PLANS for a new multi-million pound visitor centre in Dorchester have taken a step forward after councillors approved a funding bid.

West Dorset District Council wants to see the historic Shire Hall, which includes the Old Crown Court and Cells, transformed into a major tourist attraction after the authority moves out of its Stratton House premises at the end of the year.

Members of the council’s executive have now backed a £1million bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund and agreed in principle to match the funding from its own resources if it is successful.

Discussions will also take place with Dorset County Museum with a view to the museum operating the visitor centre.

It had initially been hoped that the National Trust would take on the centre and develop the Grade I-listed building when the council moved to its new premises in Charles Street but the organisation pulled out and the council agreed to lead the project.

The Old Crown Court was the setting for the trial of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834 and author Thomas Hardy also sat there as a magistrate.

Director for environment Dr David Evans said that transforming the venue into a tourist attraction to be proud of had been a long- term ambition for the council.

He added that initial discussions had taken place with the team from the Heritage Lottery Fund regarding a potential bid and feedback had been positive.

Dr Evans said: “Whilst clearly we cannot be guaranteed success, it does look as if it’s worth investing in a bid.”

He added that if the first stage of the bid process is successful the council would be in a position to submit a more detailed bid for the second phase in December.

Council leader Robert Gould said: “It’s very encouraging, this has been a very long standing ambition of the council to find a secure future for this historic building, which is of international importance.

“It’s something I think is going to be a really exciting project for the future.”

The redevelopment of the Shire Hall will also see the Dorchester Tourist Information Centre relocated to the Shire Hall from its current premises in Antelope Walk.

As the plans for the hall move forward, the council will consult with the local community and interested groups to keep them informed and gather feedback.