Peterborough and its Villages - our Heritage at Risk

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Fletton Saxon Cross

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Letter to the Editor - Peterborough Telegraph


Part of the Peterborough Civic Society’s wide ‘remit’ is to maintain a regular watch over the condition and, where appropriate, the beneficial usefulness and likely future sustainability of a wide range of ‘heritage assets’, and to comment or advise when appropriate.

Consequently, publication by Historic England of updates of its Register of Heritage at Risk tend to be scrutinised with some concern, as regards local entries, and content. Whilst it may be relatively easy for a building which is spiralling downwards into disrepair to find itself included on the Register, it tends to prove far more difficult to effect its removal.

The most recent iteration of the Register for Historic England’s Eastern Region sadly retains a number of all to familiar local items, both Scheduled Monuments (one such being the Fletton Saxon Cross) and Listed Buildings, several (Laurel Court included) in the Cathedral Precincts. The most alarming of the new entries to the Register are no less than six churches: five medieval churches , all listed Grade 1 - Etton, Woodston, Northborough, Peakirk and Maxey - plus St Peter and All Souls R.C. Church in Park Road.

(Ed. pictures of churchs below thanks to - the rest are from our book 'Peterborough and its Villages in Detail'.)

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St Stephen, Etton

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St Augustine, Woodston

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St Andrew, Northborough

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St Pega, Peakirk

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St Peter, Maxey

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St Peter & All Souls,
Park Road

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East window
St Peter and All Souls

The predicament faced by St Peter and All Souls - seeming, to some degree, to be of historic origin and probably well beyond complete satisfactory resolution in the short term - is reasonably well understood. Less apparent at this juncture is the precise nature of the problems being confronted by the five Anglican parish churches, though these are almost certainly related to an inability, for financial reasons, to be able to keep up with routine maintenance, or to effect essential repair following, for example say, lead theft. Some recent reporting in these columns suggests as much.

The Society is struggling at present to respond to the situation in some sort of constructive fashion. When it comes to listed ecclesiastical buildings identified as being ‘at risk’, a recurring difficulty tends to be that of finding a logical pathway through a minefield, of quite Byzantine complexity, surrounding the Established Church’s financial provisions; to most people a veritable arcanum of confusing accretions accumulated over centuries.

In the popular understanding, it seems, looms large an erroneous belief that the upkeep and maintenance of the built fabric of the ecclesiastical ‘estate’ is largely underwritten by the Church Commissioners. Either that, or, yet more erroneously, that the State somehow provides. Both are far from being the actual case; in reality most of the burden falls upon the individual parish, or cathedral. That is to say upon their inexorably shrinking bands of congregants and supporters.

Accompanying this letter is a paper (essay / internal briefing / ‘opinion piece’) by the undersigned - a member of the Peterborough Civic Society’s Executive Committee - which attempts to explain something of the melange of statutory, legal, financial, charitable and practical constraints and opportunities surrounding the problem. This ranges over such matters as quinquennial inspections, possible looming redundancies, the availability (or otherwise) of grants and other charitable sources of funding (ie. the realistic incidence and scale of such), even possible constitutional ramifications.

The Telegraph would be welcome to publish this separately from this letter, subject to a disclaimer indicating that this ‘opinion piece’ does not, of itself, necessarily represent the views of the Society or its membership, but is rather an attempt to provide some background to a complex problem, in the hope that some meaningful contribution towards a proper debate might be forthcoming.

Henry M Duckett
8 June 2021

Ed. the reader may not be aware that Henry wrote the Society's much praised book 'Peterborough and its Villages in Detail'.

Heritage at Risk - a personal essay by the writer

The Peterborough Civic Society’s raison d’etre embraces a concern for a wide spectrum of civic, amenity and environmental matters. Not the least of these is a concern for a range of ‘Heritage Assets’, with a particular anxiety about those seeming, for one reason or another, to be in danger of falling into a state of irreclaimable disrepair.

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East window  Etton: St Stephen

Consequently, the Society tends to await Historic England’s (HE) regular updates of its Register of Heritage at Risk with a degree of trepidation, since, whilst it is notoriously easy for a building to find itself included on the Register, it usually proves far more difficult to effect or secure its removal. The most recent iteration of the Register (for HE’s Eastern Region) sadly retains a number of familiar items where there seems little prospect for early resolution. Inevitably perhaps, Laurel Court and a number of walls, listed or scheduled, all within the Cathedral Precincts, continue to loom large.

