Saturday, 12 June 2021

Church to appeal housing rejection

A CHURCH in Watlington is to appeal after its redevelopment scheme was refused planning permission.

St Leonard’s Church in Pyrton Lane wants 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 in September 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.

But this week the church announced it is to appeal to the Planning Inspectorate, saying councillors had gone against the advice of their own planning officers and statutory bodies.

In a statement, it said: “The church had hoped that this small development would fund the installation of modern, accessible facilities, so that Watlington’s listed medieval building could be used for a wider range of community events and activities.

“After a considerable delay, the district council published its reasons for rejection: adverse impact on the church and conservation area and insufficient public benefit gained.

“This appeared to differ from the discussion held at the meeting and summarised in its minutes. It also directly contradicted the expert opinions of the relevant statutory bodies, groups like Historic England and the County Archaeological Service.”

Rev Angie Paterson, chairwoman of Watlington Church Council during the interregnum, said: “This beautiful building has huge potential for serving the needs of people in our corner of Oxfordshire.

“It’s the biggest community space in the area, with excellent acoustics for concerts, plays and talks, and it’s a perfect setting for exhibitions and celebrations.”

Churchwarden Jon Barton called the council’s decision puzzling.

He said: “By just one vote, the committee rejected the advice of the professional planning officers involved and of the statutory national heritage and conservation bodies they’d consulted.

“That was despite support from the majority of the local people who had submitted comments to the council.”

The decision last year 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 former rector of Watlington who has since retired, said the decision meant an uncertain future for the church.

Tim Horton, of pressure group Watlington Church Hall Concern, said: “We are well prepared to support the local view. It is crazy, especially in the light of the hundreds of new houses the town expects on its west and north sides, to reduce open areas of attractiveness in the old town. A church does not substitute for a cost-efficient hall that local people can easily hire.”

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