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Why VAT changes matter…

Posted on: 26/04/2012

Alongside various political own goals in the pasty tax and the granny tax (to name but two), George Osborne’s budget on 21st March contained one proposal that is particularly toxic for the church. Without any consultation, the government now proposes to drop the zero-rated VAT allowance on approved alteration on listed buildings. This affects all of us, across the denominations, whether your church is a listed building or not.

You may have seen the YouTube video created by Pamela Greener, wife of the Dean of Wakefield Cathedral:

This is great entertainment deployed to make a serious point, and has received widespread media coverage, including on Radio 4’s flagship Today programme.

Why does this matter?

There are some 12,500 listed Anglican churches alone, and of course others from other denominations. Ancient churches have constantly changed in response to the changing needs of successive generations, and have rich multi-layered stories to tell. In our own times, the church is faced with the urgent need to modernise its facilities in order to respond better to the changing needs of our culture, and to continue to play its role in what is now termed “The Big Society”. Whether it is the installation of a single WC and somewhere to make coffee, or a large scale reordering and extension, these projects often make the difference between the burgeoning life of a community building with a future, or the sad management of decline. In rural locations these churches are often the only remaining community building in a village; in cities they equally valuable. To slap an additional 20% onto the costs of such projects is nonsensical in the context of the avowed aims of “The Big Society”.

And we are all affected by this, whether or not we worship in a listed building. Like it or not, these listed buildings are often the most visible buildings in our community – if they close, or even if they cannot afford to change, then this impacts on our society’s impression that the church is closed for business.

What Can You Do?

Tell everyone you know. Write to your MP. Sign the petitions on the Downing Street website, and make sure all of your church knows about this and encourage them to do the same. Note there are two of these petitions:

Bring back zero-rate VAT on alterations to listed churches – this was created by Janet Gough, who is Director of the Cathedral and Church Buildings Division of the Archbishops’ Council.

Save our heritage: say no to VAT on work on listed buildings – this was created by Jonathan Greener, who is Dean of Wakefield Cathedral.

These two overlap, so I suggest you sign both. If we can raise a petition of over 100,000 signatures, this will force a debate in parliament on the issue. We have a limited period of time to do this…

Don’t be fobbed off…

The government has proposed an extension of the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme, but this is wholly inadequate, for three reasons. Firstly the amount of the overall pot is capped at a much lower level than the demand (after all, the aim of the change is to save money). Secondly, the applicant does not know in advance how much if any of the money will be given back in grant – the proportion depends on who else is applying within that quarter, making it very difficult to plan. And thirdly the full value of the VAT needs to be raised and paid out before some of it can then be reclaimed. The LPWGS therefore does not in any way replace the current zero-rated arrangement.

Click here to see the letter written by The Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, to the Treasury immediately after the Budget.

VAT Ditty – The Sequel

This second video was published in the last few days. Perhaps not as sharp as the first, but it is nice to see the ‘George Osborne sextet’ in action…

What Jools Holland Can Teach the Church?

Posted on: 24/05/2011
Jools Holland at Somerleyton Hall, Suffolk

photo: Tim Parkinson

I enjoy Jools Holland for his ability with Blues piano, and to a lesser extent his Big Band showiness. What I like even more is his signature TV show, Later… with Jools Holland, where each week he assembles an impressive breadth of different artists, drawing in some big names, veteran performers and showcasing some new talent, and manages to craft a sense of common purpose out of what often seems an odd assortment.

The relevance of this is that Music is often tribal, with most of us fixing on a relatively narrow range of genres, with which we find ourselves comfortable. With the Later show, there is an anarchic sense of juxtaposition, out of which comes an odd sense of coherence.

And here is the parallel with the church. In all honesty, we in the church also tend to gravitate to a style of worship and a group of people with whom we are comfortable. Given what St Paul wrote about the essential variety within the church this is not ideal, though at a social level this is of course natural enough. The danger is that we so easily become ‘mono-cultural’. Which makes those churches which are able to bring together diversity in community all the more impressive.

In the late 1980s I lived and worked in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. I was there to build (bricks and mortar) St Thomas’ Church. Buildings aside, as an expression of the body of Christ St Thomas’ was hugely impressive in holding together the full breadth of that society, from the illiterate street sweepers, through the educated Pakistanis – who might be cooks or drivers or engineers or military officers – to the foreign mission partners, aid workers and diplomats. The church had services in 3 languages – Panjabi, Urdu and English – each meeting at different times; but it had one PCC and events (including a church weekend away) were orgainsed that combined all three congregations. Clearly this was not all straightforward, but no other institution in Pakistani life could get close to holding together that social breadth.

St Thomas' Church, Islamabad

St Thomas’ Church, IslamabadPhoto: Peter Parish

So what sort of a building could serve such a diverse range of people? In shape the main worship space is cruciform; but the form is certainly not English neo-Gothic, which was the first thought of many in the church, on the basis that most of the churches there were built by the British. The church is of its place – using skills and a design language that draws on Moghul architecture of patterned brickwork – but also challenges its place.

I think Jools has much to teach us – in his ability to take a diverse range of performers and articulate a compelling narrative, in his case in live performance, even getting chalk and cheese to play together.