But what has rather taken us aback this time is the sudden appearance on the Register of about half a dozen parish churches in Peterborough (ie. the unitary authority area), all of which are substantially of medieval origin and all apparently suddenly stricken with disrepair. St Peter and All Souls RC church in the city centre also now makes an appearance on the Register. The structural problems afflicting the latter may be of fairly long-standing, to a degree historic, and are possibly to some extent understood though at this juncture it is unclear whether they are thought to amount to progressive structural failure. At any event they seem not to be amenable to an easy solution.

So far as the Anglican parish churches are concerned we are currently attempting to understand the particular difficulties being faced in individual cases, or whether the sudden preponderance of ecclesiastical cases could presage a wider malaise. (Most of the Anglican Diocese of Peterborough lies well outside the remit of HE’s Eastern Region, so it is difficult at present to form an accurate picture of the situation in the Diocese as a whole, or indeed the national context.) Questions around the sustainability of Heritage Assets generally, and of listed ecclesiastical monuments in particular, are of long standing and becoming urgent. Financial provisions are becoming hopelessly stretched. On one particularly pessimistic interpretation of the situation it might be realistic to be looking forward to burgeoning At Risk Registers nationwide, and an avalanche of church redundancies.

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Chancel window
Etton: St Stephen

A long-standing problem faced by many parochial church councils (PCC’s), having to bear the burden of maintaining their listed churches, revolves around the question of balancing, on the one hand expenditure on essential ‘wants of repair’ arising from the statutory requirement to commission (and pay for) the quinquennial structural inspections required by law, and, on the other, the obligation to meet payment of their allotted ‘parish share’ as assessed by the diocese. (Often the escalating demands of the latter are a point of contention, sometimes resentment, and may well constrain the former.)

The inexorable decline in church attendance since, say, WW2 has inevitably rendered the general financial predicament more acute. The notion of the ‘widow’s mite’ and similarly bequeathed endowments has become largely a fiction long since. Moreover it must be the case that the current pandemic will only have served both to consolidate and accelerate an already catastrophic financial situation.

In some cases individual churches may, in a crisis, be able to fall back on historic endowments of one sort or another in order, say, to ‘pump-prime’ an appeal for resources. (It is not unknown for PCC’s to remain somewhat coy as to the very existence of any such endowments, lest they should significantly impact upon calculation of their appropriate ‘parish share’.)

Grants towards repairs from central sources of any stripe have always been patchy (eg. so-called ‘windfall grants’ - recent examples being to St John’s and to St Peter and All Souls, both in the city centre), variable, inconsistent and, from the point of view of a parish attempting to plan a long-term maintenance strategy, unreliable. Consequently, backlogs of essential ‘wants of repair’ tend to build up, and with each passing year inevitable increases in ultimate costs tend to accrue exponentially, in inverse ratio to any realistic ability to catch up. The concept of ‘pleasing decay’ may have its aesthetic appeal, but does little to sustain the amour-propre of the souls responsible for upkeep.

Sometimes independent charitable sources of funding for repairs may be found, though, all too often, they may not be able to be taken up in full, or indeed at all, since commensurate matching funding simply can’t be put in place in time. Some illustration of this kind of situation is perhaps provided by the recent experience of St Stephen’s, Etton, one of the recent additions to HE’s ‘At Risk Register’. Etton, in common with other parishes locally and huge numbers nationally, has suffered from the attentions of lead thieves. (Parts of the Diocese of Peterborough lying in Northamptonshire have been particularly badly hit; collateral damage to internal structure, fittings, monuments, organs, etc. has often been significantly greater than the value of the lead stolen.) A grant from the Cambridgeshire Historic Churches Trust (CHCT) has enabled a repair to be effected to the north aisle roof but was insufficient to extend the remedial work to the south aisle too, which remains without adequate appropriate cover. (The CHCT and other, usually county-based, trusts may make modest interest-free loans or partial grants, though demand invariably greatly outstrips available resources.)

