THE group behind efforts to raise the profile of a North-East town has failed to buy an internationally-important Roman fort, despite offering the £2m asking price.
Auckland Castle Trust believes it is the only viable option to safeguard the future of Binchester Roman Fort, near Bishop Auckland, which was put up for sale last month.
The trust, led by philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer, hit out after landowners the Church Commissioners failed to meet a deadline he had set to speed up a decision.
Board members want keep the site – which is dubbed the ‘Pompeii of the North’ – open to the public and now fear it could be lost forever in its current form.
But last night, the Church Commissioners moved to dispel concerns that the historic remains could fall into the hands of developers and branded the move by the trust to go public as a 'scare story'.
The Church Commissioners have put ten plots of land up for sale around Bishop Auckland, with Binchester divided into two lots.
Mr Ruffer, chairman of the trust, said: “We have made a £2m offer in line with the guide price from property advisors Smiths Gore – a guide price some ten per cent higher than the valuation we commissioned.
“We have done this because there is no one else in a position to do it and Binchester must be secured by someone who has a heart for Bishop Auckland and a deep understanding of the site’s importance in a national and international context.”
The trust is calling on the public to get behind its campaign by writing letters of support and signing a petition, which will be launched shortly.
It is not the first time Mr Ruffer and the Church Commissioners have clashed over a multi-million pound sale.
Three years ago, he saved Auckland Castle's Zurbaran paintings only for it later to be discovered the commissioners had secretly tried to rush through a sale at auction.
David Ronn, chief executive of the trust, said Binchester fitted in with the trust’s long-term vision to transform the fortunes of Bishop Auckland via the restoration of Auckland Castle.
A spokesman for the Church Commissioners said Durham County Council will continue to retain a deed of guardianship, meaning public access will continue after the fort is sold.
He confirmed a number of expressions of interest had already been received.
He said: “We are disappointed that such an excellent body as the Auckland Castle Trust do not recognise the statutory protections in operation for Binchester Roman Fort.
“The statement issued by the trust seems to be creating a scare story in order to further its own objectives to become a preferential purchaser in the sale of land.
“The process for the sale is transparent and leaves no room for undue influence by any interested party. All offers will be considered without prejudice or preference.”
He added: “Throughout the marketing of this estate the commissioners have been consistent in their dealings with all parties not least existing tenants.
“We have informed parties that offers should be submitted by September 18 and that no offers prior to that date would be considered.
“It is disappointing that through their actions Auckland Castle Trust seem to be seeking to manipulate an open and transparent process through the launch of campaign which would result in them being the only potential purchasers of the site.”
Dr David Petts, lecturer in archaeology at Durham University, who has been project co-ordinator on the Binchester excavation, said: “Binchester is one of the best-preserved Roman archaeological sites in Britain and deserves to be protected for future generations.”
A spokesman for Durham County Council, which rents the land, said: “Any solution that has the land in single ownership and protects access is clearly to be welcomed.”