Saturday, 28 November 2020

Church’s future at risk after ‘no’ to development

THE future of Watlington’s parish church is uncertain after its redevelopment plans were refused permission.

THE future of Watlington’s parish church is uncertain after its redevelopment plans were refused permission.

St Leonard’s Church in Pyrton Lane wanted to demolish the hall next door and build a five-bedroom house and a new rectory in its place.

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

South Oxfordshire District Council’s planning committee turned down the application on the grounds that the development wouldn’t preserve or enhance the Watlington conservation area and would have an adverse impact on the setting of the grade II* listed church.

Councillors also said that the public benefit would not outweigh the downsides of the scheme.

The decision follows a long-running saga that has divided the community between those who say the development is not needed for a church with such a small congregation and supporters who say it would ensure the future of St Leonard’s.

Rev Christopher Evans, the rector of Watlington, said: “We were disappointed and surprised by the result and we’re looking now to consider our next steps.

“The situation is as it was before — that our proposals are designed to secure the future of St Leonard’s Church, so we’re disappointed that the church continues to be at risk.”

Tim Horton, of pressure group Watlington Church Hall Concern, said: “We want to say thank-you to the committee, which really showed it was prepared to examine all the material very closely, including the financial matters.

“My committee is delighted that the plan has been refused but sad at the same time that there hasn’t been deep reflection yet at the church level or the diocese level.

“There’s so much that can be achieved by forgetting the assumptions made seven years ago and which were always inappropriate. In 2016 surely people must question whether the achievement of a new kitchen and toilets thrust through the wall of a medieval church can be worth spending nearly half a million pounds on.

“Obviously, everyone wants the church to have a prosperous period. It would have been better achieved if they had sustained the church hall and not allowed that to go into dilapidation.

“Now a hall would be one of those things that provided a real stimulus for the community and the church if it was located nearby. It need not be run by the church.

“My committee has resolved to be in touch with the applicant, which is the diocese under a new bishop, as well as those locally who cut off dialogue with us a year or so ago.”

The church had argued that it was struggling to meet its day-to-day running costs.

Jeremy Flawn, of Impact Planning Services, wrote to Paul Lucas, the council’s senior planning officer, saying: “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. 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.”

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

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