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We need tax relief from the government if we’re going to preserve churches like St Bride’s

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Paul Finch’s letter from London: The improvement of our existing stock should take preference over new-build

The furore over charitable donations has struck a personal chord because I am chairing the ‘Inspire’ appeal to restore the tower and fabric of Christopher Wren’s St Bride’s church in Fleet Street.

Our task is not huge by the standards of many charity appeals, but we need a minimum of £2.4 million to put the church into good order, and to ensure that it does not have to close because of the risk of falling masonry.

St Bride’s has the tallest spire of any of Wren’s City of London churches, and sits on a site that has had a religious institution on it for 1,500 years. It is a layer cake of London history, with Wren’s structure likely to be the last now that the building is Grade I-listed.

George Osborne has already made our life more difficult by removing the 20 per cent VAT exemption for renovation work on listed buildings in his latest budget, further highlighting the madness of excusing brand new development this tax while penalising good husbandry of the existing.

This aspect of the budget has received surprisingly little criticism at the time, though the association representing the country’s thatchers is up in arms. Thatcherism arise!

The improvement of our existing stock should take preference over new-build. This is vital in terms of tax encouragement, at least from an energy point of view, as most existing buildings would not meet today’s efficiency standards. Proof that the government knows this to be the case has come from the post-budget announcement of plans that will force homeowners to bring the whole of their home up to today’s standards if they decide they need a new boiler, or want to build an extension or conservatory.

Victimising ordinary people trying to improve their homes is bound to have side effects, for example, people doing as much work as possible on the quiet. Cowboy builders will have a field day, as will Stasi-style snooper neighbours. Already the Daily Mail is up in arms and a tactical withdrawal looks likely, even though the principle of improving our existing stock, much of it pretty poor, is a sound one.

However, an all-stick-and-no-carrot approach will not endear the government or the green lobby to the six out of ten households in owner-occupation. Punishing self-help is an odd sort of politics. When it comes to listed buildings used for commercial purposes, making improvements 20 per cent more expensive overnight also seems perverse. It would be a good policy if your intention was to ensure building stock continued to perform really badly from an energy perspective. But then that is the case in relation to all non-listed buildings, where construction is penalised with a 20 per cent levy just for being old.

As for attacks on philanthropy, triggered because there are some people who make a point of avoiding paying any tax at all, it should be possible to deal with abuses of the system devised by clever tax lawyers by getting the cleverest to devise ways of making reasonable taxes unavoidable. Think of the simple minimum payment required from non-doms, for instance.

When it comes to looking after older buildings, it is surely time to equalise the VAT regime so the choice of new-build or renovation is not influenced by an arbitrary tax policy. The government claims its tax attack on listed buildings is to get rid of ‘an anomaly’. The real anomaly is perpetuating a system that discourages sensible reuse – and the consequent saving of unimaginable amounts of embodied energy.

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