A political row over the future of the DLI Museum in Durham is rumbling on as Labour councillors hope to block current plans at the next meeting.

Opposition members object to work to create a restaurant and art gallery at the disused site near County Hall, labelling the move ‘an affront to the memory of fallen service men and women’.

Labour was in control of Durham County Council when the much-loved military museum was closed in 2016.

Now they are proposing a motion to be considered at this month’s full council meeting to stop the joint administration’s scheme to renovate the site.

The Northern Echo: Councillor Kevin ShawCouncillor Kevin Shaw (Image: Contributor)Labour’s Councillor Kevin Shaw said the plans are a waste of public money, will tie a financial millstone around the neck of the council for years to come and desecrate an area where the ashes of countless fallen soldiers have been scattered.

He said: “This plan is an affront to the memory of service men and women.

“It’s like vandalising headstones, with trees felled that had loved ones’ ashes scattered at their base with personal memorials.

“Relatives of those who made the ultimate sacrifice are horrified that ashes scattered on a site they thought sacrosanct are now smeared across workman’s boots and excavator wheels.

“It brings shame on this council that the memories of these brave souls and the wishes of their loved ones have not been given one moment’s consideration, and it is outrageous that this is acceptable to the coalition.

“The public outrage is completely understandable. Development of this site should never happen.”

Labour said it put forward plans for a Memorial Garden on the site, offering people a place for reflection and remembrance, but claims the proposals were ignored.

Labour also claims the costs of the project will be around £23 million, a figure rejected by the administration.

Cllr Alison Batey, who will second the motion, added: “The coalition is forcing through a plan that blows a hole in the council’s budget at a time when local authorities are going bankrupt.

“The fact this plan for conference facilities, an art gallery and a restaurant - that most residents will not be able to afford - desecrates servicemen and women’s graves to achieve their goals is shocking.

“This disgracefully immoral project is a colossal waste of public money that started with a budget of £5m, which has ballooned to £23m and continues to rise.

“The county council can't afford this - just last week it cancelled two leisure centres due to reduced capital spend.

“But here we are again, money ploughed into a city project while towns and villages suffer...but worse than that, the remains of our fallen heroes ploughed into the earth for car parking spaces and smoking shelters. It’s despicable.”

The joint administration said prior to closure the DLI was under resourced, and as a consequence, it was a failing enterprise.

They said the museum was closed, despite sustained opposition from many councillors, the DLI Association, the DLI Trustees, the Faithful Durhams, and the general public.

The closure of the DLI Museum became a key issue in the 2021 local elections and was one of the factors that led to Labour losing control of Durham County Council.

The first details of plans to refurbish and reopen the DLI Museum and Art Gallery were unveiled in October 2022 and planning permission was secured in February 2023.

The administration said a key aspect of the reopened facility will be dedicated space in the grounds that allows relatives and other visitors to remember those who served in the DLI.

It points out there is an official DLI Memorial Garden in the grounds of Durham Cathedral, open for all to visit.

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The Northern Echo: Cllr Elizabeth Scott Cllr Elizabeth Scott (Image: Contributor)Speaking on behalf of the Joint Administration of Durham County Council, Cllr Elizabeth Scott comments: “Labour councillors continue to ignore the facts to try and make political gain.

“This project has always been to reopen the DLI Museum and Art Gallery as a thriving, sustainable visitor attraction for County Durham.

“The food and drink offer will be appropriate for a museum of that size.

“The capital cost for the museum is not £23 million – Labour councillors appear to be making things up as they go.”

The Northern Echo:

Cllr Scott said the sale of the building at The Sands in the city centre is one of the moves that has helped fund the project. 

She said: “Crucially, disposing of that building and reopening the DLI Museum are both outcomes that the people of Durham want.

“Unlike the previous administration, we’ve listened and have taken action.

“Everyone involved in the project absolutely acknowledges the sensitivities of the site, which were very carefully considered when the planning application was determined.

“There is a detailed plan in place to proceed with every necessary caution – Labour councillors are clearly choosing to ignore that fact.

“Ultimately, the Joint Administration wants to showcase and celebrate the incredible military heritage of the DLI, and invest in the DLI Museum and Art Gallery, to make it a cornerstone of our great county’s visitor economy.

“Labour wants to keep the building closed and let it crumble to the ground, or worse still, replace it with other structures that have no connection to the DLI.

“The contrast couldn’t be greater.”