LANDOWNERS in Oxfordshire could be forced to pay for church repairs under ancient laws.
Six churches in the county have registered 26 plots of land under the policy known as chancel repair liability after being asked to do so by the Land Registry Office.
It means churches could ask the owners of the land or homeowners to pay for future building repairs.
One landowner – Oxford University’s Corpus Christi College – has been revealed. But the identities of the other landowers have not been made public.
Church rectors say they are unlikely to activate the law but opponents believe it could affect property values.
The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev John Pritchard said he felt sorry for landowners who had become “caught up” in what he said was a “remarkable and somewhat bizarre law.”
He said: “I sympathise also with churches that are often faced with huge responsibilities in small communities so it seems to me to be a no-win situation and one which I look to the law-makers and lawyers to sort out.”
Holy Trinity Church, in West Hendred, registered four plots of land belonging to Oxford University’s Corpus Christi College.
Rector the Rev Elizabeth Birch said: “The church is caught in a catch-22 situation. If the chancel needed repair and you don’t register it, from a legal point of view the parochial church council (PCC) can be found negligent for not having done that.
Holy Trinity at West Hendred
“It’s a delicate thing and we’ve been as careful as we cannot to take action that’s going to inflict on individuals.”
Church warden Hugh Rees said future trustees of the church could sue current trustees if they did not register the land under charity law. But he said: “We wouldn’t anticipate enacting the chancel repair liability process.”
Corpus Christi College bursar John Harrison said: “The college is acutely aware of this controversial law and of the precise nature of the liability that falls from it.”
Figures obtained from the Land Registry under the Freedom of Information Act showed that St Olave’s Church in Fritwell registered 11 plots of land. There were also six plots registered by St James’ in Cowley, two plots by St Mary’s in Weston on the Green, two plots by St Mary’s in Steeple Barton and one plot by St Mary’s in Wootton, near Woodstock.
St Mary's at Weston on the Green
The Rev Howard Thornton, rector of St James’, said: “I know it’s a contentious issue and is part of ancient English heritage, which is quite amazing.”
The Rev Graeme Arthur, rector of St Mary’s in Steeple Barton, said it was the trustees’ duty to register the land but he did not know which plots were involved.
St Mary's at Steeple Barton
Oxford Diocese spokeswoman Jo Duckles said: “Whether to register chancel repair liability is a decision for each PCC. Many PCCs don’t register chancel repair liabilities and many of those that have, have registered them against large, institutional landowners.”
A chancel repair liability is a landowner’s requirement to pay for repairs to an Anglican parish church’s chancel – the part containing the altar.
In the past, monasteries often had responsibility for paying chancel repair costs when they acquired land and rectors would pay for them using money the land produced.
When Henry VIII sold the monasteries’ land, the liability to pay for chancel repair costs remained with the land sold.
St Mary’s at Wooton, nr Woodstock
Churches had to register land by October 13, 2013 for liability to still be enforceable against landowners. If the land wasn’t registered then the current owner would still be liable but future owners would be freed from it.
Six sites across county are registered
Number of plots of land registered by Oxfordshire churches:
St Mary’s, Steeple Barton – 2
St Olave’s, Fritwell – 11
St James’, Cowley – 6
St Mary’s, Weston on the Green – 2
St Mary’s, Wootton (near Woodstock) – 1
Holy Trinity, West Hendred – 4