Critics of plans to renovate the Durham Light Infantry (DLI) Museum and Art Gallery have warned the council is spending too much money on the “pet project”. 

The building, which previously housed the collection of historic DLI artefacts, closed in 2016 after falling into a state of disrepair. 

Developers have outlined plans for its refurbishment including a new exhibition centre, gallery and a cafe. Expected to attract between 60,000 and 150,000 visitors a year, the venue will include a dedicated space to display key objects from the DLI Collection.

But amid financial uncertainty for Durham County Council, the Labour Party questioned the local authority’s decision to spend millions of pounds on the renovation and argued it could be better spent elsewhere. 

The Northern Echo: An artist's impression of the planned new DLI museum and art galleryAn artist's impression of the planned new DLI museum and art gallery (Image: Durham County Council)

Labour leader Cllr Carl Marshall told a full council meeting: “The cabinet is planning on spending £23m on a fancy restaurant and art gallery - a project branded as the reopening of the DLI, when their own press releases last week confirmed again that the DLI archives and collection will in fact open at The Story in June. 

“It’s about time they came clean with the public. This pet project is a complete waste of taxpayers' money, has no business plan or case, and adds additional budget pressures of £600,00 a year at least to the revenue budget.”

The Story, based at Mount Oswald in Durham City, is scheduled to open in June. Billed as a brand-new cultural venue and register office for Durham and the wider county, it will be housed in the recently restored Grade II listed Mount Oswald manor house. 

It will also be the permanent home for the whole DLI Collection, reuniting it with the DLI Archive for the first time since 1998.

Cllr Julie Scurfield, also of the Labour Party, criticised the “decision to invest council sums into a high-end restaurant that the vast majority of our families will never set foot in because very many of them are struggling just to put food into their children’s bellies.”

And Cllr David McKenna said the council would be “using public money on something that’s not needed”.

But members of the Joint Administration in charge of the council rubbished Labour’s criticism and supported the plans for the site.

Cllr Elizabeth Scott, cabinet member for economy, told the meeting: “Referring to the DLI as a high-end restaurant repeatedly is simply a lie and is propaganda. There is nothing in any official document talking about the facility as a restaurant. 

“We have a proud military history that Labour tossed aside, and they have made no apology for that. Under our administration, tourism has topped £1bn for the first time, demonstrating that our strategy is working.”

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Work will also be carried out to preserve and enhance the grounds of the building to create a reflective garden area, the council said. However, concerns have been raised that the ashes of fallen military heroes will be disturbed during these works.

Former veteran Cllr McKenna said: “I am very concerned at the idea of diggers and industrial equipment cutting through the turf where ashes of these Durham warriors have been laid to rest. This practice does not honour those who served the regiment. I do not want the lasting resting place of those that served to be disturbed. I ask the cabinet to have the area consecrated at the earliest opportunity.”

Durham County Council said it understands the grounds have a “strong historical and personal significance” to many people and topsoil from the site will be removed, preserved, and carefully re-laid in the new reflective garden area.