Winchester Cathedral ceiling
Winchester Cathedral ceiling © Historic England
Winchester Cathedral ceiling © Historic England

New Works in Cathedrals

If you're involved in a project to make changes to or carry out new work in cathedrals, use these pages and case studies to help you. It's important to plan projects carefully because cathedrals are very significant buildings and important to many people. The case studies illustrate the creativity and care which goes into new projects in cathedrals.

The content in these pages is mainly for those involved with Church of England and Roman Catholic cathedrals. For cathedrals of other denominations see our advice for 'places of worship'.

Church of England and Roman Catholic cathedrals have a special place in national life and are at the centre of their dioceses. They attract large congregations and, in some cases, even greater numbers of tourists. They are important in public life for their scale and splendour as well as their significance as places of worship.

New projects in cathedrals

You may wish to carry out new work in cathedrals to respond to many different pressures and needs, including:

  • Improving access
  • Creating new facilities
  • Conservation
  • Increasing sustainability
  • Reordering
  • Complying with health and safety regulations
  • Increasing flexibility of use
  • Saving energy

When planning projects in such significant buildings, you'll need to balance change with the maintenance and conservation of historic fabric. There can be tensions between looking after the old and creating the new. The case studies below contain examples of successful projects and challenges faced during the process.

If you're looking for more general information, please see our pages on making changes to places of worship.

Cathedrals and the planning system

Cathedrals have their own permissions process as part of the Ecclesiastical Exemption from listed building and scheduled monument consent. This process recognises their special status while ensuring that works are planned carefully and are of high quality.

The exempt denominations must have systems in place equivalent to those which apply to secular buildings through the listed buildings consent system. For Anglican cathedrals you can find these in the Church of England’s Care of Cathedrals Measure of 2011. Roman Catholic procedures are set out in the Directory on the Ecclesiastical Exemption from Listed Building Control.

This means that, in the Church of England, a Fabric Advisory Committee exists for each cathedral. The Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England supports these committees at the national level. In the Roman Catholic Church, the work of diocesan Historic Churches Committees is co-ordinated by the Patrimony Committee of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.

If your project involves new building work, alterations or an extension which materially affects the external appearance of the building, you will need planning permission from the local authority. There is no ecclesiastical exemption from this.

Working in partnership with relevant external parties is important to ensure the success of projects. Partners may include the local planning authority, as representative of the wider local community, Historic England or the national amenity societies.

If there is buried archaeology, whether beneath the precinct or beneath the church, you may need separate Scheduled Monument Consent from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

How we can help

Historic England supports sustainable change in cathedrals. We also advise how to conserve the special interest of the building so that nothing of historic value is irretrievably lost.

Consult your local Historic England team as soon as possible when developing a project. Ideally this should be before you have any firm ideas. The earlier you discuss your plans with us the better. This will help you to meet objectives without damaging the significance of a building.

We offer you 15 hours of free advice to help develop your plans. To make best use of this time we advise that you prepare the following before contacting us:

This means that we all start with the same understanding of your situation before you spend money on professional drawings for a scheme that may not be the best way forward.

When you're ready to make a formal application for permission, with all the drawings, specifications and information, you can send this to us for another free comment on your proposals. We'll then make our views clear so you can submit your proposals to the appropriate body, whether that's a denominational advisory body or local authority.

We also have further information on the planning advice we provide.

Creativity and care in new works

It's important that the new works you're planning should be stylistically appropriate. They should respect the old, while being distinctive in their own terms.

The mix of care, caution and creativity that characterises new works in cathedrals is a result of their significance. The works you're planning may propose permanent changes to buildings that are nationally, and even internationally, significant. Changes must be able to stand the test of time.

Things you should consider when planning new works include:

  • Putting together the right team to help guide a project from planning to completion. This includes internal roles (dean, administrator and architect) and external contractors 
  • Making sure internal managerial and financial processes are robust enough to cope with the needs of the project. For example you should check that there are clear lines of responsibility between the Project Team and Chapter and that financial systems can take the increased pressure of paying bills and drawing down grants
  • Ensuring that your team has the right mix of skills to manage the project and achieve its outcomes (such as learning, volunteering, commercial activities). If not, you should find the best solution to fill the knowledge gaps
  • Preparing clear aims and objectives in order to make the best case to all those involved
  • Carrying out any necessary research before the start of the project
  • Being open to change. You may receive suggestions for changes to your plans once discussions start with partners such as Historic England, HLF, the local authority or the denominational advisory committee

A successful solution will respond to your building’s individuality, the historic patterns on which its character depends, and the genuine needs of its staff, visitors and congregation.

Case studies

There are many reasons for change within cathedrals, and an equally wide range of possible solutions. New works require careful analysis, and leaps of creativity. You can see from the case studies how different cathedrals met their specific needs for change.

The case studies illustrate a variety of themes, set out below. The most illustrative case study for each theme is shown next to it, though each case study covers several themes:

You can download more case studies as a PDF. These are older case studies (from 2009), but still relevant.

The case studies showcase how cathedrals got projects from planning to completion, through the permission and consultation required, and how they faced challenges.

They also show that there doesn’t need to be conflict between conservation and the demands of worship and mission. Care for what we have inherited is about responsible living, and so is the shaping of that inheritance for the future in ways that are sympathetic, effective and sustainable.