Chancel Repair Liability
Peter Luff (Mid Worcestershire, Conservative)
My hon. Friend, who I am glad to see has made it to this debate, anticipates the point that I was just about to make. I agree entirely. His constituent has been in touch with me, too, and I welcome the correspondence that I have had with him.
Other people say that householders can commute the sum by paying a lump sum to the Church, but that, too, is an arbitrary and unfair tax. It might extinguish the liability, but at considerable cost to the householder. It is important to realise that there is generally no easy way of telling whether the liability attaches to a property unless it has been registered. Proximity to a church is no measure of the likelihood that the liability attaches to a property. The land could be anywhere, town or country. It just had to be purchased by the right person when Henry VIII sold it in the late 1530s.
What transpired next was legal advice from the Church of England to dioceses that parishes should make efforts to register liability before the October 2013 deadline.
A parochial church council that did not register the liability could be held in charity law to be in breach of its duty to maximise the income due to the charity. Failure to do so would make individual churchwardens and PCC members personally liable for the cost of chancel repairs.
Of course, had it not been for the Aston Cantlow case, all this might have remained theoretical. Chancel repair liability had been entirely forgotten in many parishes, but PCCs were now obliged to reactivate it. To make matters worse, English Heritage, showing what I can only describe as a regrettable lack of understanding, said that it would not provide funding for the repair of historic churches whose PCC had declined to enforce the liability.
A perfect storm now faced many PCCs, including the Broadway PCC with responsibility for the wonderful mediaeval church of St Eadburgha, which dates back to the 12th century. PCCs generally do not want to enforce the liability against their neighbours and friends. If they enforce the liability for the first time in living memory, they incur the wrath and indignation of the householders and landowners who were living in happy ignorance of their liability. If they do not, they become personally liable for the repairs and lose all grant aid from English Heritage. It is no surprise to me that since I began this campaign, I have heard from parishes and dioceses the length and breadth of England: from Norfolk, York, Cambridgeshire, Devon and Kent to Somerset, Oxfordshire, Cornwall, Staffordshire and Wiltshire. The issue is alive again, and communities around the country are living in fear.
At this point, I must turn the finger of blame on the national structures of the Church of England. Perhaps because it did not appreciate the growing scale of the problem and the increasing number of parishes caught up in it, the Church seems to have made no attempt to understand the implications of the advice that it offered and given no guidance on how dioceses should explain the other option open to PCCs, for there is another option; I would like Nia Griffith to listen carefully to this point.
The consequence in Broadway of the sudden arrival of letters from the Land Registry on the doormats of 30 local families, the Broadway Trust and landowners, some of whom live many miles away, was dismay, anger and cries of anguish. I heard that anger for myself at a public meeting in the village. Acting with the best of intentions and pursuing the only route that it believed to be open to it, the PCC had made enemies of a large number of local people. A diligent process of mapping, done entirely by volunteers comparing ancient maps with modern Ordnance Survey ones, had caused chaos. It is not an easy job.
As one vicar from elsewhere in the country wrote to me:
“It is not only a matter of the resentment that some parishioners are expressing when they find their properties are burdened with CRL. I am also concerned about the thousands of volunteer hours being expended on trying to trace, map and register CRL, often fruitlessly.”
In other parishes, there were no volunteers. As a churchwarden a good long way from Worcestershire told me:
“Members of our Church have managed to obtain limited information but to further pursue the matter we will be forced to obtain, and pay for, professional advice.”
Sadly, the Anglican church in Broadway was seen to be behaving in a profoundly un-Christian way. As a correspondent from another part of the country told me:
“As a former PCC member, I can only say that I would have resigned immediately, rather than be forced to implement what can only be considered as a Draconian law. I also wonder if the Second Commandment of our Lord Jesus—to Love our Neighbour—is being disregarded by any diocese that invokes such an unfair law.”
To decree that a very small and random proportion of Broadway’s 2,000 or so inhabitants should, irrespective of their financial standing or personal faith, suddenly assume liability for the repair of an ancient church, is just plain wrong. The arbitrariness flew in the face of all Christian teaching.
