Court permits 40 solar panels on “Arts and Crafts” church

The Alaskan village of Newtok appears to have little in common with the church of St Francis of Assisi in Meir Heath in the diocese of Lichfield, yet the decision of the Consistory Court to permit the installation of 40 black photovoltaic solar panels provides an example of what local communities in the UK might do to lessen the impacts of global warming elsewhere – but too late for the inhabitants of Newtok, where it is predicted that the highest point will be under water as early as 2017, making them America’s first “climate change refugees”.

One of the principal reasons for seeking a faculty to install solar panels on this “Arts and Crafts” church in Re St Francis Meir Heath [2013] Lichfield Cons Ct was the belief of the petitioners [at para.6]

“that it is appropriate that they and the worshipping congregation of St. Francis should strive to reduce their ‘carbon footprint’ and to contribute to preserving the environment by using renewable energy rather than fossil fuels.”

In 2009, the Church of England initiated a programme of carbon reduction, Shrinking the Footprint, with a target of 80% by 2050, and an interim target of 42% by 2020.  As we have discussed earlier, the installation of solar panels on listed churches is not unknown, but most cases the panels have not been visible from the ground: see, for example, In the matter of St George, Kemp Town, Brighton.  In the case of St Francis, Meir Heath, the chancellor had to take into consideration the fact that although not listed, the church of St Francis was of architectural significance and that the pitch of the roof was such that the photovoltaic panels would be visible from the south side, i.e. on approaching the entrance, and most readily from the vicarage and partially on approaching the entrance, but not from the highway [1].

Arguments before the court

Planning permission was not required for the installation and the local planning authority chose not to make any representations. The Diocesan Advisory Committee, (DAC), did not recommend approval, and although itself not a party to the action, English Heritage expressed its objections in a detailed submission. However, there were a number of letters of support for the Petition from parishioners and members of the congregation and from Fulford Parish Council, which was particularly influenced by the financial benefits which will support the church’s continuing viability.

Importantly, the Diocesan Environmental Officer offered strong support for the proposal, describing it as “being well-thought through; as fitting with the Church of England’s ‘Shrinking the Footprint’ campaign; and as worthy of commendation for integrating care for Creation with moves to ensure financial stability for the church”.

In parallel with their concerns regarding the church’s carbon footprint, the petitioners’ justifications for the installation of the photovoltaics were also energy-related, [at para. 6]: the high roofs and elevated position conspired to make the church’s heating difficult and costly; and the income from the solar panels would assist in meeting those costs and thereby help to ensure the continuing financial viability of the church.

The DAC believed that although the church of St Francis “has not yet been designated as a listed building” it was nonetheless architecturally significant, and noted an Architectural History Practice report in 2008 which described St. Francis’s as being “a significant work” by W Curtis Green and recommended that it should be listed. It considered [at para. 10] that

“[the] architectural and historical significance of buildings does not lie only in those parts which may be easily seen from the public highway … the roof is a key element of the arts and crafts design and the panels would be too visually apparent … the adverse visual effects of the proposed installation on what is clearly an important historic building outweighed its potential benefits”.

The Chancellor rejected English Heritage’s submission that the church should be treated as if it were listed, noting [at para. 17]

”it is not appropriate for me to apply to an unlisted building the special regime which applies to listed buildings. This is particularly so as the listing for the relevant area was made as comparatively recently as 1981”.

The petitioners cited the decision of Cardinal Ch in Re St Mary Moseley [2011] Birmingham Consistory Court, who granted a faculty for the installation of solar panels on a Grade II listed church, taking account of the approach taken by the planning inspector (who had already granted planning permision). However, Eyre Ch stated that though such a decision might be highly persuasive he would not be strictly bound by it; and neither the planning inspector nor Cardinal Ch were purporting to say that the installation of panels would always be appropriate and permissible.

Analysis and judgement

In his analysis, Chancellor Eyre stated that he must give considerable weight to the DAC’s assessment and to the expert views of English Heritage.  In matters of aesthetics, he noted that whilst it is not for a chancellor to substitute his own views for those with particular expertise, he was entitled and bound to take account of the actual physical features of the church and to consider those features as they manifestly were on his site visit.

The DAC’s refusal to recommend the Petition was influenced by its conclusion on the adverse visual impact which the proposal would have. This played a lesser part in English Heritage’s concerns, which related more to the impact on the integrity and significance of the building.

In addressing these points in granting the petition, the Chancellor noted that the overall appearance of the church will be little altered, the Arts and Crafts appearance remaining: “the appearance will be that of an Arts and Crafts building with solar panels present on its markedly less visible rear face”. Moreover, in terms of integrity, the argument put forward against the current proposal would have applied equally to the earlier alterations – the addition of a church hall and meeting room.  He concluded

“[t]hose panels will have a limited impact on the appearance of the church but will not markedly alter that appearance and will contribute to the continued use and viability of the church building. In those circumstances the further harm to architectural integrity of the church is justified.”


One thought comes to mind. The Church of England’s faculty jurisdiction exempts it from the requirement to seek listed building consent (though not, it should be emphasised, from planning controls) – but, unlike secular controls, it applies to all C of E churches, whether listed or not. English Heritage, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with listed buildings: Faculty Jurisdiction Rules 2000 [2].

So why English Heritage’s concern about an unlisted building? The chancellor noted at para 11 that “it is the view of English Heritage that the Petition should be approached by regarding the church as if it were listed”. Which leads one to ask, “why should it?”. Either a building is listed or it is not – and if it is not, it is not entirely obvious why the matter should involve English Heritage. Similarly, the DAC explains that although the church of St Francis “has not yet been designated as a listed building” it is nonetheless architecturally significant [para 9]. But every unlisted building, by definition, “has not yet been designated as a listed building” – so exactly where do you stop? Eyre Ch evidently decided that whether or not a building is in fact listed should be the dividing-line:

“… account has to be taken of the building’s character … but the special status and consideration applicable to a listed building do not apply. This is a church building which has already been altered from its original appearance” [para 24].

David Pocklington and Frank Cranmer

[1] “Although it is in an elevated position the land around it is largely lined by trees, so that it is not readily visible from outside its own grounds”, [para. 2].

[2] The Faculty Jurisdiction Rules 2013 contain similar provisions regarding English Heritage and come into force on 1 January 2014

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