Church bells and the law

Complexities and uncertainties on church bells

Whilst not high-profile parliamentary business, recent Written Answers have highlighted some of the issues associated with the perceived nuisance from church bells and the range of legislation to which they are subject. 

Recent Written Questions

In November 2017, Craig Mackinlay, (Con, South Thanet), asked the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government what steps his Department has taken within planning and other guidance to local authorities to support the continued ringing of church bells and traditional chimes, [116503]; and in a subsequent question in January, sought the know whether the revised National Planning Policy Framework to include new developments [referred to in the Answer to his first question] would “take account of culture, history and tradition where noise nuisance complaints are made about the continued ringing of church bells and chimes by residents living within existing developments”, [124833].

In a response to this second question, Dominic Raab, Minister of Housing at the Department of Communities and Local Government, stated on 5 February:

“The revised National Planning Policy Framework will clearly set out that the developer or ‘agent of change’ should be responsible for mitigating noise impacts and other potential nuisances arising from existing businesses and other organisations, such as churches when locating new development or changing uses nearby. However, noise nuisance complaints in existing developments are not handled through the planning system. They are subject to the provisions of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and other relevant law. We are committed to working across government to further strengthen the ‘agent of change’ principle in policy and guidance.”

General Synod Private Members’ Motion

The Revd Prebendary Simon Cawdell, a member of General Synod from Hereford Diocese, has tabled the following Private Member’s Motion [PMM]:

“That this Synod requests the Archbishops’ Council to consult with HM Government and others with a view to protecting the ringing of church bells throughout the country from unreasonable restriction and, if appropriate in the light of the outcome of such consultation, to bring forward legislation to that end”. [February 2018]

With regard to the phrase “throughout the country”, we note that there are a number of ringable bells in Wales and a few rings in Scotland. However, both planning and environment are devolved issues, and the application of the canon law of the Church in Wales relating to bells differs from that of the Church of England, [see T G Watkin A happy noise to hear: Church Bells and the Law of Nuisance, (1996) 4 Ecc LJ 545].

National Planning Policy Framework and the ‘Agent of Change’ principle

Complaints on neighbourhood noise from new residents are also an issue for music venues, and this is being explored by the Department for Communities & Local Government (DCLG) and representatives of the industry. On 18 January the DCLG issued the Press Release Strengthened planning rules to protect music venues and their neighbours. Housing Secretary, Sajid Javid, said:

“Housing developers building new homes near music venues should be responsible for addressing noise issues in a move to protect both music venues and their neighbours…

The National Planning Policy Framework, which local authorities are legally bound to comply with, will now be clarified to include detailed reference to the ‘Agent of Change’ principle, and will be consulted on in spring.

The move means developers will be responsible for identifying and solving any sound problems, if granted permission to build, and avoid music venues, community and sports clubs and even churches running into expensive issues as a result of complaints from new neighbours“.

“With strong backing from the music industry including UK Music, and the Music Venue Trust, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have been working with John Spellar MP following his Ten Minute Rule Bill on this subject to ensure that planning policy reflects what the industry needs”.

John Spellar’s Planning (Agent of Change) Bill 2017-19 was given its first reading on 10 January 2018 and the second reading is scheduled for 16 March. However, even if the Bill does progress further, it primary objective appears to be new build [the Bill has yet to be printed].

Underlying issues

The continued parliamentary interest in Church bells is perhaps no coincidence since as a consequence of events at St Peter’s Church, Sandwich, below, Dover District Council announced In January that it would write to the Government to seek further guidance in dealing with statutory noise nuisance from church bells and chimes; Dover DC  had itself been the subject of a complaint from the Sandwich Town Council relating to its handling of the matter.

Had the MP, the Ministers, or their civil servants involved in the Written Question been made aware of an article in Kent on Line in September 2017, they would have discovered that this line of questioning had resulted from a single complaint to Dover DC concerning St Peter’s Church; this was dealt with as a statutory nuisance under Part III Environmental Protection Act 1990 (“EPA 1990”), not under the planning legislation referred to by the Minister in his responses. [To be fair, we should point out that the question was directed to Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, not the Secretary of State for the Environment].

In a recent round-up, we noted that in addition to planning provisions, the ringing of church bells is subject to potential liability for nuisance at common law and under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. These circumstances serve to illustrate the complexities of the legislation applying to church bells, and to certain weaknesses in the application of S80 EPA 1990.

St Peter’s Church, Sandwich

St Peter’s was classified as a redundant church in October 1974, although it remains consecrated; on account of its architectural importance it was vested in the Redundant Churches Fund, now The Churches Conservation Trust. Dove’s Guide indicates that only the tenor bell is now ringable, and this is used for the night curfew at 20:00. However, the complaint giving rise to the abatement notice was in relation to the ringing of the church clock bell – not the ringing of the bells by a team of ringers, (the latter would probably have produced a louder noise).