To quote another parish in another diocese:
“The PCC is concerned at the enormous damage that registering liability would cause to the reputation of the church in the local community and the adverse effect this would have on the pastoral mission of the church, the furtherance of which is the first function of the PCC.”
The incoming vicar of Broadway, the Rev. Michelle Massey, realised that that could be the key to resolving the dilemma. If enforcing the liability was an obligation imposed on the PCC as trustees, would it also not be true that, if to enforce the liability was demonstrably un-Christian, that too would put the PCC in breach of its charitable responsibilities? Here was an ingenious paradox worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan, were the consequences not so serious for everyone involved.
It transpired that other PCCs from around the country, also aware of the paradox, had sought the guidance of the Charity Commission under section 110 of the Charities Act 2011 and been informed that, on the basis of the specific circumstances in each case and with no general precedent set, they would be deemed to have behaved responsibly as trustees if they decided not to enforce the liability. The Broadway PCC put together a compelling case outlining the ways in which registration of the liability would work against their fundamental duties and the Charity Commission, with commendable speed, responded saying that it agreed. Broadway PCC was free not to enforce the liability and the PCC members would not be held personally liable.
The Charity Commission has recently put together some excellent advice to PCCs, which is now available on its website. All parishes worried about the issue should read it. The advice concludes:
“Section 110 advice can provide additional reassurance for PCC members that they have acted correctly and in accordance with their duties by protecting them against the possibility of any subsequent legal challenge to their decision. We are willing to consider providing such advice where PCCs consider there is a real likelihood of their decision being challenged and they are able to present us with a substantive case explaining how they have reached their decision.”
Meanwhile, and very happily, responsibility for the grant funding of repairs to historic churches is being transferred from English Heritage to the Heritage Lottery Fund. In line with that excellent organisation’s reputation for pragmatism, the fund has told me that it will not require church communities to register the liability to receive grant funding, so all is well—not quite.
There are at least three remaining problems. First, and perhaps most importantly, many parishes are unaware of the options open to them if they do not wish to set neighbour against neighbour. Secondly, even though the current PCC in Broadway and other similar parishes have decided not to enforce or register the liability, and even though a liability unregistered by October 2013 cannot be enforced subsequently if the property is sold, it could still be enforced by a future PCC on a property that has not changed hands. A decision taken now not to enforce a liability does not mean that a future PCC might not decide differently. In practice, therefore, every landholder aware of his liability, which continues until the time of first sale after October 2013, cannot obtain insurance and, until his property is sold, could still face the possibility of a future PCC coming after him for the costs of chancel repair.
The third problem is time. Will there be time to ensure that all PCCs are aware of the courses of action open to them and, where necessary, for them to secure Charity Commission approval not to enforce the liability? Is there a real risk that a failure to get section 110 guidance from the commission could leave PCCs in a legal limbo, with liabilities unregistered and personal liability a real possibility? I think so.
The solution for my Broadway constituents is easy, I think. A simple piece of legislation is needed to ensure that, where a PCC acts on the advice of the Charity Commission and chooses not to enforce the liability, its decision is binding in perpetuity and cannot be revisited. A PCC can choose to sell land or buildings. It should also be enabled to renounce its right to claim chancel repair liability in perpetuity. In terms of ensuring that other parishes are aware of the options, I hope today’s debate will help draw attention to the issue and will focus the national Church authorities on what I see as serious neglect of their responsibilities.
The Church of England, at national and diocesan level, must act urgently to help PCCs to navigate their way round the minefield through which they are required to pass, drawing their attention to the very helpful advice of the Charity Commission. I am sure that the Government—the Minister is a very reasonable lady—will wish to do more than casually assert that chancel repair liability is a legitimate property right, as they have done in the past. If they believe in the freedoms and democratic responsibilities with which I began this speech, they must find a way to ensure that the liability is fairly applied and that the outrageous arbitrariness of this archaic law is ended.
In essence, the solution revolves around giving PCCs the right to renounce their right to the liability in perpetuity and to make their decisions, intended to have permanent effect, watertight. The state should not arbitrarily remove legitimate property rights, but where an organisation or individual wishes to give them up, the state should be willing to help them to do so. Chancel repair liability may be a complex problem, but it has, I believe, a simple solution, which I commend to the Minister.