Heirs face repair bill of £95,000 for old church they do not own

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The Independent Online

Andrew and Gail Wallbank were charmed by their first sight of the 800-year-old parish church that stood on land they inherited in the Warwickshire village of Aston Cantlow. The stone building was steeped in tradition, and historians said William Shakespeare's parents took their marriage vows at its altar.

But yesterday the Wallbanks were praying they could find £95,000 for repairs to the church they do not own, after a High Court judge upheld a ruling making them liable. The couple had challenged their liability for the bill, imposed under the Chancel Repairs Act 1932, described by the Law Commission as "anachronistic and capricious" legislation.

But parishioners and church wardens who have spent nine years trying to force the Wallbanks to pay for the repairs to the chancel of the Grade One listed building were delighted by the ruling. John Martin, a warden of St John's, said he was ready to give up the legal battle until he stumbled across ancient deeds at the Public Record Office, which showed the Wallbanks, as landowners and rectors, were legally responsible.

Mr Wallbank and his wife, who now live on a sheep farm in Carno, Powys, plan to appeal and say they will take their fight to the European Court of Justice if necessary.

They inherited Glebe Farm in Aston Cantlow from Mrs Wallbank's father, who bought the 176-acre property in 1970. It includes a field called Clanacre, a rectorial property that makes the couple lay impropriators of the parish of Aston Cantlow and Wilmcote with Billesley.

In January 1995, the parochial church council began an action in Stratford-upon-Avon County Court, claiming £95,260 to put the chancel in proper repair.

In a ruling that has implications for thousands of other lay rectors of churches, Mr Justice Ferris said although the 1932 Act had been severely criticised, liability for the church was attributable to the family's original decision to buy the land.

Later, Mr Wallbank, 59, estimated the final cost in repairs, interest and costs could top £130,000. "I am disappointed but not surprised by the decision. The wording of the 1932 Act seems to leave the court no room for discretion.

"The only way we can really afford to settle is by selling Glebe Farm but no one would want to buy it while this problem exists. It is Catch-22."

Mr Wallbank said they realised there was something in the deeds about the church when his father-in-law bought the farm. "He wasn't unduly worried and thought it was just an old custom one often finds in deeds. He regarded it as a gentlemanly agreement and was always willing to help the church if it had problems.

"I know he made a substantial contribution to mend the tower. The previous owner made a contribution but only after assurances that it was not a legal liability."

The vicar of Aston Cantwell and Wilmcote, the Rev Keith Harrison, said the church's east wall was bowed and, without urgent repairs, would collapse. "We are very relieved this has been resolved. We were unable to get grants from English Heritage because of the existing law. We were between a rock and a hard place."