The issues raised by the St Peter’s case are:

  • the responsibility for the clock chimes and the curfew bell;
  • the continued consecrated status of St Peter, changes to the bells, the clock and its mechanism fall within the faculty jurisdiction:
  • the sacred and secular use of the bells;
  • the implications of an abatement notice, and the limitations of controls under the EPA 1990 regime.

It should also be noted that where there are no bells, some churches &c broadcast a recording of bells; such arrangements would be subject to similar legal provisions.

Statutory Nuisance, Part III Environmental Protection Act

The historic clock at St Peter’s rings each quarter throughout the day and night, a situation which is not uncommon in many churches. Defra has issued guidance Noise nuisances: how councils deal with complaints , last updated December 2017, which states

“Councils must look into complaints about noise that could be a ‘statutory nuisance’ (covered by the Environmental Protection Act 1990). For the noise to count as a statutory nuisance it must do one of the following:  unreasonably and substantially interfere with the use or enjoyment of a home or other premises;  injure health or be likely to injure health.

If they agree that a statutory nuisance is happening or will happen in the future, councils must serve an abatement notice. This requires whoever’s responsible to stop or restrict the noise. The notice will usually be served on the person responsible but can also be served on the owner or occupier of the premises”.

The Dover District Council CEO, Nadeem Aziz, is reported to have told Sandwich residents at a public meeting last month that the Council had a statutory obligation to investigate the noise complaint [emphasis added]:

“He confirmed the chimes ring at 52-62 decibels following a study taken from the front bedroom of the St Peter’s property with the window open. The World Health Organisation’s recommended levels are 45 decibels inside and 60 decibels outside”.

The Sandwich Town Council considered that the DCC’s investigation had “not followed “best practice” or “taken into account the wider sensitivities”, although these allegation were not expanded on in the new report; furthermore, the 21-day period during which the Town Council, the Save The Chimes campaign group or others could have appealed against the abatement notice appears to have expired. There is therefore little scope for further redress, since there is no time limit associated with abatement notices. In addition to this problematic feature of Part III EPA 1990, in its Opinion on Ringing of church bells and liability for nuisance, (revised October 2008), the Legal Advisory Commission of the General Synod  noted:

“There is no prescribed or objective standard of what is, or is not, a permissible level of noise. The test the Court will apply in deciding whether the level of noise constitutes a legal nuisance is the subjective test of the Court, guided by expert evidence (if available).”

With regard to the Control of Church Bells and Bell-Ringers, the Opinion further states:

“21. The control of the church bells and bell-ringers does not belong to the PCC but jointly to the incumbent and churchwardens. Accordingly anyone who wishes to ring the bells must comply with their requirements which could, if they thought fit, include the levying of a charge.

22. Clearly the persons who can give directions regarding bell ringing may be liable, usually the incumbent or churchwardens. However, the ringing of bells in a parish church which might constitute a nuisance is not actionable against the bishop of the diocese in which the church is situated (Calvert v Gardiner and Others (The Times 22 July 2002)).

The summary of Calvert v Gardiner & ors, notes that “Bishops are not vicariously liable for vicarial campanology”, and:

“The operation of church bells vests in the vicar of the parish church in which the bells are rung. The bishop does not authorise the ringing of the bells. Nor is he responsible for bell ringing by virtue of the nature of the structure of the Church of England, because there is a clear demarcation of responsibility; bishops and other clergy have separate and distinct ministries and spheres of operation.

The bishop did not have the power to make the vicar stop the bell ringing, nor had he any power to discipline the vicar in respect of it. A bishop could not just give instruction to a vicar and expect him to obey under his oath of canonical obedience because the vicar was expected to obey only those orders the bishop was authorised to give. In these circumstances the bishop could not be said to have authorised the purported nuisance and there was no prospect of the case against him succeeding”.

However, in the case of a redundant church vested in a body such as the Churches Conservation Trust, responsibility for the operation of bells (including those associated with a church clock) will depend upon the terms of the vesting agreement. Importantly, S80(2)(a) EPA 1990 requires that an abatement notice is served on the person responsible for the nuisance, or where the person responsible for the nuisance cannot be found, on the owner or occupier of the premises.

For churches such as St Peter’s which remain consecrated, the use of bells in the context of divine service continues to fall within Canon F8 Of church bells, and B11 Of Morning and Evening Prayer in parish churches. However, the chiming of a clock would not fall within these provisions, nor would the use of a single bell for sounding the night curfew (see footnote); however, it could be argued that the ringing of the Angelus would be covered.

