People from Devizes turned out in force today to support plans to turn St Mary’s Church into a performance and community venue despite a controversial decision to hold the appeal in Trowbridge.

Wiltshire Council turned down the proposal at a meeting in October on the grounds it would harm the Grade I listed building.

Government planning inspector Neil Pope said at the start of the hearing that he believed the main purpose was to decide if the benefits gained from the scheme outweighed any harm.

Backing for the project, which would include the addition of an open cloister, relocation of the vestry and rebuilding of a boundary wall, came from Devizes MP Claire Perry and the Bishop of Salisbury the Rt Rev Nicholas Hotam who both made written submissions.

Mrs Perry wrote: “I believe the development is sensitive to the historic fabric of St Mary’s and to the surrounding area. St Mary’s is a priceless building and it would be dreadful for it to fall into a further state of disrepair.”

The Bishop wrote: “The plan seeks to ensure the future of a church of architectural value by offering a necessary community venue for the arts and wider use. There is both need for such a development and a viable and sustainable way of meeting this need.”

At the moment the church does not have toilets, heating, a kitchen or changing rooms.

Under questioning from Mr Pope, Wiltshire Council's representatives at the appeal said they were not against the use of the church as a performance venue but said changes should be made to the internal structure of the church rather an extension.

Planning officer Mike Wilmott said the new additions resembled those for a primary school rather than a church.

But architect George Batterham said it would an outrage to make major changes to the inside of the historic church which dates from Norman times.

Canon Paul Richardson said that at the moment the church was only open for one hour once a week but under the new scheme it would be open every day even when an event was not being staged and visitors would be able to enjoy its architecture.

Gemma Brown, who has been involved in a staging  concerts in the church, told the inquiry they had been very successful but turning the building into a theatre had been a nightmare because of the lack of facilities.

The inspector’s decision will be made at a later date.