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West tower - detail  Maxey: St Peter

It was encouraging to read recently in a Telegraph report of the heavy gaol sentences handed down to a Birmingham-based gang, whose church lead thieving exploits across the country (Etton and other Cambridgeshire churches included) had occasioned damage amounting to more than £2 million. But the problem continues nationally; insurance cover is often inadequate, or simply unobtainable.

A recent Telegraph report highlighted the difficulties faced by St Andrew’s, Northborough - another Grade 1 Listed church which finds itself on the ‘At Risk’ Register. As reported, a leaking chancel roof, associated algae and mould growth, and possible external drainage problems seem to be featuring as salient ‘wants of repair’; all of which would point towards an ongoing struggle to keep up with basic repairs identified by quinquennial inspection. Sadly this is a very familiar situation; visible nationally and likely only to worsen.

In the wake of announcements concerning Government’s Cultural Recovery Fund, a plethora of generalised utterances by the Culture Secretary and the Chief Executives of Historic England (HE) [eg. “ essential lifeline for our heritage....”] and the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) [“Our heritage is still facing a perilous future - we are not out of the woods yet....but this is hugely welcome funding from Government.”] have offered something of a comforting tone. Such blandishments are of course directed towards the predicaments now faced by the whole range of ‘Heritage Assets’, and are essentially focussed upon the extra support intended to alleviate the additional challenges imposed by the current pestilence. They largely overlook underlying problems, particularly as concerns the ecclesiastical heritage, many of which are of very long standing and approaching crisis point long since, pandemics notwithstanding. A somewhat less anodyne dose of comfort might perhaps have acknowledged that, in reality, we have yet even to enter the dark and scary woods.

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South transept chapel window
Northborough: St Andrew

‘Windfall grants’ of one sort or another maintain the illusion of timely and proportionate intervention. But Government, always looking to be seen to act decisively, tends to move, via its agencies, to apportion such grants quickly to any ‘oven ready’ schemes for repair or renovation. Naturally, the recipients are only too grateful to accept whatever is offered, even when it may seem incidental to their primary objectives for securing the long term survival of the structures in their care.

Thus, a few years back, Peterborough Cathedral was in receipt of just such a ‘windfall grant’, from the First World War Centenary Repair Fund, then operating. The expressed justification behind that Fund was to ensure that cathedrals (CoE and RC), where many WW1 dead are commemorated, were put into a safe and watertight condition, so as to allow them to remain open to the public. (The very terms of the expressed justification for the WW1 Fund itself speaks volumes about the condition of many.) The grant made to Peterborough enabled a timely repair to be effected to the marbles of its remarkable ‘Cosmatesque’ Presbytery pavement. It was of course received with gratitude, but it did nothing to prevent the ‘financial sky falling in’ as the Cathedral slid into ‘special measures’ - effectively losing control of its own financial affairs - where it remains, and from where it is difficult to see it ever extricating itself.

Other ‘sticking plaster’ schemes for alleviating some of the burden of sustaining our ecclesiastical patrimony have come and gone over the years. The current Listed Places of Worship Grants Scheme was due to end in 2020. The Department for Digital (note the prioritising), Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) announced an extension to March 2021. What now then? There have long been repeated calls for a dedicated umbrella type repair fund to help places of worship better cope with the burden of maintaining buildings. Something which might raise the question above the uncertainties of a shifting patchwork of random ‘sticking plaster’ schemes and the often challenging and unnecessarily competitive elements presented by attempting to bid for NLHF awards. Negotiating the obstacle course presented by the NLHF seems often to have proved a challenge too far for some smaller places of worship; one quite beyond their administrative resources and quite unnecessary in terms of the requirements of the building.

The (Bernard) Taylor Review into the sustainability of English Churches and Cathedrals (published 2017 by DCMS) was busy concluding that they should prepare to rely less on Government funding. It called for a “cultural shift” in which communities contributed more to their upkeep. Even in 2017 that seemed something of a pious hope. What on earth was the Taylor Review envisaging as a “community”? Just what the post-pandemic “community” might look like, as the inevitable explosion in society’s burgeoning ‘pluralisms’ and ‘culture wars’ - facilitated, accelerated, even created, by social media - complicate the equation, is anybody’s guess. Certain pilot schemes were launched in the wake of the Review, but where these may have taken us to seems unclear at present.

