In Christchurch, New Zealand, it seems that it will be too expensive to repair the cathedral which was badly damaged in last year’s earthquake. Instead, as David Keen and the press report, it is to be replaced by a cardboard cathedral. Yes, cardboard will be the main material for the proposed new 700 seat structure, and its cost will be a fraction of what it would take to rebuild the historic stone building.
Here in the UK, could we see our historic cathedrals and other church buildings being abandoned and replaced with cardboard structures? That is the worrying prospect which is being opened up by the government proposal to charge VAT on repairs and improvement to listed buildings.
The effect of this proposed “Heritage Tax” would be to add 20% to the cost of work on church buildings – at least on those listed as of historic interest. The likely result of this price rise is that many schemes for vital repairs, already hit by the drop in charitable giving during the continuing “double-dip” recession, will simply become unaffordable. This means that more and more congregations will be forced to leave their historic buildings and find temporary alternatives. Also in danger of being abandoned are schemes for adapting outdated buildings to provide important community facilities.
Up to now work on listed buildings has been zero rated for VAT, in recognition of their historical significance and of the extra cost of using appropriate designs and materials. The Chancellor of the Exchequer wants to remove this concession, partly to close a loophole by which rich people living in listed homes can have swimming pools installed free of VAT. But he has been widely criticised for a measure which will also hurt churches wanting to use their resources in ways which the government claims to be promoting as part of its “Big Society” initiative. However, there are now reports that the Chancellor is preparing to make a U-turn on this issue, partly in response to an e-petition Bring back zero-rate VAT on alterations to listed churches which the Church Mouse has been strongly promoting.
I have mixed feelings on this issue. Indeed in response to one of the Church Mouse’s first plugs for this petition, I wrote the following on Facebook on 9th April:
I won’t sign, probably like many other people, because I don’t believe that churches, i.e. congregations and denominations, should be in the business of preserving architectural heritage. If a church can’t afford its building, including paying the normal rate of tax on repairs, it should move into an affordable alternative. If the government then has to pay for the upkeep of the historic building, that’s its problem.
So, yes, if a congregation can’t afford to repair or improve its cathedral, then it should leave it and build a new one, perhaps from cardboard, which would probably meet its needs more economically. Or if the cathedral is really of sufficient historic interest, its administrators should be able to raise the funds for its upkeep from other sources, such as charging tourists for admission. If, however, the historic interest is largely in the mind of the Victorian Society, then they should be responsible for the cost of preserving the all too abundant heritage of their favoured period.
But I am aware that for many congregations there is no feasible alternative to a historic church building. This is most often true in villages, where a mediaeval church may be the only remaining community building. This church is clearly the most suitable focus for continuing Christian witness. It may also be appropriate to alter it to provide other facilities needed by the local people.
Because of this last factor, I have changed my mind and signed the e-petition. I would encourage my readers to think through the issues and decide for themselves whether to join me.