By Alex Cosgrave
WESTMINSTER'S commitment to provide a school place for every Catholic child in the diocese by the early 1980s is the major cause of its present crippling £6 million debt.
Cardinal Hume pointed out in his recent letter to all parish priests explaining the financial crisis that the diocese embarked on a large-scale building programme in the early 1960s when interest rates were low and annual inflation rates of 15 per cent Inconceivable.
Since 1966, 44 new primary schools have been built in the diocese and 10 have been rebuilt. Eight new secondary schools have been built, six have been rebuilt, and 11 have been substantially enlarged — In many cases doubled in size.
Westminster now has 178 maintained primary schools offering 46,210 places for Catholic children and 53 maintained secondary schools with 37,247 places. This represents an increase of nearly 20,000 Catholic school places in the last ten years. During this period the cost of providing school places has soared. In 1966 the cost of a primary school place, excluding the cost of purchasing land, was approximately £230. Last year the same place would have cost more than £600.
Similarly, the cost of a secondary school place has risen from about £400 in 1966 to a 1976 level of £1,300.
In the same period the cost of building land for schools has also more than doubled.
This large-scale building programme has to date largely been financed by grants from the Department of Education and Science, contributions to the School Fund from the parishes and religious orders, the deficit being made up by diocesan borrowing. In 1975 alone the gross cost of the building programme exceeded £3 million. More than £2 million of this was contributed by the Department of Education, who provide an 85 per cent grant towards the cost of schools built with (heir approval.
The cost to the diocese, however, was still in the region of £460,000.
The same expenditure for 1976 is estimated at more than £650,000, and commitments for 1977 already exceed £480,000. In addition the diocese has to pay interest on loans already incurred for the purpose of building schools.
This problem has undoubtedly been compounded by "slow payment" policies adopted by bodies that owe the diocese money. The Department of Education, for example, owes Westminster in the region of £1 million.
Cardinal Hume also pointed out in his letter that income to the diocese had not kept pace with this increased expenditure. The Schools Fund, which is collected through a levy made on the parishes, has consistently fallen short of its target.
In 1970, for example, the fund had a shortfall of £40,000, while last year it fell
approximately £60,000 short of its £600,000 target. At its current level, therefore, the fund barely raises enough money to cover interest repayments on diocesan loans.
Part of this shortfall may be attributed to an increase in the levy on parishes made in 1973, but questions will now obviously be asked as to whether Catholic parents are as committed as was originally thought to the provision of Catholic schools.
Questions, too, will undoubtedly be asked as to why the diocese went ahead with such an extensive building programme when interest rates were soaring and no increase in income was foreseeable.
At a meeting in 1971 of the Council of Administration, which was then the main body responsible for advising Cardinal Heenan on diocesan finance, it was pointed out that expenditure on schools was three times greater than on all other pastoral needs put together, and that the need to examine the financial and pastoral implications of such a policy was imperative.
Questions were also raised as to how the falling Catholic birthrate and the introduction of comprehensive schools would affect Catholic schools.
Since 1971 the balance of expenditure has altered little. The diocese made general grants, and grants to special projects, of more than £100,000 in 1975, but with the exception of administrative costs the rest of the diocesan expenditure appears to he entirely related to schools.
Cardinal Hume has now initiated a widespread consultation Oh how the Westminster debt might more effectively be tackled.
Mgr Ralph Brown, the Vicar-General of the diocese, who will bear the major burden of reorganising Westminster's finances, hopes to incorporate the results of this consultation in a package of financial measures expected to be announced next month.
Whether this package will include largescale sales of diocesan property or schemes for increasing revenue from the parishes is not yet known. See Letters Page 5