Scotland’s churches are part of a long and proud heritage. They stand tall at the heart of every community, crafted from native stone and embellished with often stunningly beautiful architectural complexity.
However, times change, and buildings which were designed to accommodate congregations of hundreds, or even thousands, now struggle to attract and retain dwindling bands of regular worshippers.
This poses a dilemma for church authorities which, increasingly over recent years, have been forced into disposal programmes to rationalise the estate and to raise funding to maintain and restore remaining church buildings.
It also creates a serious challenge for surveyors who are tasked with valuation of buildings with a vast range of differing characteristics, often in the absence of discernible trends or comparable sales evidence.
The sale of church buildings is not new. Declining attendance has been at the heart of ecclesiastical concerns for many decades, but there is little doubt that the pace of disposals is accelerating.
But disposal has to be seen in the context of the historic scale of the church estate in Scotland, which runs into thousands of buildings.
New church provision ran at a frantic pace through the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. After the Great Disruption of 1843, the Free Church of Scotland alone built more than 700 new places of worship by 1847. The established church added more than 500 parishes between 1843 and 1909. Competition, naturally, led to oversupply.
That is the legacy now being dealt with. As attendances diminish, congregations in close proximity to each other may decide to amalgamate and sell off one of their churches to raise capital for the maintenance and repair of the remaining one.
Though our commercial department has compiled its own substantial body of evidence in this specialised arena, the remarkable range of buildings, disparity of styles and vagaries of location make like-for-like comparison uniquely difficult.
But while church buildings have their own issues – traditionally built from sandstone, pitched slate roofs, often listed – there are buyers out there. There is a growing trend of purchase by other faith groups who may see the option of an existing church as a cheaper alternative than building their own place of worship from scratch.
And many churches fall into the Class 10 category in the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) (Scotland) Order 1997, meaning that they are in the same use category as children’s nurseries, créches, libraries, meeting halls, exhibition halls and some education facilities.
Some obsolete churches have also been acquired by community groups which have secured funding and are attracted by good sized floorplates together with a suitable range of support accommodation.
In general terms, the more marketable church buildings tend to be located in urban areas, often benefitting from adequate parking provision and distinctive architectural features. Should the above criteria be met in affluent areas, developers can justify the cost of conversion to, for instance, flatted dwellings, subject to planning.
One such example would be the recent disposal of former traditional, Grade ‘B’ listed church premises on Great George Street in Glasgow’s West End, with DM Hall acting on behalf of London and Scottish Investments.
Interest levels were considerable, resulting in a closing date for offers. The successful buyer is presently creating 21 flatted dwellings within the original church building, with a further three new build units to be constructed on site.
The economics of conversion, however, may not add up in lower value areas – even if the church was similar – because the end values on completion would be significantly less attractive.
Church buildings occupying rural locations, with a lack of services, those surrounded by graveyard grounds or in a state of disrepair are often subjected to protracted marketing campaigns. Indeed, in a number of circumstances, some such properties are ultimately disposed of via the auction route.
So, while the number of properties coming to market is only likely to increase, it will become no easier to paint a picture of the market in general and surveyors will essentially have to continue to provide a bespoke valuation process in this specialised area.
Adam Jennings is a surveyor in the Glasgow North office of DM Hall Chartered Surveyors.
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