WEST Dorset District Council is to bear the costs of converting Dorchester’s old crown court and cells into a visitor attraction.

A meeting of the council’s executive committee was told that due to the recession the National Trust had ‘reconsidered’ its position following indications it could be looking to take on an attraction in the Shire Hall at Stratton House.

Members of the committee have now agreed to progress with plans for the authority to take on the conversion, which could cost nearly £2million.

Director for environment David Evans told members that the authority had a long-standing ambition to see the old crown court and cells ‘brought forward as a heritage attraction’.

He said ‘positive’ discussions had taken place with the trust with a view to the organisation acquiring the facility.

However, Mr Evans said the position had changed, adding: “Because of the state of the economy the trust is not in a position to take things further.”

Mr Evans said as a result officers had considered four options for the hall and were recommending that the council take on responsibility for the conversion and operates it as a heritage attraction.

He said the committee was being asked to support the principle of taking on responsibility for the conversion and an allocation of up to £83,000 to cover the costs of progressing the project.

He said the next stage would also involve producing a more accurate estimate for the costs of the conversion, however a report considered by members suggested the figure could be between £1.47million and £1.84million.

The recommendations, which were approved by the committee, also involve relocating the Dorchester Tourist Information Centre into the Shire Hall from its current base in Antelope Walk.

Council leader Robert Gould said the cost must be considered within the context of the income from the attraction.

He said: “It’s an investment in the future and will bring significant economic benefits for the area.”

Councillor Stella Jones stressed the importance of getting it right.

She said: “Whatever we do has to be of the very highest quality.”

Coun Alistair Chisholm, who is also town crier for Dorchester, welcomed any decision that would see the old crown court and cells made available to the public as a quality attraction.

He said: “It could become a very important part of the county town’s future and join the many other varied treasures that it offers.”