Comment

In view of the range of legislative measures associated with the ringing of church bells, chiming of church clocks and sounds broadcast from church towers &c, it is difficult to envisage how the issue of perceived noise nuisance might be addressed. Neither the initiative of DCLG on “agent of change” nor the recent PMM are likely to result in the development of a workable solution in the short term.

Footnote – Curfew Bells and Angelus Bells

The Curfew Bell is still rung from St. Peter’s Church every night at 8 pm. It is suggested that this used to be called the Pigbell as it signalled the time that the animals could be put on to the street (to eat the rubbish that had accumulated during the day) and that people should put out their fires. There used to be a bell called the Goosebell which was rung at 5 am to tell householders to take their animals back indoors lest they be impounded; however, but this was discontinued  because people no longer wished to wake up so early.

It has been pointed out that “there can be little doubt that in all save a few exceptional cases, the tolling the Ave bell was distinct from the ringing of curfew (ignitegium); the former taking place at the end of [Compline] and perhaps coinciding with the prayers for peace, said in choir; the latter being the signal for the close of day and for the general bed-time”.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Church bells and the law" in Law & Religion UK, 13 February 2018, http://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2018/02/13/church-bells-and-the-law/

14 thoughts on “Church bells and the law

    • Indeed, but the kernel of the problem is in fact the “personal opinion” of those who view the sound as a nuisance. And in the landmark case in nuisance Sturges v Bridgman (1879) LR 11 Ch D 852, these is no defence in tort that the plaintiff “came to the nuisance”, and “what would be a nuisance in Belgrave Square would not necessarily be so in Bermondsey”.

    • You weren’t outside our tower last night to hear me making a total hash of plain hunting on five at ringing practice. (I did get it right in the end, though.)

  1. Since “changes to the bells, the clock and its mechanism fall within the faculty jurisdiction” complying with the Noise Abatement Order appears to require a Faculty.
    In view of the fact that it appears (if I correctly interpret your post and news reports I’ve read) there is a general view that the clock should continue to ring, the Chancellor would be quite likely to refuse to issue a faculty, meaning that the Noise Abatement Order cannot be complied wth!
    Even if that does not happen in this case, it could well in other similar cases.
    What happens if one legal requirement (faculty jurisdiction) means that another legal requirement (an Order under the EPA) cannot be compled with?

    • It is my reading of the situation that a faculty would only be required if some modification to the clock mechanism were required, and here it appears as though it was only necessary to alter the times at which the clock struck – which would not require a faculty. However, were some modification of the clock required in order to achieve the compliance with the EHO’s requirements or an abatement order, this could be put forward as a reason to the informally to EHO/or in the 21-day period for appeal to the magistrates court for delaying the commencement of the order.

  2. As a former Parish Clerk and on the subject of church clocks I recall the Parish Councils Act 1957:
    “2 Power to provide public clocks.

    A parish council may provide, maintain and light such public clocks within the parish as they consider necessary, and (subject to the provisions of section five of this Act [permissiom of property owner]) may cause them to be installed on or against any premises or in any other place the situation of which may be convenient.”

    If your PCC needs funds to repair/maintain the church clock try your Parish Council. I suppose they might make it a condition of such aid that the clock does not strike during the night period!

    • Thanks for the information, Christopher. A number of churches and public buildings have “jubilee Clocks” which (according to Wikipedia) were “constructed and erected throughout the British Empire in commemoration of the Golden or Diamond Jubilee of various British monarchs, most commonly, Queen Victoria’s”. Some of these, like ours at Wantage, were purchased and installed by the town, although it is now maintained by the church. Unfortunately, this provenance does not assist when there is a claim of nuisance under the 1990 EPA.

      • And there is also an unresolved issue as to whether or not the law allows a parish council to make a grant to a religious organisation where the monies will be used for religious purposes or religious buildings.

        • Concerning churchyards, methinks the matter is clear.

          Local Government Act 1974
          214 Cemeteries and crematoria.
          (1) The following authorities, that is to say, the councils of … parishes … and the parish meetings of parishes having no parish council, whether separate or common, shall be burial authorities …
          (6) A burial authority may contribute towards any expenses incurred by any other person in providing or maintaining a cemetery in which the inhabitants of the authority’s area may be buried.

          In this parish a helpful annual contribution is made to the PCC.

          • Sure: but it’s unclear in respect of grants for other purposes – such as clocks.

  3. Frank, why is the wording above “A parish council may provide, maintain and light such public clocks within the parish as they consider necessary” unclear?

    • No, you’re right: I was reading the words in the sense “clocks maintained at public expense” (which clocks on church towers are not). If it means “a clock that is visible to the public” then yes, it must apply.

      • Thanks & appreciated. I accept that ‘as they consider necessary’ gives scope for a parish coumcil to say, ‘No’.

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