Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Church hall redevelopment plan held up by opposition

PLANS to demolish Watlington church hall and build two new houses in its place hang in

PLANS to demolish Watlington church hall and build two new houses in its place hang in the balance.

An application by St Leonard’s Church was considered by South Oxfordshire District Council’s planning committee last week but members failed to reach a decision, despite an officer recommendation for approval, following a presentation by campaigners opposed to the development.

Instead they opted to make a site visit before making a final decision.

The church wants to replace the hall in Pyrton Lane with a five-bedroom house and new rectory. The new house and existing rectory in Hill Road would then be sold to pay for an extension to the church.

The church says the development is essential in order to secure its future.

The issue has divided the town, causing months of delays due to revisions of the plans.

In a report to the committee, planning officer Paul Lucas said the hall was not an “essential community facility” and its loss “would not detract from the public, environmental or ecological value of contiguous areas of open space”.

The development would cause “less than substantial harm” to the character and appearance of the Watlington conservation area and would preserve the setting of the Grade II* listed building and safeguard important landscape features.

The committee meeting on Wednesday last week was addressed by Watlington Church Hall Concern, a pressure group formed more than five years ago following a petition oppposed to development of the site which was signed by more than 200 people.

Tim Horton, chairman of the group, said Mr Lucas’s analysis was “deficient” in several ways but even he had conceded that the new houses would do some harm to the conservation area. He said that the scale and bulk of the development would make any attempts to stop more building in the future difficult, if not impossible.

“This gem of openness in the town will be a memory,” said Mr Horton.

“If a conservation policy means anything, it must apply most forcefully where there is a new build on what is a site of common recreation, which will change the character of the location in a way which is irreversible.

“The proposals over the years have always been too big and ambitious for the space that is available. It essentially crops the car park and shoehorns two big houses and garages into a small space.

“Officers argue that public benefit is secured by the channelling of some money towards the church building itself. Yet this is not the only means of securing funds for the Anglican church in the community.

“Additionally, it is wholly disproportionate to insert some £2million worth of building to ‘release’ only some 10 per cent of that sum towards a ‘public benefit’.” Mr Horton claimed the officer’s analysis of the social contribution made by the church hall was wrong. He said the building was used daily until the plans were drawn up and even as users looked for other premises the hall “retained favour”.

Mr Horton added: “An option the church had six years ago — and still has — is to achieve change in the church but to fulfil its wider mission, working with the community of the Watlington area to rebuild a hall, especially for young people.”

Rev Christopher Evans, the rector of Watlington, told the Henley Standard: “The church welcomes the decision of the planning committee to visit the church hall site. In the meantime, we will be rebutting the presentations of Tim Horton.”

Watlington Parish Council has objected to two sets of plans. The original plans received 25 letters of objection and the same number in support, while the revised scheme resulted in nine objections and 15 letters of support.

The church says the sustainability of St Leonard’s relies on the development as it costs £1,200 a week to keep the building open. Planning permission for the £150,000 church extension was granted in 2012.

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