PLANS to convert Dorchester's Old Crown Court and Cells into a major visitor attraction have been approved.

West Dorset District Council is currently in the process of securing funding to transform the county town's Old Shire Hall into a visitor attraction celebrating the building's rich history including the Tolpuddle Martyrs trial of 1834.

The council's development control committee considered a planning application that will include educational facilities, a cafe and the relocated Dorchester Tourist Information Centre.

The application also included plans for two flats on the second floor above the Shire Hall.

Planning officer David Hodges said that the scheme would involve 'very limited' external alterations to the grade one listed building.

Shire Hall project engineer Rosie Dilke added: “The proposal will hopefully create a really popular attraction for the historic Old Crown Court and Cells.

“It will make it more accessible for everyone to see where the Tolpuddle Martyrs were tried.”

She said that she hoped incorporating the Tourist Information Centre into the Old Shire Hall building would also help to increase footfall to the site.

Councillors were told the scheme has been supported by English Heritage, the Dorchester Civic Society, the TUC, Dorset County Museum, Dorchester Arts and the Thomas Hardy Society.

Although they raised some concerns over the access to the flats above the hall, committee members agreed to approve the planning application.

Cllr Robin Potter said: “I'm very much in favour of the scheme.”

The Secretary of State will now consider whether to approve listed building consent for the scheme.

The committee also considered plans to convert part of the former West Dorset District Council offices site at Stratton House along Glyde Path Road and Colliton Street back into their original state as dwellings.

The scheme members considered was for nine houses and one flat.

Mr Hodges said: “There are very limited changes needed to be made to the properties to turn them into dwellings.”

The committee heard from local residents who had concerns over the impact of developing the site on parking for existing residents in the surrounding area.

Cllr Stella Jones added that, while she had no problems with the application itself, she was disappointed that an overall masterplan for the Stratton House site had not been put forward.

Members were told that indicative plans for the rest of the Stratton House campus included 16 flats and two commercial units in the main building, an office space and five further houses.

Mr Hodges added: “Our preference would be to see a comprehensive scheme but my view is we are not in a position to insist on it and if we are presented with an application as we have been, we have to assess it on its merits.”

The committee agreed to approve the application subject to conditions.