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Making Changes to Places of Worship

Historic places of worship have been community spaces for generations and we believe they should continue to be so. Inevitably your historic place of worship will have been rearranged over its lifetime, with each generation leaving its mark. We realise that it will need to provide modern, welcoming, spaces and facilities for the twenty-first century too.

A woman making tea in the fitted kitchen of the church of St Mary, Tickhill, Doncaster.
Making tea in the modern kitchen fitted into the church of St Mary, Tickhill, Doncaster. © Steve Cole.

Historic England’s role is to support sustainable changes whilst advising how the special interest of the building is conserved so nothing of historic value is irretrievably lost.

Before you start any work you will need to check what statutory obligations you will need to meet. We provide further guidance on Listings and Permissions.

What do you want to do?

As communities change the buildings that serve them must adapt to accommodate local needs and expectations so people will want to spend time in them, whether for religious or other purposes.

Some of the most frequent proposals for change include:

  • Accommodate new styles of worship or the practices of a new faith group
  • Provide toilets for those attending worship or visiting 
  • Increase scope for community use and provide kitchen facilities
  • Create a permanent cafĂ© area to encourage people in to the building
  • Improving energy efficiency

Statement of Need and Statement of Significance

If you are planning to make changes you will need to support your application for permission to do the work by providing both a Statement of Significance and Statement of Need. These will explain how the changes you are proposing will affect the historic importance and character of the building and why you need to make those changes now in a particular way.

The Statement of Significance describes the building as a whole and as various elements. It will summarise what each contributes to the character of the building, especially those areas or elements that you are planning to change or remove. This information will help to put your proposals in context and enable decision-makers and advisory bodies to understand the impact of what you want to achieve. It may also help them to suggest alternative, less damaging, ways to meet your needs.

The Statement of Need sets out the reasons why your proposed changes are necessary and how they will benefit the community. It will also explain why you want to do particular things, what other options you thought about and why you rejected them.

There are a number of useful resources available to help you write these statements. These include the Historic England online template and guidance for generating a Statement of Significance, the Methodist Church’s information leaflet, and Church Build’s useful suggestions. The Church of England's online faculty application system has a built-in facility to help you create the Statement of Significance link

How does Historic England approach changes in historic places of worship?

We advise that the best new work:

  • Achieves high standards of design, craftsmanship and materials
  • Is based on an understanding of the cultural and heritage significance of the building
  • Minimises harm to the special historic, archaeological, architectural and artistic interest of the building, its contents and setting
  • Offers new public benefits, which outweigh any harm to its significance, such as securing the long-term use of the building through a new income stream or making it possible for more people to enjoy it,

More detailed guidance is available in New Work in Historic Places of Worship.

You can also contact your local Historic England team, for advice on your particular project.

What about building extensions and new buildings in the grounds or churchyard?

As a general principle it is best to try and accommodate facilities within the existing building, especially if there are areas that can be easily adapted such as an unused porch. In some situations this option simply will not meet the local needs. In these cases a strong case will need to be made as part of the process of applying for permission.

Major issues in proposing an extension or additional new building include:

  • What options for accommodating the facilities within the place of worship have been considered and what were the pros and cons of each?
  • Any new build is bound to have a significant impact on the historic building and how people see it; will the wider community benefit be enough to justify this amount of change?
  • Will the quality of the new work be equal, if not better than, that of the historic building?
  • What changes will need to be made to the historic building in order to make the two parts work together?
  • Will the new build be linked to the existing one and, if so, how?

You will need to obtain planning permission from your local authority for any new building or alteration or extension that materially affects the external appearance of an existing place of worship. There is no ecclesiastical exemption for this.

Where a development affects the setting of a Grade I or II* listed place of worship (and in London the setting of any place of worship), the local authority will consult with us.

Will Historic England be involved in the granting of permission to do work?

Early consultation with Historic England is strongly encouraged. The sooner we hear your plans and discuss how your objectives can be met without damaging the special significance of your building, the better.

We are always happy to have informal discussions, ideally before you have any firm ideas, so there can be genuine dialogue about the best way forward. We offer fifteen hours of free advice to help you develop your plans. To make best use of this time we advise that you prepare draft Statements of Significance and Need before you contact us and do a rough outline of your ideas with the pros and cons of each. This means that we all start out with the same understanding of your particular situation before you spend money on professional drawings for a scheme that may not be the best way forward.

We have further information on the advice we provide on our website and you may also want to contact your local Historic England team.

When you are 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 will 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.

You can find more information about planning consents and ecclesiastical exemption in Listed Places of Worship and Permissions.

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