A VACANT village church could still become a community hub after councillors blocked plans to turn it into a house.

West Oxfordshire District Council’s uplands planning committee unanimously refused proposals to change the use of Freeland Methodist Church from a chapel to a dwelling last Monday.

The decision was praised by the Freeland Community Benefit Society (FCBS), which wants to transform the venue into a village hub, featuring a shop and a cafe.

Dozens of residents supported the FCBS’s plans and Alaa Al-Yousuf, the group’s co-vice chairman and district councillor for Freeland and Hanborough, hailed ‘a victory for common sense’.

Read again: Freeland launches village bus

He said: “It’s a great day for the people of Freeland and for members of the village hub committee.

“This is only the start, we don’t know what the next steps are going to be or how long it will take.”

The Wroslyn Road building closed in April 2017 and there are fears it could deteriorate if left unused.

In February 2018, the FCBS was granted planning permission to turn the church into a shop, cafe and ‘non-residential institution’.

But last November, Edgars planning consultancy submitted the proposals for a change of use to a dwelling on behalf of the venue’s owner, The Witney and Faringdon Methodist Circuit, prompting a protest against the application, organised by the FCBS.

Read again: Residents say church is 'hub not house'

Council officers recommended ‘with regret’ that the plans should be approved, as the proposals fell in line with the district’s local plan.

Planning officer, Joanna Lishman, said the council considered there to be ‘alternative accessible provision’ of other methodist churches, the nearest of which is almost 3km away in Long Hanborough.

At the meeting, Rose Westwood, superintendent of the circuit, said she ‘absolutely understood’ residents’ concerns and ‘would commend’ the community hub venture.

But the circuit is governed by the Charities Commission and is ‘duty bound’ to get ‘the best offer’ for the church, Ms Westwood explained.

Roger Faulkner, a Freeland resident and ex-superintendent minister of the circuit, called the church a ‘vital’ community asset as the nearby village hall is ‘oversubscribed’.

Read again: Community group pulls out of running number 11 bus service

He mentioned the ‘high degree of social isolation’ in the village, ‘exacerbated' by the imminent cancellation of the number 11 bus service.

Freeland Parish Council was among the objectors, with its chair, Peter Newell, saying there was an ‘urgent need’ for a community hub since the closure of the church and village shop, the latter 20 years ago.

The committee agreed with the parish council, including Freeland and Hanborough councillor, Merilyn Davies, who said: “This is the heart of Freeland. It’s absurd not to retain it for the community.”

Ms Westwood confirmed the circuit had not yet decided whether it would appeal.