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Crumbling churches are ‘UK’s biggest heritage challenge’

Thousands of places of worship have shut since 2013 and more than 900 on ‘heritage at risk’ register

Sir Michael Palin, the vice-president of the National Churches Trust, has described places of worship as ‘tremendously important local heritage’. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA

Thousands of church buildings are in such a dire state that they are facing closure, according to a campaign that says the situation is the UK’s single biggest heritage challenge. Churches, chapels and meeting houses were under threat because of a shortage of funds and expertise to maintain them, the National Churches Trust said. This was putting important community services and social spaces at risk, including food and warm banks, it added.

To save church buildings, the trust has launched Every Church Counts, a “manifesto” of six actions. They include public funding of £50m for urgent repairs; expanding the use of church buildings for community services such as food banks, nurseries, youth clubs and warm spaces; and cultural activities including concerts, exhibitions and craft fairs.

Sir Michael Palin, the trust’s vice-president, said churches were “a vital and much-loved part of the UK’s history and we need to act now to prevent the loss of tremendously important local heritage … Right now, many church buildings are in danger of closure.”

More than half of the UK’s 38,500 churches, chapels and meeting houses are listed buildings, reflecting their importance to national and local heritage. But Anglican churches face a backlog of repairs of at least £1bn, and the annual cost of maintenance repairs is estimated at £150m.

Such work is the responsibility of individual parishes but few local clergy have expertise in building management or fundraising. The trust is proposing a network of professionals to support places of worship belonging to all faiths.

About 3,500 churches in the UK have closed since 2013, while more than 900 places of worship are on Historic England’s “heritage at risk” register. In Scotland, more than 180 are officially at risk, and the Church of Scotland is considering closing up to 40% of its churches.

The National Churches Trust also recommends a drive to boost tourism, appealing to UK residents and visitors from abroad. It says churches should be open beyond services, and seven days a week where possible, to allow them to “better connect with local people and attract visitors”.

Claire Walker, the chief executive of the trust, said: “Every Church Counts offers a blueprint of how churches can be saved for the future. With hundreds facing closure, a national plan is urgently needed to help secure their future. We are calling on the government, heritage organisations and Christian denominations to work together to tackle what is the UK’s single biggest heritage challenge.

“With so many churches offering vitally important community services, from food banks to warm spaces, they provide what is in effect the UK’s national help service, crucial to the social and economic wellbeing of millions of people. Keeping churches open means that support for the vulnerable can continue, especially important in more deprived areas.”

According to a UK opinion poll carried out for the trust, 68% of adults agreed that churches, chapels and meeting houses remained an important part of the country’s heritage and history. Older people were more likely to agree than younger adults.

More than half (54%) had visited a church in the past year. More than a quarter​ visited for a religious service, including Sunday worship, weddings or funerals;​ one in five for a non-religious community activity or service such as a​ food bank, playgroup, lunch club, concert or meeting, and one in six went to a​ church, chapel or meeting house as a visitor or tourist.

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