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Durkan consults on new planning controls for churches

Words: Roger Milne

Environment minister Mark H Durkan has begun consulting on proposals to remove the exemption from listing controls that apply to all active listed places of worship in Northern Ireland.

Currently these buildings do not require Listed Building Consent for alterations that may affect their architectural or historic character.

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."

He added: “For the last 40 years or so we have 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.”

Durkan has stressed that churches have specific liturgical requirements that are different from those of other listed buildings.

“This means that, should the exemption be removed, planning authorities will also be able to take these needs into account.”

The consultation proposes that the department 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 that is in use for ecclesiastical purposes.

There are more than 900 listed churches in Northern Ireland and one listed synagogue.

Data is not retained on how many of these are still used as places of worship; however, this is known to be a high proportion, according to the Northern Ireland Executive.

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