Environment Minister Mark H Durkan has invited members of the public to have their say on a proposal to remove the exemption from listing controls that apply to all active listed places of worship in Northern Ireland.
Such buildings, though often the most important historic buildings in our towns and rural areas, do not require Listed Building Consent for alterations that may affect their architectural or historic character.
Mark H Durkan explained: “Churches and other places of worship are among our most prominent and important listed buildings. In every village and town, and across the rural area, they stand as witness to our religious heritage. They are also among our most beautiful places with huge effort often put into their location, design and decoration.
“Since the early 1970s, the Department of the Environment has worked to identify and record this legacy. The best parts have been formally designated as listed buildings. However, the normal controls associated with such a designation do not apply to places of worship in active use. This ‘Ecclesiastical Exemption’ is common across the UK, but the parallel systems of control for named denominations used elsewhere were never introduced here.
“For the last 40 years or so we have therefore relied upon the custodians of these buildings do the right thing and protect this important resource. They have largely done this very well, but there have been cases where important parts of our heritage have been lost or more unfortunately degraded by ill informed changes. The view of the Department, based upon recent research, is that it is now time for a change.
“Churches do have specific liturgical requirements which are different from those of other listed buildings. I have therefore asked that guidance be developed in parallel with this consultation. This means that, should the exemption be removed, planning authorities will also be able to take these needs into account.
“Our built heritage is a precious and a finite resource. It is important that we work together to ensure that it is valued and safeguarded for future enjoyment.”
The consultation proposes that DOE issues an order under Section 85 of the Planning Act (NI) 2011 to remove the exemption. This will introduce a requirement to apply to District Council planning departments for Listed Building Consent for proposed changes that might alter the architectural or historic interest of a place of worship which is in use for ecclesiastical purposes.
The planning authority will have to pay due regard to the building’s architectural and historic character when assessing such proposals. In parallel the Department is proposing to develop and publish guidance on changes to such listed buildings and the consideration of liturgical requirements by planning authorities. The consultation will run for 12 weeks until 13 June.