A TOWN'S efforts to establish itself as a top tourist attraction are being hampered by a lack of basic facilities, it was claimed last night.

Councillors say visitors could be driven away because the public toilets near Hartlepool Marina are always closed.

The toilet block was built at the same time as the nearby Historic Quay nine years ago but has been open on only a few occasions.

Visitors are using toilets at nearby pubs, restaurants and a fitness centre instead - but some bosses have been forced to put up signs saying they are for customers only.

Councillors have described the decision to keep the custom-built toilet block shut as "absolutely crackers" and "totally disgraceful".

But Hartlepool Borough Council bosses insist other toilets are available at two nearby tourist attractions.

Former council leader, Councillor Russell Hart, said: "It is a quite pathetic situation where we have public facilities like we have at the Marina, but no outdoor toilet facilities.

"It is just absolutely crackers - typical of insane bureaucracy over things like toilets which are a nonsense.

"It causes massive inconvenience and does not help our cause one bit.

"Of course there are toilets at the museum and some of the other facilities like cafes, but if we are going to have a public toilet block there, let us have it open.

"It is crazy that we go to the expense of building toilets and then they are not in use."

Independent councillor Stan Kaiser said: "It is totally disgraceful that in the most prominent tourist area of the town there are no pub- lic toilets for visitors.

"They have been closed because of vandalism and cost, but if we are to make this a real tourist town then we must put behind us those problems and be prepared to pay to protect and improve the facilities our visitors want and demand.

"It is a disgrace that we have allowed this to go on for so long."

A council spokesman said: "There are public toilets - those at the Museum of Hartlepool and on board the nearby paddle steamer, the Wingfield Castle, which are both open seven days a week from 10am to 5pm and have free admission.

"The stand-alone toilet block is used on specific occasions when there are very large public events, such as the Maritime Festival."

Civic leaders hoped the appearance of the town on the BBC Holiday programme two years ago would spark tourist interest in its attractions.

The show featured the Historic Quay, which depicts an 18th Century seaport, that has won numerous awards.