Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Church hall closure sparks fresh fears over housing

THE future of Watlington church hall is in doubt once again after the building was closed last Friday.

THE future of Watlington church hall is in doubt once again after the building was closed last Friday.

Trustees of St Leonard’s Church said they had no alternative but to shut the hall after a structural engineer concluded that the roof was unsafe.

But Tim Horton, chairman of campaign group Watlington Church Hall Concern, said it was a “sad week for Watlington and Anglicanism”.

The parochial church council has been in talks with the Diocese of Oxford about possibly demolishing the hall and selling the land to pay for an extension to the church for several years.

During a site meeting earlier this summer, the diocese’s director of buildings noticed that there might be something wrong with the hall roof. He commissioned the structural engineer to produce a report which concluded that an original roof design fault meant the trusses were under- engineered, resulting in the roof slipping.

Churchwarden Mike Gardner said: “The hall has been there for 40 years and it has clearly come to the end of its design life. If the roof is not safe we cannot have people using the hall.”

He said there were no plans to demolish or repair the hall at this stage.

Mr Horton said: “Residents will be bemused that a 40-year-old design problem is identified just a short while before a planning application for housing is made.

“It remains as wrong today as ever to lose the hall and the open aspect of this area.”

The church council first proposed demolishing the hall to make way for up to five houses in 2008. Residents spoke out in favour of retaining the hall and adjacent land, which is in the town’s conservation area.

In 2010, the church council considered demolishing the building to replace it with a new rectory and a four- bedroom house but again faced opposition from residents.

In 2011, Mr Horton’s group was given up to six months to produce a viable business plan for the hall and a year to raise the money to buy it. Further talks took place last year after permission for a 20.5 sq m extension to the church was granted. However, no resolution was found.

Mr Horton, who is a parish councillor, said: “Since the church rejected a course of action to rebuild the hall and seek management with lay experience, those closely involved have developed plans and kept them close to their chests.

“The district council plan identifies this place as an important location in historic Watlington. We expect that and other planning guidance to be respected.”

Mr Gardner said the closure of the church had nothing to do with the church’s plans to sell the land.

“No decision has yet been made,” he said. Christopher Evans, rector of Watlington, said: “Our plans for the future have included the closure of the church hall — that is no secret — but I can completely deny that there is anything untoward about it.

“We have closed it because we have been told that the roof is unsafe. A professional engineer produced the report.

“We thought the hall might be closed in a year’s time and we planned to give 12 months’ notice and not to be able to give that notice is very unfortunate.”

Mr Evans said the church would write to the parish council in the next week detailing its latest plans.

Five local groups which regularly use the hall have been offered the use of the church as an alternative venue.

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