Many of Northern Ireland’s churches are protected as listed buildings or are on, or near to, sites protected as scheduled historic monuments. This reflects their value as important places within our community. Their sites have often been the focus of community activity for many hundreds or even a thousand years, and their buildings have often been designed to the highest architectural standard. Even relatively modest churches can have great charm or reflect the approach of past generations to worship. It is important that, while adapting these buildings to the needs of today, this special architectural and historic interest is kept in mind when considering changes.
Before carrying out work therefore, we advise that you find out as much as you can about this interest. Records are available for most areas on the Northern Ireland Buildings Database and information on potential archaeology in the Sites and Monuments Record.
All buildings require maintenance and it is the best way to ensure the continued life of your church. It's importance can't be overemphasised as most of the damage that occurs to historic churches can be avoided by small scale regular maintenance. Inevitably, defects start as a small problem and grow in scale if not fixed.
The Ulster Historic Churches Trust has developed a good practical way of recording such changes by all involved in caring for a church. Its ‘Church Maintenance & Good Housekeeping Guide’ has been sent to every church in Northern Ireland and copies are available from the Ulster Historic Churches website which also provides useful information on day to day care.
As with all other buildings, Churches require planning permission for external development, i.e. extensions and other alterations. If your church is a listed building it does not enjoy permitted development rights to carry out small works without planning permission. If in doubt you should contact the planning department of your local district council.
Scheduled Monument Consent will be required for alterations to parts of your site which are protected as a scheduled historic monument.
Listed Building Consent
Ecclesiastical listed buildings which are ‘for the time being used for ecclesiastical purposes or would be so used but for the works’ (Section 85(8) of the Planning Act (NI) 2011) do not have to apply for listed building consent for changes that might alter their architectural or historic character. If no longer used as churches, this ‘ecclesiastical exemption’ does not apply. Most church denominations operate their own internal system of review in regard to changes and you should contact them for further information.
In March 2016 the Department of the Environment issued a public consultation on a proposal to remove the exemption. 122 responses were received and a detailed synopsis and Ministerial Statement on the way forward were published by the Department for Communities on 29 September. This has concluded that:
‘For larger organisations, the Department for Communities (DfC) will put in place partnering arrangements, governed by a Memorandum of Understanding or similar, which will enable structured engagement with governing bodies at a Northern Ireland level. This engagement will review developing best practice and agree appropriate changes to relevant guidance and processes.
For smaller organisations and individual self-governing places of worship, the Department will provide appropriate guidance on changes to places of worship which enhances the advice already available. ‘
Historic Environment Division
Historic Environment Division is responsible for supplying advice to owners on how best to look after their historic buildings. We are also happy to visit a building and offer on-site advice, and this can be arranged by contacting your Area Senior Conservation Architect. If you are unsure, you can contact us.