One rural CoE parish volunteer of 25 years standing recently opined: “What will be left of the Church of England after the pandemic?” Its elected governing body, the General Synod, seems set soon to consider Archiepiscopal plans to impose some form of fundamental overall management restructuring of the parochial system nationally. Anticipated cuts of about 20% to clergy, ‘assets’ (an awful lot of which are very significant ‘Heritage Assets’), and parishes, are currently being openly bandied about. This would amount to an existential crisis; a comprehensive parish system, accessible to all, though long under stress, remains a prime justification for Establishment.

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Anglo-Saxon masonry and window in west tower
Woodston: St Augustine

Such dismantling of the parish network, were it to happen, has been termed “quite simply the biggest act of church vandalism since the dissolution of the monasteries.” Those parishes for the chop would, of course, be the ‘subsidised parishes’ (ie. the poor relations, behind with their ‘parish share’). Legions of the ‘little platoons’ which impart life to parishes would be abandoned to their fate. Moreover, the ensuing deluge of redundancies of historic churches would be quite beyond the ability to cope of the already overstretched Churches Conservation Trust (CCT). Such an existential crisis, long anticipated by many, is identified by one critic as being due to “50 years of failed reforms, public feuds and drab appointments”. To which, one might be entitled to add, due also to the failure of Church and State to even want to grasp the nettle and engage in a realistic grown-up conversation.

It is very difficult to know whether any serious discussion has ever taken place between the Established Church and the State directed towards achieving a longer-term, reasonably lasting, consensus aimed at securing a correct and equitable balance between secular and ecclesiastical interests. One supposes that from the Church’s point of view the fear is that of losing identity, authority and privilege, maybe some kudos, while from the State’s viewpoint there are never likely to be many votes in it, either way, while additional £ signs, though hard to quantify if easy to exaggerate, appear to hove into view.

Hovering always in the background is a degree of unease, sensed all round, regarding Establishment itself. Though the explanations for such unease are varied and complex, some would appear to stem from perceptions of a seeming anachronism of being hidebound by Statute (the 1701 Act of Settlement) contrived in particular and now largely irrelevant political circumstances. There will of course be little enthusiasm for tampering with the status quo, lest there should be released from a Pandora’s box of evil constitutional entanglements a disquieting mess upon which it might prove impossible to shut the lid before ensuring that Hope too hadn’t escaped.

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a closer view of above

Most European countries seem to have achieved some kind of balance long since, albeit in a variety of ways, if not always perfectly or to everyone’s satisfaction. It is of course the Established Church which is required to carry much the most of the enormous burden of responsibility for our historic ecclesiastical patrimony; a very substantial segment, and of the higher Listing Grades in particular, of all listed ‘Heritage Assets’. (In addition to 42 Anglican cathedrals per se - of Old, New and Modern Foundation - there are about 16,000 parish churches of which around 12,500 are listed. Among the latter are many ‘greater churches’ - like Tewkesbury Abbey, say, functioning now as parish churches, as well as an assortment of ‘Peculiars’, Royal or otherwise - Westminster Abbey for example. Roughly 45% of all the Grade 1 Listed Buildings in England are ecclesiastical.)

Even when the pandemic is to a degree contained, and some kind of normality restored, it is difficult to imagine that the many unresolved problems facing the national heritage generally (most of which tend to boil down to financial insufficiencies of one sort or another) are likely to figure high on the agenda of governments attempting to re-invent the economy. With the principal ‘stakeholders’ locked into the reserves of their individual intellectual silos, rational discussion seems a long way off.

One suspects that in order for some substantial structural shift towards securing a sustainable future for our ecclesiastical patrimony to be implemented, it will be necessary to await an unlocking of some of the complex constitutional entanglements surrounding the CoE’s predicament. Perhaps, say at the end of the present sovereign’s reign, when one or two of the manifest loose ends of a largely unwritten constitution are innocently tugged, a surprising volume of interrelated constitutional matters (including Establishment, the Ecclesiastical Exemption, et al) might well unwittingly unravel, and with surprising rapidity. We would by then of course be in something of a new world all round. One senses perhaps that some kind of reckoning may not be too far off.

Meanwhile, it would be good to be able to begin to understand how some of the principal ‘stakeholders’ view the situation as it stands, and how they conjecture regarding the directions in which the future may take us.

Henry M Duckett
18 April 2021

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content loaded 14 June 2021, update 21 June 2021