Ecclesiastical Exemption from Listed Building Consent

Works to places of worship in use by one of the exempt religious denominations are exempt from the requirement to obtain listed building consent and planning permission for relevant demolition in a conservation area (ref. 1), but are not otherwise exempt from the requirement to obtain planning permission. Ecclesiastical buildings in ecclesiastical use cannot be scheduled monuments so there can never be a requirement of scheduled monument consent for such buildings (ref. 2).

Ecclesiastical building and ecclesiastical purposes

The expression 'ecclesiastical building' is not expressly defined in the Planning (Listed Building and Conservation Areas) Act, although it is explicit that the term does not include premises “used or available for use by a minister of religion wholly or mainly as residence from which to perform the duties of his office” (ref. 3). The Ecclesiastical Exemption (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) England Order 2010 makes it clear however, that the expression extends to church buildings, their contents and anything fixed thereto as well as to anything situated within the curtilage of a church building (ref. 4).

Similarly the expression 'ecclesiastical purposes' is undefined in the Act, but has been held to include in addition to use for corporate worship, “purposes connected with the use of the building, which the church authorities might think likely to foster...fellowship among its members”, which in each instance will be a question of fact (ref. 5). It may be thought of as "church purposes as distinct from social purposes" (ref. 5).

Where the exemption applies listed building consent is not required for the alteration or extension of a listed ecclesiastical building of any exempt denomination provided that the building is used for ecclesiastical purposes both before and after the works. 

In the case of demolition of an ecclesiastical building consent is not required provided that a part of the building is retained following the works continues to be used for ecclesiastical purposes.

Exempt denominations

The exemption applies to works to all places of worship owned by recognised religious bodies, which have their own satisfactory systems of building control in place. They are known as the exempt denominations.

In order for a religious body to become ‘exempt’, it must demonstrate to the satisfaction of the Secretary of State that those systems and procedures it has in place provide equally stringent levels of control to those of the secular heritage protection system (ref. 6).  

Its processes need to be open and transparent and should provide similar levels of consultation and engagement with local communities, local planning authorities, Historic England and the National Amenity Societies as operate under the provisions of the rest of the heritage planning regime.

More particularly, the exempt denominations' internal control system should embody the principles set out in Government guidance (ref. 6).

Currently, only the following denominations are able to take advantage of the exemption:  the Church of England; the Church in Wales; the Roman Catholic Church; the Methodist Church; the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Baptist Union of Wales; and the United Reformed Church. Each of these denominations has demonstrated to the satisfaction of the Secretary of State that they have the requisite systems and procedures in place.  

For all other denominations and faiths, work to their buildings require listed building and consent (where relevant) from the local planning authority in exactly the same way as similar works to secular buildings.

Example of an approved equivalent control system: the Church of England churches

The planning procedure for the Church of England is set out in the Care of Churches and Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1991, the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction and Care of Churches Measure 2018, and the Faculty Jurisdiction Rules 2015.

It consists of two key formal stages around which a number of consultation rounds, both formal and informal, take place.

The first stage consists of seeking advice from the Diocesan Advisory Committee (DAC) and the second involves obtaining a 'faculty' from the Chancellor of the diocesan court (the Consistory Court). Compared to the secular planning system, the DAC's function is roughly comparable to that of a Planning Officer, whilst the Chancellor's role is analogous with that of a Planning Committee. Certain minor works do not require a faculty, which is akin to permitted development rights in the secular planning system.

The first stage of the process of applying for a faculty is consulting the DAC.

The role of the DAC is to give advice at diocesan level in relation to church buildings, their contents, their churchyards and other lands. Between them, the members of the DAC have expertise in architecture, archaeology, art and history as well as knowledge of conservation matters, the history and use of church buildings and the liturgy and worship of the Church of England.

Parishes are encouraged to undertake informal discussions with the DAC prior to the formal stage so any obvious concerns can be addressed early on. Parishes must also consult outside bodies such as the Church Buildings Council, Historic England, the National Amenity Societies prior to petitioning for a faculty where required by the relevant legislation.  

After the DAC has formally considered the proposal, it will issue a certificate which either recommends the scheme, does so with conditions, or rejects it.  Although it is possible to petition for a faculty without a DAC recommendation, an unfavourable DAC view is likely to diminish the prospects of obtaining a faculty. The DAC cannot give formal advice unless all mandatory consultation requirements have been fulfilled.

The second stage of the process involves the application for the faculty.

This provides an opportunity for the public and others to make representations in respect of the proposed scheme. The Parochial Church Council submits the petition to the diocesan Registrar - who acts as the clerk to the Chancellor and/or archdeacons who will determine whether a faculty should be granted.

The petition must be accompanied by relevant information about the proposals such as plans, specifications etc.

In the case of works affecting the character of listed churches of special architectural or historical interest or where the proposals involve any element of demolition, the Chancellor will in most cases direct that Historic England, the National Amenity Societies and the Church Buildings Council should be notified, if they have not already commented on the application.

Proposals which are resisted or which are particularly complex may require a Consistory Court hearing where each of the interested parties can present their views to the Chancellor in person.  

Once all the information has been presented the Chancellor will decide whether or not to award a faculty. If a faculty is granted the petitioner must carry out the authorised works according to any conditions in the faculty and notify the registrar once the works have been completed.

There are special procedures for applications that are urgent for health and safety reasons, which can facilitate an early start of the works. However, it is important that the archdeacon or registrar should be contacted as soon as possible Even in urgent cases, undertaking some consultation with Historic England and others is likely to be beneficial.