage Church Trust, a charitable trust to assist in the running of the church.

The community worked together to raise and invest �40,000 in the project and the church was turned into a viable community venue for regular use and for hire to outside groups and weddings.

Robert Rous, chairman of Suffolk Historic Churches Trust, which donates around �200,000 to the region’s churches annually, said: “We are lucky that so many churches are still in good condition, but those that aren’t are nonetheless iconic and Suffolk would not be the same without them.

“It is important that funding for their upkeep comes from a variety of sources. Traditionally English Heritage has provided core funding for repairs to things like roofing.

“The National Lottery has also been supportive in response to communities getting together and appealing for support.

“The maximum grant we give out is between �7,500 and �10,000 - all of which comes from the annual historic churches charity bike ride.

“The churches most at risk are those in very small rural communities, with perhaps just one clergyman, where it has become a struggle to tackle repairs. It can often be too much to take on.”

The survey found that two-thirds of congregations questioned said that funding major repairs is a constant worry.

Regionally, English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund have tackled this concern by allocating nearly �24m since 2002 to support conservation work on 302 buildings under the Repair Grants for Places of Worship (RGPW) scheme.

Nationally, English Heritage estimates that there are �925m of outstanding repairs to be done in the next five years.

Greg Luton, English Heritage regional director, said: “Many of these buildings are amongst the region’s greatest architectural treasures, serving communities and faith groups.

“Ultimately, we will add the most vulnerable to our Heritage at Risk register, making it easier for congregations to get help from heritage organisations, local authorities and the community.”

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