Plea to Chancellor to continue long-running VAT scheme

This article, by Michael Pollitt was published in the EDP on 1st January:

A 20-year tax “concession” to help meet repair costs of places of worship could be lost from next April, a leading Norfolk church conservation charity has warned.  Norfolk Churches Trust is urging the Chancellor Rishi Sunak to continue the successful VAT relief scheme (the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme), which was introduced in 2001.

St Mary’s, North Tuddenham

Scrapping the listed places of worship grant scheme could add at least £2.25m to the £11m cost of repairing 47 Norfolk churches identified as most at risk.  For many parishes across Norfolk, struggling to raise funds for essential repairs, a 20% hike in costs could prove the final straw, according to the Norfolk Churches Trust. Already some churches have halted repair projects as at the landmark, grade I listed North Tuddenham, because of a potential £76,000 additional VAT bill to keep the tower standing.

General the Lord Dannatt, President of the NCT, is extremely concerned at the potential consequences if the VAT relief scheme was ended. “We have hundreds of churches in the county – and the most medieval churches in western Europe,” he said. “This VAT relief has helped to maintain our precious heritage of churches and for future generations to appreciate. I would urge the Chancellor to help parishes maintain churches and our national heritage,” said Lord Dannatt.

The Trust, which gave £102,000 towards repairs of 36 places of worship this year, helped 41 churches in 2019 with £171,825 of grants.

Michael Sayer, chairman of the Trust’s grants’ committee, was worried that ending VAT relief for repairs could hit fund-raising efforts and lower morale in parishes. “Repairing the tower of St Mary’s, North Tuddenham, will cost about £461,000. Adding 20% VAT would add £76,000,” he said. For a parish with a population of 334, it could be extremely difficult to raise this extra amount.

St Mary’s, Beachamwell (Photograph by Tony Walsh)

Even relatively modest repair schemes would be hit hard. In west Norfolk, the Trust gave £3,000 towards a re-thatching project at St Mary’s, Beachamwell, near Swaffham. After months of fund raising, it has about £21,000 of the £30,000 needed for work to start in May. But paying 20pc VAT would add a further £6,200 to the bill.

The NCT has identified 47 churches on its “anxiety” list, which includes about 15 Norfolk churches on Heritage England’s official “at risk” register. It calculates the total repair cost at around £12m – and loss of VAT relief would add £2.4m.

Since 1976, when it was founded, it has raised more than £6.5m to safeguard religious buildings of all denominations across the county.

In a submission to the county’s MPs, the Trust emphasises the benefits of this spending for local businesses and conservation specialists from builders, thatchers, stone masons and stained glass restorers. There is also a strong economic case for supporting this skilled heritage work, which often uses traditional materials and has higher costs.

At a national conference last year, Peter Sheppard, the Trust’s chairman, said that Norfolk had 659 medieval churches – the greatest concentration in the world. “It is vital that this long-running and successful VAT relief scheme continues,” he added.

Case studies in Norfolk constituencies:

Broadland: St Peter’s, Spixworth, currently closed because of a damaged church ceiling, has to raise £25,500 for repairs.  Kettlestone, All Saints, near Fakenham, faces a repair bill of £205,000 for the roof, tower and other work.

Mid-Norfolk: St Mary, North Tuddenham – The tower is in a perilous condition and repairs could top £461,000. A demand for 20pc VAT from April would add £76,000.

All Saints, Gresham (Photograph by David Faulkner. April 2020)

North Norfolk: All Saints, Gresham, which received £140,000 for repairs, is set to finish by March. If there has been a delay beyond April, it could have added almost £28,000 to the bill.  St Peter, Repps cum Bastwick, which has a round tower, needs about £162,000 for repairs.

Great Yarmouth: St Peter & Paul, Burgh Castle, has serious structural problems costing about £300,000 on the chancel, south aisle and tower.

South-West Norfolk: Beachamwell, St Mary, faces a potential VAT bill of £6,200, as work on the roof cannot start until after May 1 because of roosting bats. Also  All Saints, Wilby  near Attleborough, needs £200,000 for urgent work.

South Norfolk: Repairs to the thatch of Hales and Heckingham churches, have just been completed at a cost of about £22,000. It took almost four years to raise these funds.

Norwich North: St Catherine, Mile Cross, faces a £52,000 repair bill, especially to the aisle roofs.

Norwich South: St Barnabas, Heigham, needs about £100,000 of repairs, including to the south aisle and vestry roofs.