COUNCILLORS unanimously approved more than £550,000 of funding for the Shire Hall project which they say will 'put Dorchester on the map'.

Work is currently underway to convert the county town’s Old Shire Hall into a historic court house attraction celebrating the building’s history including the Tolpuddle Martyrs trail of 1834.

At a meeting of West Dorset District Council's strategy committee, councillors were asked to approve £347,000 to cover any capital costs not met by funding bids. A further £236,000 was also requested for the Shire Hall Dorchester Trust (SHDT) to fund future maintenance costs.

Project engineer Rosie Dilke urged councillors to provide the funding as a 'contingency' to ensure completion in the event that other funding applications are unsuccessful.

Ms Dilke told councillors that the money will ensure "Shire Hall can open on time for spring 2018 with a robust business plan in place for the next 25 years.

"Tenders received for the main works contract were higher than the original estimates made in 2013, and that this was due to a combination of deterioration of the building in the intervening three years and discoveries from additional survey work carried out as part of the detailed design process.

"This has created a situation where, in order to deliver the project on time for opening in 2018, a contingency of 'last resort' is required."

It is anticipated that all building work will be completed by December when work will be passed to the SHDT to train volunteers, stock the shop, and install the café.

Cllr Alan Thacker said: "It is our building and when it is completed it will be something Dorchester can be proud of. I think it will boost not only Dorchester, but boost the whole of Dorset.

"It will put Dorchester on the map more than ever and I think that is very important for us."

The Dorset History Centre has provided access to its archives and research to develop the exhibition and multimedia guide is being developed for visitors.

Once opened, the centre will feature a programme of activities based around the theme of justice including school visits, visiting exhibitions and educational programmes.

The project is part of the larger redevelopment of Dorchester plan, along with Dorset County Museum’s extension plans, improvements to High West Street and the reopening of the historic Kings Arms hotel.

Cllr Tim Yarker said: "I think all members wish this project great success. It is exciting the things that are going on on the cultural front in Dorchester.

"In approving these funds we shouldn’t hide our light under a bushel, these are significant funds for the cultural life and tourist life of our county town and I think we should let people know."