The Building Decayeth

A pioneering maintenance service has been field-tested

Timothy Cantell

Trivial things are not done, a DAC Secretary told me, and disproportionate problems result. 'Well', said a secretary from another diocese, 'if you are going to check over churches, at least we might see less grass growing in the gutters'.

Check over churches we did and there is, or should be, less grass than there was. But we were covering only a small area of the country and only for a limited time, so how is keeping the gutters running clear and William Morris’ ‘staving off decay by daily care’ to be organised in the future?


The checks were part of a recent pilot programme in the Bath area mounted by Maintain our Heritage (MoH). The pilot, the first of its kind in this country, aimed to demonstrate that maintenance inspections are practical and worthwhile. Backed by English Heritage and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, it ran for just over a year.

Although the pilot was open to buildings of all kinds, we found that take-up was strongest amongst places of worship. Twelve came forward to join the pilot, almost a sixth of the 73 buildings inspected in total. The 12 were: 10 Anglican churches (covering the Dioceses of Bath & Wells, Bristol and Gloucester), a Friends meetinghouse and the disused chapel of a country house. The pilot also covered a range of houses, educational buildings and others including two chapels converted to other uses.

One reason why interest from churches was strong was that one diocese carried out a mailing of the flier for the scheme with a supportive letter. Despite a tight deadline, eight of the 54 churches (15%) responded – a good rate for a marketing initiative. And seven of the eight (87%) went ahead and ordered an inspection – a good conversion rate. MoH, it should be added, did offer places of worship a special rate of £50 per inspection. (Secular owners were paying £150-250, and more for very large buildings.)

The not-for-profit service offered an inspection followed by an illustrated report on maintenance priorities. As MoH’s flier put it:

The service will put paid to worries that a gutter has blocked up or a slate slipped down without you knowing. It will tell you what needs doing and when, so that you can take timely steps to keep the fabric in good repair. You will accrue the savings that flow from preventive action. And you will know you are doing the best for your historic building.

The scope of the inspection was broadly limited to the external envelope. The rationale was to concentrate on those elements that protect the building from water and damp penetration. Thus internal items such as monuments, screens, fonts, pulpits, furniture and so on were not covered; nor were boundary walls, paths, gates and gravestones.

Items identified by the inspectors in the reports were prioritised as shown in the table below. These works were to be entirely the responsibility of the church. The service was independent and no professional advisers or contractors were recommended.


Examples of work required and their priority

A Immediately
Repair broken tiles, repair defective flashings and missing mortar at junction of parapet wall/roof
B Within the next six months or before winter
Provide wire mesh over outlet
Repair cast iron S-bend down pipe
Provide lead adjacent to copings and clay ridges
C Within the year
Renew blown render to parapet wall
Overhaul access door to tower
D As part of a regular maintenance programme
Check timber for decay; look for bore dust on floor Monitor condition of softer sandstone to nave and north aisle

The pilot was founded on the concept of systematic maintenance, a planned way of inspecting buildings and taking timely action to keep them in good shape. Anglican churches, of course, already follow this principle through the quinquennial system of architects’ inspections. We saw our service as complementary: much damage can occur in five years and inspections between quinquennials will warn of any small but developing flaws that otherwise might develop into serious problems by the time of the next quinquennial.

As one churchwarden using the service told us, 'we had a quinquennial inspection recently but felt the possibility of regular annual checks could be worthwhile. In the event, your report told us things we were not aware of and we will commission work as a result. We’d use such a service again a year from now if one was available'.

However, the pilot was a pilot and there is as yet no permanent service in the UK.


MoH would like to build on the experience of this pilot by rolling out the scheme nationally for places of worship, and enhancing it to include additional services to enable communities. Churches, say, might pay a subscription entitling them to an annual visit from an expert two-person team who would both inspect and clear gutters and drainpipes and carry out on-the-spot first aid repair. Churches could also have access to training, advice, and information to empower them to take on much of the maintenance themselves with understanding and confidence.

  Surveyors from Maintain our Heritage inspect a church as part of the maintenance programme pilot scheme in Bath

Such a scheme would need to be established in partnership with bodies such as the Council for the Care of Churches, Ecclesiastical Architects and Surveyors Association, English Heritage, Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Churches Preservation Trust, Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and others.

But a maintenance inspection service for places of worship would need to be supported by some level of subsidy – even if not-for-profit, and even if the price were several times higher than the nominal £50 of the pilot.

Further, the widespread development of a maintenance inspection service is likely to be successful only as part of a comprehensive national maintenance strategy that provides wide-ranging official support, advice and encouragement for maintenance.

MoH is producing a report on its pilot scheme and wishes to stimulate discussion of what is to be learned, and what initiatives should now be framed – whether to be carried out by MoH or others. The results of this discussion will be published in due course.

The principle of systematic maintenance based on regular inspection is backed by English Heritage, the Heritage Lottery Fund and many other bodies. For instance: modest spending on regular maintenance reduces the need for costly repairs… and saves you money in the longer term… major repair problems are often the result of neglect and, if tackled earlier, can be prevented or reduced in scale.

Systematic maintenance is highly relevant to churches. Yet the principle is difficult to apply in practice. Churches are often large and complex structures, and the resources of those looking after them are often small. The majority of congregations are dwindling, and steadily aging. Ministry, not heritage, is their purpose, and they all too frequently lack the financial, physical or technical ability to safeguard their buildings appropriately. And the scale of the challenge is immense. The Church of England alone has over 16,000 churches, 13,000 of them listed. Some 40 per cent of Grade I listed buildings (that is to say, the most valuable historic buildings in the country) are churches.

Prince Charles, as so often, sums up the challenge clearly: 'While regular maintenance may not be glamorous, it is essential and of course common sense... appropriate, regular maintenance [helps] avoid costly, wasteful and unnecessary later repairs'.

If any other authority is required, then there is Ecclesiastes 10:18: By much slothfulness the building decayeth; and through idleness of the hands the house droppeth through.

For ‘slothfulness’, read lack of convenient, practical and affordable routes to systematic maintenance. We need to set these up if the house is not to drop through.


Maintain Our Heritage

MoH was formed in 1999 to promote the wider understanding and adoption of maintenance. It originated from a national seminar in 1998 to promote the 25th Anniversary of Monumentenwacht, an organisation that has 52 two-person teams annually inspecting 15,000 buildings – a fifth of all listed buildings in the Netherlands.

MoH conceived, set up and ran the Bath Area Pilot maintenance inspection service. It is currently leading wide-ranging research into maintenance issues in partnership with DTI, English Heritage, the Heritage Lottery Fund and others.
Both the report on the Bath Area Pilot and the findings of the research will be published in due course on:

Comments and suggestions are welcome. They may be made via the website or by e-mail:


This article is reproduced from Historic Churches, 2003


TIMOTHY CANTELL has been Project Coordinator of Maintain our Heritage since 2000. He is a founder of SAVE Britain’s Heritage and has worked for the Civic Trust and the Royal Society of Arts.

Further information


Churches (general)

Conservation principles


Advisory bodies and associations

Ecclesiastical organisations

Survey/maintenance access
Site Map