Question for Short Debate
4 pm Asked by Lord Avebury Lord Avebury (LD): My Lords, a consensus that reform of the law on chancel repairs is long overdue has emerged from discussions with the church, the Law Commission, the Law Society, the Country Landowners’ Association and the National Secular Society. Since the Chancel Repairs Bill will not make further progress until after the general election, a preliminary debate on the issues is useful now. By the 12th century, the liability to pay for chancel repairs, the CRL, was already linked to the tithes being received by the rectors of certain parishes. At the Reformation, Henry VIII sold the right to the tithes to lay people who became liable for chancel repairs as “lay rectors”. Under the current law, the Tithe Act 1936, some lay rectors are still responsible for those repairs, but the tithes which originally enabled them to make a profit from the transaction were abolished. The unfortunate remnants were those who owned land that was not relieved of the burden in 1936, or their successors in title, who have been living under a sword of Damocles for the past 78 years. It is for discussion whether major institutions such as the schools of Eton and Winchester or the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge should continue to be required to pay long-standing non land-based CRL, but it is unreasonable for the owners of generally small plots of land in some 2,500 Anglican parishes in England—around half of them—to be potentially liable for the charge, which is without limit. The Chancel Repairs Act 1932 reasserted the little-used right to enforce CRL, but transferred enforcement from the ecclesiastical courts to the county courts 15 Jan 2015 : Column GC274 “So I hope we shall support the suggestion that we phase out these liabilities, just as the Church of the 1830s agreed reluctantly to tithes being phased out”. The synod approved the recommendation, but declined to use its legislative powers to implement it. Soon after, and with Church of England involvement, the Law Commission recommended the abolition of CRL by statute after a 10-year notice period, which would by now have long expired. That recommendation, made in a well argued paper, was not implemented, but if the synod itself agreed to ending CRL, thinking it unlikely that compensation would be forthcoming from the Government in 1982, it would be even less realistic in this age of austerity to expect the taxpayer to reimburse parishes for the loss of a doubtful future income. Given the furore over even the registration of CRL of properties in the roughly one in 20 parishes thought eligible to do so, parochial church councils have wisely refrained from enforcing their legal rights since 2003, so are they worth anything? The state already contributes hugely to the upkeep of churches through gift aid worth some £84 million; the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme worth £42 million; the National Heritage Memorial Fund, currently funding repairs to Winchester Cathedral costing £14 million and of York Minster at £18.3 million; further grants to cathedrals recently announced worth £8 million; Heritage Lottery Fund grants to churches of £300 million in the 10 years to 2004, the lion’s share to the Church of England; and finally, £15 million recently announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer for repairs to church roofs and rainwater pipes under the Listed Places of Worship Roof Repair Fund. In 2003, following a refusal by English Heritage to fund repairs to the church in Aston Cantlow in Warwickshire, the local PCC refused an offer of £25,000 from the lay rectors, Mr and Mrs Wallbank, and the parish took the case all the way to the House of Lords, with the active support of the Archbishops’ Council. There, the Wallbanks lost, and had to sell their farm to pay the CRL and costs approaching £500,000. Parliament reacted with an order providing for registration of CRL at the Land Registry, to alert buyers to land being subject to the liability, since it was rarely shown on deeds, but lawyers doubt whether buyers of unregistered land are protected as envisaged when the order was enacted. The church warned PCCs that failure to register under the order might render trustees personally liable, so it is little wonder that an estimated 17,000 titles in a few hundred parishes have been registered. The vast majority are owned by ordinary householders, not major landowners. Attempts were made to mitigate the harm to the mission of the church that registration caused. Titles were singled out where the return seemed most lucrative or there was likely to be opposition. PCCs often 15 Jan 2015 : Column GC275 PCCs were ill equipped for the laborious and exacting work of registration, often involving missing, archaic or inaccurate documents. Unsurprisingly, thousands of registrations have been made in error, compounding the distress caused to householders. This happened, for example, in Gorleston in Norfolk, where all of the nearly 1,000 registrations had to be withdrawn. Given the hostility to registration reported by the media, churches would find it extraordinarily difficult and counterproductive in terms of their relationships with their parishes to sue for recovery of CRL. It appears not to have been attempted since Aston Cantlow. Registration is literally a medieval anomaly that undermines the value and saleability of land, creating lasting animosity towards the church, without achieving the objective of improving the funding of chancel repairs. It aims at taxing citizens who may not even be Christian or belong to any religion, for the purposes of one faith out of dozens in our multicultural society. Even more harmful for many landowners than the exposure to unquantifiable and theoretically limitless CRL is the blight of registration, significantly reducing the sale price and even making the property unsaleable, particularly to buyers requiring mortgages. Since Aston Cantlow, purchasers of land have routinely taken out insurance against having to pay CRL, and this has proved very lucrative to the insurance industry, given that payouts have been minimal. But for property blighted by registration, premiums are astronomical or insurance is totally unavailable. The only fair solution is abolition, modelled on the Law Commission’s recommendation, but until that can be effected, a much greater availability is needed of compounding—the ability to buy out the liability to CRL, at low cost and minimal professional fees. At Edingale in the diocese of Lichfield, the diocese agreed after long and stressful negotiations to accept just £45 from a householder to extinguish her liability to pay CRL of thousands of times that amount if it had been recoverable. Without compounding, any would-be purchaser would have had to take into account the probability that, ultimately, the church would be able to enforce the claim, as it did in Aston Cantlow.
Some dioceses already recommend compounding, but a uniform countrywide scheme would be the ideal, possibly by way of amendments to the Ecclesiastical Dilapidations Measure 1923. The initiatives of the Reverend Greg Yerbury, team rector of Penkridge, Staffs, might provide a useful model. In any case, based on the principle that half a loaf is better than no bread, it might be sensible for the church to devise a workable national scheme for compounding before we return to the Chancel Repairs Bill, abolishing CRL altogether after the general election.