CIVIC chiefs have approved a major repair project that aims to secure the future of a New Forest facility used by 1,400 people a week.

Campaigners have been given permission to refurbish Avonway Community Centre in Fordingbridge by removing its Victorian chimneys and replacing the natural roof slates with a cheaper alternative.

Avonway supporters had warned that the centre could close and fall into disrepair if the application were rejected.

A £70,000 fundraising appeal has been launched to finance the work, which aims to repair the building's leaky roof and keep the facility watertight.

Daily Echo:

Avonway is part of the first school to be built on the site in 1835 and is viewed as a vital part of Fordingbridge Conservation Area.

The restoration project has been given the go-ahead by New Forest District Council (NFDC).

A report by council planning officers says: "The buildings are clearly well used, with up to 47 community groups making use of the facilities available. It therefore represents an important community asset offering a range of services and facilities."

Fordingbridge Town Council supported the application.

In a letter to NFDC it said: "We have considered carefully the balance between the architectural heritage value of the Avonway building and its crucial function as the town's community centre. In our view any harm from these proposals to the architectural heritage is insignificant.

"We believe the extra cost of using natural slate would threaten the viability of the community association."

Daily Echo:

The NFDC report says the council's heritage officer felt that removing the chimneys and re-roofing the building using non-natural slates would fail to preserve the character of the conservation area.

But it points out that Avonway is not a listed building and has been altered on several occasions.

It also highlights fears that the cost of preserving the building's current appearance would result in it becoming unviable, putting it at risk of closure.

"As the building is not listed there would be no powers to serve repair and urgent works notices to ensure the fabric of the building remains watertight and does not fall into disrepair," says the report.

"This scenario would have a far greater and more damaging impact of the character and appearance of the conservation area than the proposed works."

The fundraising campaign was launched five months ago and has already netted more than £5,000.

Avonway's chairman, Chris Calder, said: “It's a big expensive roof and we’d still like more, so if you value Avonway and haven’t yet contributed please do so. Every little helps.”