A COWLEY Road church has been forced to padlock its gates after being plagued by drug dealers and anti-social behaviour in its grounds.

Father Philip Ritchie from St Mary and St John Church said the decision to block the entrances to the church grounds via Cowley Road, Magdalen Road and Leopold Street had been made after 'long consultation' with police and Oxford City Council.

He added: "This wasn't a decision we took lightly."

In a Facebook post to share the news with parishioners he wrote people selling drugs had become an ‘increasing problem’, adding: “Drug sellers, often on bicycles but sometimes parking outside our house and walking into the churchyard had a choice of five exits which meant it has been difficult to police.

“The churchyard is still open at the front for people to pray, reflect of just enjoy a bit of a break from urban life."

Mr Ritchie said although the church was a popular cut through for residents he had to put security as his 'number one concern' but that he hoped there would be a way to resolve the issue with the help of the community.

A meeting will be held tomorrow at 7pm at the church to talk about ways to ensure it is a ‘churchyard for all’.

A Thames Valley Police spokesman confirmed the force has been supporting St Mary St John Church in tackling 'long-standing' anti-social behaviour in the area and had been increasing visible patrols since the closure of the gates at the end of September.

He added: “Working in partnership with the church and the council, there are some short-term and long term measures being put in place to prevent ASB.

“The church are also putting bollards in place in the public car park and also looking into improving the lighting. However, these are the church’s decisions.”

City councillor Tom Hayes, executive board member for a safer and greener environment, said: “No churchyard should be plagued by drinks, drugs, discarded needles and anti-social behaviour.

“Residents, attendees of the church, and the church’s vicar have told me and council officers of their deep concerns about the churchyard.

“The city council considered a range of interventions to stop this – and other community spaces across the city – becoming drugs dens. We are pleased that the church has restricted access to the churchyard at night, and we plan to bring forward more interventions in the coming weeks."

He added: “Oxford City Council and Thames Valley Police are working together to tackle brazen drug dealing and drug use in Oxford; we believe that no one should have to put up with persistent and unchallenged drug dealing and use in their community.”