Church of England claims ancient rights to the underworld

Abandoned Cornish mines near houses
Homes built alongside abandoned Cornish mines

A 2013 change in the Land Registration Act 2002 meant that all mineral rights must be logged with Land Registry or potentially be lost. In response, since 2010 the Church of England has officially registered ownership of land where it holds existing ‘mineral rights’ to underground resources. New research of Land Registry data by The Times shows that Church registrations accounted for around half of mineral rights registrations over that period.

The Church Commissioners manage nearly £8 billion of assets. A report produced two months ago by the Church’s investment body concluded that there was no Christian reason not to extract underground resources – provided the environment and local communities were protected. Although the Church now owns around 105,000 acres, the resources beneath as much as 585,000 acres could be affected.

Although the Church has said it has no intention of profiting from ‘fracking’, or hydraulic fracturing, it was amongst the extraction methods deemed acceptable. Like gold, silver and oil, the shale gas produced by fracking is owned by the Crown, so the Church cannot directly profit from its extraction, but profits could be made from claiming compensation from fracking companies drilling through its minerals.

In England and Wales, land was owned by the ‘lord of the manor’ before being converted to freehold from 1922. The Church owned 2.13 million acres in 1873 and, as former manorial owner, it is possible it may have retained the ownership right to minerals beneath the land, under ancient property law.

When a mineral rights application is made to Land Registry it will write to the registered surface property owner to warn that ownership of mineral deposits beneath the property has been sought.

In the case of the Church of England, the deposits are largely beneath land formerly owned by the Church, or owned under the feudal system which gives it the right to profit from the extraction of minerals. The Church of England may no longer own the land above ground, but where it has retained ownership of mineral rights it could profit from releasing the resources beneath it  – although it would require permission and may be required to compensate landowners.

The Crown has similarly caused upset in recent years as it, too, has acted on the law change. Land owned under the Inclosure Awards and Acts of the early 19th Century gave surface titles to various parties, but the Crown retained the rights to minerals ownership. Its manorial rights were previously protected as an ‘over-riding interest’ but this protection was removed in 2013.

The Duchy of Cornwall and the Duchy of Lancaster have exercised their own rights to mineral deposits by registering with Land Registry.

It has been suggested that the archaic rights could affect land and property values. However, mineral rights have always been owned under manorial rights so, although there can be no guarantee that extraction would not take place below a property, the Council of Mortgage Lenders has confirmed that it doesn’t consider the registration of mineral rights to be a significant factor.

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