Bells toll for village churches

New VAT demands on foundries are putting restorations at risk, reports Andrew Morgan
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The Independent Online
A SUDDEN decision by Customs officials to levy VAT on church bells has left parishioners all over Britain wondering whether restoration funds will ever meet their targets.

At picturesque Thornton, near Coalville in Leicestershire, pounds 2,000 has been raised in just a few months towards the target of pounds 21,000 for three new bells at the 14th-century St Peter's Church. The object is to create a six-bell peal which will attract bell-ringers from all over England.

Villagers were optimistic about reaching their target - until they were told pounds 3,675 more would be needed because Customs and Excise had decided to levy VAT at 17.5 per cent on all bell work from 1 September.

"Words failed us," said a churchwarden, Peter Maynard. "We started out with such enthusiasm and then somebody moves the goalposts. The misery is not limited to our church, it's multiplied hundreds of times across the country."

The prospect of raising so much money for bell work is a huge blow, given the precarious state of many parish coffers.

"Bell-ringing is an ancient but dying art and many are committed to preserving it," said Mr Maynard. "New bells are a lasting legacy, but these rules could nip many appeals in the bud."

Levying VAT on bell work was not the result of new legislation but an internal Customs and Excise decision to tighten up the interpretation of what constitutes "an alteration" to a building.

According to Alan Hughes, managing director of the Whitechapel bell foundry in East London, officials told him they had been lenient for too long.

"The definition of 'alteration' is work to the fabric which is visible from the outside - and so zero-rated. With bell work being inside, every specification - rehanging, recasting, and changing bell-frames - will now no longer be defined as an alteration and will be subject to VAT."

The only loophole is that orders received before 31 August will not be subject to the new guidelines. This has caused frenzied activity in the shires, prompting fears that some appeals may over-commit themselves in the dash to save cash.

Most churches, like St Peter's at Thornton, will not meet the deadline. Others, like St Mary's at Sampford Spiney, near Tavistock in Devon, which is close to its appeal target of pounds 35,000, may be better-placed. So far, the appeal has raised pounds 31,000 in only two years, but the prospect now looms of having to raise more than pounds 40,000 if the work is not ordered before September.

The work is for one new bell, two to be recast and four re-tuned, as well as new fittings and framework. "It's touch-and-go whether we can order within the next few weeks," lamented Jennifer Cross, of the appeal trust.

The Church of St James the Great, at Harvington, near Evesham in Worcestershire, has raised pounds 11,000 towards the pounds 30,000 estimate for rehanging its bells. The church is not rich, with its contribution quota to the diocese already up by a quarter. The parish council gave pounds 5,000 but most fund-raising took place outside the village, including donations from bell-ringing trusts.

"The school and community hall always need cash and it wasn't felt right to raise bell money here," said the Reverend Stephen Little, the rector. "Raising money for bells is a specialised business and it was a measured risk to launch the appeal. We wanted people to hear these bells 100 years from now. To suddenly have a few thousand pounds added for no good reason sets you back dreadfully."

The bell foundries admit there could be a short-term boom if churches scramble to order in the next few weeks, but longer-term job prospects could suffer.

At John Taylor Bell Founders, in Loughborough, where bells have been made since the 13th century, the mood is gloomy. Its credits include Great Paul in St Paul's Cathedral (16 tons), Great George at Liverpool Cathedral (14 tons) and Great Peter in York Minster (10 tons).

The managing director, Alan Berry, said: "Taxes collected from bell work would only be about pounds 300,000 over the next few years, but many projects must be at risk."

At Whitechapel, usually keen rivals, there is total agreeement. Mr Hughes said: "The bell industry is about to be taxed more heavily than in its history, but it's a decision taken by a few officials without a change of law in either Europe or Westminster."

Mr Hughes has enlisted the support of Tory backbencher Sir Patrick Cormack, who haswritten to ministers. John Taylor's bell foundry in Loughborough has lobbied its MP, the Health Secretary, Stephen Dorrell.

Meanwhile, the Council for the Care of Churches is stepping up its efforts to have all work on historic buildings zero-rated.