In May, we posted on the state of ecclesiastical exemption from listed building controls in the four jurisdictions and noted that there is no list of exempt denominations in Northern Ireland where, instead, the ecclesiastical exemption as it currently stands applies to all listed places of worship.
On 18 March, Environment Minister Mark Durkan launched a consultation on a proposal to remove the ecclesiastical exemption: his proposal was that the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland (DOENI) should issue an order under s 85(9) Planning Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 to remove the exemption. The result would have been to introduce a requirement for places of worship to apply to district council planning departments for listed building consent for proposed changes that might alter the architectural or historic interest of a building in use for ecclesiastical purposes. The planning authority would have had to pay due regard to the building’s architectural and historic character when assessing such proposals.
The consultation ended on 13 June and, in the meantime, the future of the exemption became the responsibility of the new Department for Communities (DfC).
The Minister for Communities, Mark Givan, has now announced that the exemption is to be retained. There were 122 responses to the consultation: perhaps unsurprisingly, there was strong opposition from the Churches to the removal of the exemption, while the district councils and groups concerned with protecting the historic environment supported the proposed extension of listed building controls. Instead, the Minister has proposed “close engagement” between his civil servants, district council officials and the Churches to “support effective decision making as regards changes to places of worship”:
- “For larger organisations, the DfC will put in place partnering arrangements, governed by a Memorandum of Understanding or similar, which will enable structured engagement with governing bodies at a Northern Ireland level. This engagement will review developing best practice and agree appropriate changes to relevant guidance and processes.
- For smaller organisations and individual self-governing places of worship, the Department will provide appropriate guidance on changes to places of worship which enhances the advice already available.”
Givan said that he believed that this approach was a proportionate means of allowing worshipping communities to adapt their buildings in response to their mission while taking account of architectural considerations and the wider community interest. DfC would monitor the effectiveness of the arrangements.