Villagers are fighting to save a former school turned community centre at risk of closure, amid plans that could see the site sold off.

A petition to save the Startforth Community Centre has garnered 1,200 signatures, with the venue branded a ‘vital’ community asset by villagers angry at the prospect of the site being closed.

The community centre was previously a Church of England school in the village, near Barnard Castle, until it closed in 2016. Maintained by dedicated volunteers, it now provides a weekly lunch club, daily nursery, community cafe, forest school and much more.

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But these activities could be made homeless in a village with no pub, shop, or post office, if the Leeds Diocese, which has a say in the funding of the building, decides to sell up.

The Diocese plans to form a new trust, run from Leeds, which would take ownership of the buildings. The new trusts usually come as a precursor to buildings being sold off.

The Echo understands that the Diocese believes the money it puts into the centre should be used on the education of children in the village, but as there is now so school there it should go elsewhere.

A petition was handed in to the Department of Education on Monday (January 9) signed by more than 1,200 locals wanting to save the building.

Reverend David Tomlinson, Rector of Lower Teesdale, said: “Closing the centre would risk taking the heart out of the community.

"While the diocese is acting in the best interests of their education budget they are not acting in the best interests of the local community. It's run by community volunteers for the community and it's a tragedy the church seems to have forgotten that.

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“There are no other palces in the vilage to hold the activities we do, the only other building is the church which is way too small, has fixed pews and no kitchen.

"We're hopeful the Diocese will work with us to allow us to keep using the building, either by selling us their share or renting it back to us.”

In November 2016 The Northern Echo reported how the Church of England Primary School which previously used the building closed its doors for the final time a year before it was due to celebrate its 150th anniversary.

Durham County Council’s cabinet agreed to close the school amid falling pupil numbers and a “requires improvement” Ofsted rating.

Campaigners who fought back in 2016 to save the school, which taught about 25 pupils, branded the decision to close it as short-sighted at the time.

A spoeksperson for the Anglican Diocese of Leeds told The Northern Echo: "The Anglican Diocese of Leeds is committed to serving the needs of all its parishes.

"Issues surrounding the future of Startforth Morritt Primary School are complex and the diocese is working with the Department for Education to ensure the original charitable purpose of the Trust is upheld.

"The terms of the trust are very narrow and the community activities, nursery and forest school do not fall within the scope of the trust. We realise this is frustrating for all involved.

"However, there is a duty to comply with charity law and we are committed to working closely with the current trustees to ensure the best outcome in line with those obligations is achieved."

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