CAMPAIGNERS have been left devastated after a suspected arson attack saw plans for a new community centre go up in smoke.

About 40 firefighters tackled a blaze at the Dean Court Social Club in Oxford early yesterday morning.

It left the building gutted and hopes of a new centre, which would have been home to toddler groups, swap shops, and other activities, in tatters.

The building, in Pinnocks Way, has been empty since May 2010, but the community was given the go-ahead for the plans last week.

Priscilla Waugh, the vice-chairman of a working group set up for the new centre, said: “I find it the most depressing state of affairs. We have been working so hard to get this project up and running.”

The residents were given permission to lease the building from Vale of White Horse District Council only last Thursday.

Plans had been already drawn up by architects to create a centre at the “heart of the community”.

And the group had applied for funding from Oxfordshire County Council to get the project open later this year.

District councillor Judy Roberts said: “I couldn’t believe it when I heard the news. From what we can see, the building may have to be demolished.

“After last Thursday, we had got to the point when I thought we could finally get started, and now this.”

Ms Waugh added: “It is just so sad. I was so excited over the weekend when I heard the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra might be interested in playing a concert for our grand opening.

“I planned to show them the building on Tuesday. It was such an exciting project.

“To give kids on this estate the chance to hear music from a world-class orchestra isn’t something that happens every day. We were confident it could become an iconic building and something we could be proud of.”

Police and fire officers were last night investigating the cause of the fire. It is being treated as suspicious.

The building was used as a social club from July 2006 when a group of residents took over and renovated the building. But volunteers agreed to close it in May 2010 when their public liability insurance ran out and they were unable to get new cover. It has stood empty ever since.

Ruth Hettler, 30, from Pinnocks Way, said: “This is obviously devastating, but I believe there is some hope.

“We are utterly committed to seeing this community building happen, and maybe it takes an event like this for people to rally round.

“I am confident we shall see the building this community needs rise out of the ashes.”