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Getting Permission to Make Changes

Before planning any structural work to your building, inside or out, including the removal of fittings such as seating or adding new facilities, find out whether or not you need permission.

This includes permission from your denominational body or from the local authority. You may also need to consult with other organisations such as Historic England.

The starting point is to find out if your place of worship is:

  • A listed building
  • Eligible for ecclesiastical exemption
  • Subject to local authority listed building consent or planning permissions

Image of the interior of Church of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Fulham, London
Church of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Fulham, London showing new pews. © Historic England

Developing a scheme

This page covers a variety of possible changes to places of worship. Some of these will be more easily accommodated than others.

For any scheme that requires formal consent, you must allow time for the necessary consultation with relevant parties. We encourage early pre-application advice in projects where we need to be consulted.

When developing a scheme you need to consider what you want to achieve and think of the different options which are possible in your place of worship. You must also consider the impact of these options on your building.

Once you have considered the options, we recommend that you start discussions with other bodies and organisations. We strongly urge congregations to consult their denominational advisory body, local authority, Historic England and other relevant external bodies before a firmly deciding on a scheme or making a formal application for consent. This will allow us to guide the development of a project.

After consultation, you will hopefully be able to develop designs for new work which avoid, minimise and mitigate any negative impacts on your building. For the detailed design work there will almost always be considerable benefits to employing a professional adviser who has an understanding of historic buildings and experience in their alteration.

What is a listed building?

Listing marks and celebrates a building's special architectural and historic interest, and also brings it under the consideration of the planning system, so that it can be protected for future generations.

A listed building is added to the National Heritage List for England. You can use this to discover whether your building is listed and what grade it is.

What is 'ecclesiastical exemption'?

The Ecclesiastical Exemption Order (2010) provides that places of worship used for ecclesiastical purposes can be exempt from having to obtain certain consents. It allows five denominations in the UK to operate their own statutory permissions systems, for repairs and some alterations, which are equivalent to the local authority listed building consent process.

Ecclesiastical Exemption does not remove the need for planning permission for external changes to your building.

If you are within one of these denominations, you will need to consult the relevant advisory committee. The denominations are:

The exempt denomination’s internal control system should embody the principles set out in the Government guidance. The processes need to be open and transparent and provide similar levels of consultation and engagement with local communities, local planning authorities, Historic England and the National Amenity Societies.

See the section below about planning permission for more on when to consult Historic England and the National Amenity Societies.

The 2010 order also allows certain other listed structures which are subject to the legal effects of consecration to be exempt. These may include bell towers, chest tombs, parish halls, charnel houses, lychgates or boundary walls. Some places of worship are not consecrated, just dedicated, and these do not benefit from the exemption.

We advise checking with the local planning authority or your denominational body whether or not the exemption applies to any particular structure.

The Church of England's ChurchCare website contains information to help you make faculty applications. This includes information on the Duffield Questions. These are the legal framework used to deal with cases particularly where proposed changes will result in harm to historic fabric.

What if your building belongs to another denomination or faith?

If your denomination is not exempt, you will need to seek listed building consent from your local planning authority to undertake works to a listed place of worship. For external works, or works to an unlisted place of worship in a conservation area, you may also need planning permission from your local authority.

Your denomination or faith group may exercise additional controls, but these do not remove the need for statutory consent from the local authority. If you have any doubt about whether your need consent, consult your local authority.

In order for a religious body to become exempt, it must demonstrate to the satisfaction of the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport that those systems and procedures it has in place provide equally stringent levels of control to those of the secular heritage protection system.

Scaffolding on church as work commences.
Scaffolding on church as work begins on repairs © Historic England

Planning permission and other consents

You need to get planning permission from your local authority for any new building and any alteration or extension that materially affects the external appearance of your place of worship. This is also the case for places of worship subject to ecclesiastical exemption.

If a development affects the setting of a Grade I or II* listed place of worship (and in London the setting of any listed place of worship) the local authority will consult Historic England before determining the application. You may also need approval from the local authority under building regulations for any new structures you wish to build.

Building in a churchyard or conversion of a crypt or mausoleum (whether or not it has recently been used for burial) may require further authorisation concerning the exhumation, reburial or disposal of human remains or the relocation of memorials and headstones. You should seek advice from your denomination's legal adviser if human remains may be disturbed or if building on the site of a disused burial ground is being considered. For more information refer to our page on cemeteries and burial grounds.

Who else is involved in the granting of permission to do work?

We strongly urge congregations to consult their denominational advisory body, local authority, Historic England and other relevant external bodies before firmly deciding on a scheme or making a formal application for consent.

Consultation with Historic England

The sooner we hear your plans and discuss how your objectives can be met without damaging the special significance of your listed building, the better.

We are always happy to have informal discussions, ideally before you have any firm ideas, so there can be genuine dialogue about the best way forward. We offer one free cycle of advice to help you develop your plans. To make best use of this time we advise that you prepare draft statements of significance and need before you contact us and do a rough outline of your ideas with the pros and cons of each. This means that we all start out with the same understanding of your particular situation before you spend money on professional drawings for a scheme that may not be the best way forward.

We have further information on the advice we provide on our website and you may also want to contact your local Historic England team.

When you are ready to make a formal application for permission, with all the drawings, specifications and information, you can send this to us for another free comment on your proposals. We will then make our views clear so you can submit your proposals to the appropriate body, whether that's a denominational advisory body or local authority.

Statements of significance and need

If you are planning to make changes you will need to support your application for permission with statements of significance and need. These explain how the changes you are proposing will affect the historic importance and character of the building and why you need to make these particular changes now.

See our Assessing Significance page for more about statements of significance and need.

Closed and closing places of worship

If the place of worship you are working with is closed or closing, you will still need listed building consent and planning permission where relevant.

For Church of England churches, the Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011 provides the legal framework for settling the future of closed churches and sets out the significant public consultation which is involved in establishing any new use. There are several stages involved in the process, which also involves the Church Commissioners, who hold the ultimate responsibility for the sale or re-use of closed churches. Further information is available on the Closure Process from the ChurchCare website.

Building in the churchyard of a closed church, of the disturbance of a tomb or mausoleum which causes the disturbance of human remains will require further authorisation from the Ministry of Justice. See our advice on caring for cemeteries and burial grounds.

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