RESIDENTS of a village have accused church leaders of purposely inflating the repair costs of an historic parish church to force its closure so that it could be put up for sale.

Councillors in Middleton St George, near Darlington, say they are angry about the ‘huge discrepancies’ in the original £800,000 repair bill for St Laurence’s Church and a new structural report, which appears to show a £300,000 estimate.

The Diocese of Durham and the Church Commissioners have rejected the claims and said the villagers are not comparing ‘like with like’ when looking at different structural reports and estimates.

St Laurence’s Church, a listed building, was closed by the Church Commissioners earlier this year after a four year campaign by local residents to save it, on the grounds that it was in poor condition and would cost too much to repair.

Councillors Doris Jones and Steve York, ward members for Middleton St George, said the figure for repairs given by the church in 2008 was £824,359, which would have brought the building back to a fully safe and working parish church.

However, a new structural report, prepared as part of a package of information for the sale of the church, now estimates the repairs bill at around £300,000.

In response to the claims, The Venerable Nick Barker, Archdeacon of Auckland said: “I am aware that some members of the community have voiced concerns that the recent survey identifies a figure of circa £300,000.

“History shows that there would still be considerable structural risk to the building, and experience shows that building costs often escalate.

"This figure of £300,000 and that of £800,000 which appeared in an earlier architectural estimate are clearly not comparing like for like."

Councillors Jones and York said the village feels deceived by the actions of church and have written to the Bishop of Durham, Justin Welby, who will shortly take up his position as Archbishop of Canterbury, to ask for an explanation.

Coun Jones said: “There was no desire to save the building whatsoever, I just feel we’ve all been hoodwinked on this.

“They are the ones not comparing apples with apples, and I’m pretty flabbergasted they can get away with this.”

The Archdeacon of Auckland, Mr Barker has committed to holding a public consultation on the future of the building and added: “Any objections will once again be heard and taken into consideration before any decision about the future of the building is made.”