Fresh setback for church hall hopes

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Controversial conversion plans for Garstang’s crumbling St Thomas’s Church hall have descended into even more of an unholy mess after being unanimously rejected by Wyre Council.

The decision has shocked church officials, who were praying the scheme to convert the hall into four homes and for the building of a separate property on church land next to Th’Owd Tithe Barn would be approved.

Approval would have meant the site could be sold off to developers, raising hundreds of thousands of pounds to kick start completion of the partially completed new hall near the vicarage.

The church authorities have faced criticism for starting work on the new hall before raising cash by selling off the old hall site.

The owners of Th’Owd Tithe Barn, Mitchells of Lancaster, had voiced fears the project, which involved using some land the pub uses for parking, could lead to closure of the hostelry.

Churchgoers in favour of the scheme launched a letter-writing campaign in advance of the Wyre planning meeting.

Councillors were worried on two points – noise from ventilation/ extractor fans at the pub affecting residents of the proposed new homes and highway safety issues.

The debate began at Wyre Civic Centre after planning officer Lydia Harper told councillors the church had that day (last Wednesday) revealed details of a last minute draft deal with the brewery, in which the Mitchells would improve extraction and air conditioning.

Church planning agent Peter Gilkes urged the council to recognise the intended deal as part of planning conditions.

St Thomas’s vicar the Rev Stephen Grey spoke of the difficulties the church had faced over the hall saga, describing it as a case of “blood, sweat and tears”.

He added: “The redevelopment is not because we want to become property magnates, but simply so we can receive the funding needed.”

Several councillors, including planning chairman Coun David Henderson, were unhappy with the request to incorporate the church’s deal as part of any planning conditions.

And, in another unexpected move, councillors were highly critical of the county highways department for withdrawing earlier objections to the scheme on safety grounds.

County road experts had initially been worried about access issues, but changed their minds after amendments to the plans.

However, Wyre councillors insisted that the highway objections still applied to the busy road near Kepple Lane canal bridge.

Among those voicing concern was Coun Lady Dulcie Atkins who expressed fears about the likely traffic problems on Church Street and parking problems at The Moorings.

Coun David Williams, who lives close to the hall, said the U-turn by the county highways engineer showed their “indifference” adding “The volume of traffic there has increased by 100% in the past five years.”

Coun Paul Moon said despite amendments sight lines on Church Street would still be affected.

Coun Ron Greenhough added: “The church has the right intentions but I do not feel this is the right application.”

A bid by Coun Ron Shewan for the issue to be deferred failed to find any support.

Commenting on the decision after the meeting Rev Grey said: ““Naturally we are disappointed but not disheartened.

“We’ll take a little bit of time now to reflect and consider our options moving forward.

“Securing the planning permission would have helped towards building the new church hall, which has always been a long term project that would be substantially funded by the sale of the old hall.

“We are confident we will get there. Indeed the Church is united in its faith and belief that the whole community of Garstang can benefit enormously from the new church hall. Can I take this opportunity to thank so many people for their love, support and prayers at this time.”