LYME Regis Town Council has agreed to grant £25,000 to the ongoing tower appeal at St Michael’s Parish Church.
The church’s bell tower is currently suffering from water ingress, causing damage inside the historic building, and a full refurbishment is expected to cost almost £150,000.
The church has raised £76,260 through special events, grants and from its reserves, but it requires 80 per cent of the total cost before work can begin.
In June 2018, the town council agreed to underwrite the cost of the project to a maximum sum of £66,770.50, on the condition that the church’s £50,000 Coastal Revival Funding application was successful, but the bid was rejected and the council’s money was therefore not forthcoming.
Councillors were asked again to consider granting funds towards the project at last week’s Strategy & Finance Committee meeting.
Newly-elected councillor David Sarson started the discussion by proposing that the council make a £25,000 donation, describing the church as “an historical building of great importance to the people of this town”.
Councillor Jeff Scowen agreed, pointing out it was the only Grade I listed building in the town – the Cobb being classed as a structure, not a building. He added that, while some may argue the Church of England could afford the repairs, the fact was the town had to raise the funds itself.
“Unless we help it could fall down,” he commented.
“Let’s show that we value the church, a beautiful building, and we must not let it deteriorate.”
Councillor Michaela Ellis confirmed that the church belonged to the congregation and it was up to them to raise the funds and look after the building, with only a set amount of money being received from the Church of England each year.
The Mayor of Lyme Regis, Councillor Brian Larcombe MBE, described the church as one of the principal buildings of the town that dominated the landscape, and said its connection with residents was very deep.
Councillor Ellis said residents expected the church to be there for weddings, funerals and christenings, and the mayor of the town had always used St Michael’s for civic events. She added that the council had never donated any money towards the structure of the building before, and proposed they grant the church £50,000.
However, Councillor Stan Williams argued that St Michael’s had not always been the church of choice for the mayor – it depended on their religion. He raised concerns that donating funds to St Michael’s would leave them open to requests from other churches in the town.
Some concerns were also raised about whether the council was actually allowed to donate money to the church, as the Local Government Act of 1984 states that local councils’ powers, duties and liabilities do not include the affairs and property of the church and those held for an ecclesiastical charity.
It was unclear whether the prohibition still applied or whether it was overridden by legislation made since the 1984 act. Advice of the National Association of Local Councils was to act “prudently” on the matter, and the council’s solicitor advised members to act “cautiously”.
Town clerk John Wright told members that they would be taking a risk if they agreed to make a grant to the church, but suggested this should be a “considered risk” and they should think the issues through before making a decision.
When coming to the vote, Councillor Ellis’ proposal to grant £50,000 failed to win enough support but councillors agreed on the initial proposal to grant £25,000.
Church members have emphasised the importance of raising the necessary funds and starting work as soon as possible, as plaster on the walls inside the baptistry has now started falling down, meaning the main entrance to the church has had to be locked for safety reasons. Church-goers are instead being asked to use the north entrance.
Speaking recently to LymeOnline, Heidi Merrett, lay-chairman of the Parochial Church Council, said: “The church is there for people to take comfort in and help them through crisis. It’s open everyday but we have to keep it safe, we’d hate to see it closed.”
Anyone who is interested in helping the fundraising campaign or has any ideas for events should contact Heidi on 07706 058 676.