Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Residents still divided over demolition of church hall

PLANS to demolish Watlington’s church hall and build two new houses have once again divided the

PLANS to demolish Watlington’s church hall and build two new houses have once again divided the community.

Critics say the development is not needed while residents who support it say it is vital to ensure the future of St Leonard’s Church.

The church wants to replace the hall in Pyrton Lane with a five-bedroom house and a new rectory.

The new house and existing rectory in Hill Road would then be sold to pay for an extension to the church.

A decision on the church’s planning application was deferred by South Oxfordshire District Council’s planning committee in March after members asked for further financial information.

Officers had recommended approval subject to a legal agreement that money generated from the development would be spent on the upkeep and improvement of the church.

The financial data has now been provided in a letter from Jeremy Flawn, of Impact Planning Services, to Paul Lucas, the council senior planning officer.

However, the letter has been redacted so that the cost of the proposed development and the likely profit have not been made public.

Peter and Janet Logan, who live in Pyrton Lane, have accused the church of being “secretive” about the finances. The couple said: “The church and the adjacent green space are community assets and one would expect that all relevant considerations would be made available publicly.

“We dispute the assertion that significant sums need to be expended to make the church building fit for the proposed extended usage.

“It is now several years since the church hall fell into disuse and since that time the usage of the church has already been extended to include a wide variety of secular uses, including wedding parties, concerts, recitals, children’s playgroups and meetings.

“It has been proven therefore that the basis of the proposition to sell off the church hall green space to finance very expensive alterations to the church is no longer valid, if it ever was.”

Jill and John Burslem, who also live in Pyrton Lane, said: “It is difficult to understand why this planning application, which has been debated for more than two years now, is still under discussion, particularly considering the debate seems to be with the church and the community it belongs to/serves.

“The church currently has approximately 100 members of which, on average, 50 attend each week. Why does the church feel the need to build two five-bedroom houses to satisfy the needs of so few?”

Tim Horton, of pressure group Watlington Church Hall Concern, claimed that not revealing the financial detail was a tactic being used by the church to advance its cause.

But Nicholas Greaves, of Ingham Lane, said: “The applicant has bent over backwards to meet as many as possible of some of the nit-picking and totally unreasonable objections from a pressure group determined to prevent any development of the site.

“I dread to think what this might have cost the applicant in professional fees. If the site had been owned by a developer, the latter would have gone to appeal and probably won at a much earlier date for a larger and less modest scheme.

“Of course consent must be granted forthwith or the council will risk losing an appeal which would inevitably follow and then presumably have to bear the costs.”

Val Kearney, of High Street, said: “This is such a good plan and will improve what is currently a tatty corner of our churchyard space.

“The funds received will help us to move forward with our plans to update our church so it is able to be used by our community for many more events.”

Desmond Kearney said: “I find it amazing that it has taken this length of time to approve careful and sensitive plans to utilise the church’s land in the church’s and the town’s best interests.

“A handful of aggressive activists have cost the church many thousands of pounds as they scratched around looking for any spurious reasons to frustrate a fair and decent plan put forward by the church.”

In his letter, Mr Flawn said the church was struggling to meet its day-to-day running costs.

He wrote: “The scale of the problems faced by St Leonard’s Church can only be understood in the context of being a large church set in a small community, with a membership of about 100 people, most of whom are elderly and only half of whom are regular worshippers.

“In 2013 the running costs for the church amounted to £1,113 per week. The audited accounts for 2015 show that the running costs have now risen to £1,687 per week.

“Yet in 2015 the annual church fete — the main fundraising event of the year — had to be cancelled because of a lack of volunteers.

“This illustrates the extent to which the church is struggling with too few people and too little income and why during the last two years it has not been feasible to divert volunteers away from such basic fundraising towards mounting a major campaign to raise the match funding required by grant-making bodies.

“It also demonstrates how crucial it is to adapt the church building for multi-purpose use, enabling it to function in ways that can generate more income and attract more supporters.”

Planning permission for the £150,000 church extension was granted in 2012.

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