by Steve Coleman

Good news! As from this month, VAT is once again reclaimable on almost all work on bells, bell installations and bell ropes. It’s big money and it’s easy to get. So even if you hate finance and form filling, please don’t miss out.

All the same, since absolutely nothing about VAT is ever simple, here are the ifs and buts of it all.

The basics of the scheme

And put simply, the VAT, once paid, can be claimed from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport under the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme. It can’t be claimed from HMRC – or simply not charged by the contractor – because of EU rules. Full information and application forms can be found at

The first requirement

And the first requirement is that your church is a listed building. That means it must be listed with English Heritage, CADW, Historic Scotland or the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. Most churches with bells are listed buildings but not absolutely all. Your churchwardens should know if yours is, but if they don’t, you can check with the particular listing authority that deals with your part of the UK. All the listing authorities but CADW can now be checked on-line.

The second requirement

The second requirement is that your church is – and I quote – a building where the sole or main use is as a place of public religious worship, and it holds at least six publicly advertised services a year.

Once again, the great majority of bell towers are in churches that easily meet these requirements because using part of the church for choir practices, church meetings, vestries, storage, socials, etc, don’t count against the sole or main use requirement. Only using some of the building as permanent residential accommodation – or as permanent commercial premises – causes a problem.

But see later if your church is redundant or your tower is detached.

What is eligible

And here’s the best bit. Just about all significant bell-related expenditure incurred on or after 1 October 2013 is eligible. That’s expenditure on rehanging, augmentations, frame repairs, fittings repairs and replacements, quarter turning, new bells that replace old bells, new bells where there were none before, welding cracked bells, retuning bells for any reason at all, and bell ropes.

Don’t be misled about this. The current arrangements are significantly different to the old arrangements. VAT has changed too. Whatever you knew before is probably out of date now. I’ve checked with the Scheme Officers and they’ve confirmed that all the above expenditure is now eligible. Of course, things may change in the future, but that’s how they are at the moment.

If work in your own tower started before 1st October but wasn’t completed until after, only the appropriate proportion of the expenditure will be eligible no matter when the invoice is issued.

And architects, surveyors, engineers and bat inspectors fees incurred after 1st October, are eligible too.

A registered contractor

Be careful, though, because materials purchased for DIY work are NOT eligible. The materials MUST be supplied – and invoiced – as part of work being done by a VAT registered contractor. For most major work that will be no problem.

The only exception is bell ropes. The Scheme Officers have accepted that they need only be supplied by a VAT registered supplier. You can put them on.

Frame work

Please note, though, that frame work has always been eligible, so if you’ve had frame work done in the past year, you can claim now. And you can do that even though non-frame work is included on the invoice. There’s a widespread misconception about this.

The payer

And when it comes to paying, the PCC – NOT the “Tower Fund” – must contract and pay for any work or bell ropes. So if you have a “tower fund” that’s separate from the PCC and that normally buys the ropes, you won’t benefit. To get the VAT back, the fund must give the money to the PCC, and the PCC must then use it to buy the ropes.

The time limits

But watch out for the time limit. No claim can be made in respect of an invoice that’s more than a year old.

The claim limits

And when it comes to the claim limits, things can get really tricky, so I recommend a damp towel round the head when you discuss this with your church treasurer.

First, invoices for all sorts of work can be bundled together into one claim. So bell ropes, organ repairs and roof works can make up a single claim.

And it’s normally best if they do because no claim can be made for payments that total less than £500 before VAT. Worse, only one claim of between £500 and £1,000 can be made in any twelve month period.

And that means there’s a very real danger of your parish missing out on its maximum repayments if you and your church treasurer don’t think your past and projected expenditure through very carefully together before claiming.

But you can make as many claims as you like for bundles of invoices that total £1,000 or over.

And if you need to read those last four paragraphs several times, I fully understand.

Funding limits

And if that weren’t bad enough, the Scheme has an overall funding limit of £42 million per year for the duration of this parliament. And that £42 million includes the costs of administration.

To date, all eligible claims have been met in full, but the transitional arrangements in relation to the zero rating of certain church projects have almost certainly affected this. So as those transitional arrangements run out, the eligible claims may be only partially met.

So the moral is, put your claim in as soon as is sensibly possible.

Grants and exemptions

And not surprisingly, you can’t get paid twice by the Government for the same outlay. So you can’t claim VAT back if it shouldn’t have been charged it in the first place, and you can’t claim it back if it’s already been covered by a government grant. That shouldn’t normally be a problem with regard to bell work, but it’s best to know.

Redundant churches

If you look after a ring of bells in a redundant church, you can get the VAT back even though the church doesn’t hold six services a year as long as the church is owned by, or vested in, one of the appropriate organisations.

Detached towers

If your bells are in a detached tower, you need to be very careful. If you do nothing but ring there, no expenditure will be eligible because six services aren’t held in that building every year. The fact that six services are held in the church won’t help you at all, and any claim the church treasurer makes for bell expenditure will be fraudulent.

BUT it’s clear to us Church of England people that the detached tower is used wholly or mainly for public religious worship just as the church is. So the PCC need to ensure that regular and well publicised services are held in the tower.

One Evensong a month, publicly advertised – preferably in local newspapers as well as in the parish magazine – will do admirably. Indeed, if they are advertised properly, they’ll probably result in an increase in the congregation, so everyone will be happy.

And lastly

And lastly, you may well have to help out your church treasurer with all this. Many church treasurers only take on the job because no one else will, and their financial knowledge and expertise is necessarily limited. So don’t leave them to stew on their own. You probably now know so much about the Scheme, you can help them get back thousands of pounds of other VAT as well.


BB BellBoard
Central Council of Church Bell Ringers