A LEGAL challenge is being prepared to try to halt a council's plans to close 17 of its 25 residential care homes.

Concerned relatives of elderly people living in Stoneleigh residential home, in Barnard Castle, County Durham, are unhappy at Durham County Council's proposals to replace it with self-contained flats - saying they will be unsuitable.

They met to hear an advisor from Relatives Action Group for the Elderly (Rage) say that the closure plan could be challenged on several grounds.

The county council said it could not afford a £60m bill to upgrade 17 homes across the county to meet modern standards. Instead, it wants to build six extra-care units to give pensioners more independence.

Stoneleigh staff, residents and their relatives have been told it will close in September, then pulled down to make way for the new development.

But on Saturday, Mark Oley of Rage, which has fought off the closure of several homes across the country, said that some of the council's assumptions about the care home sector were flawed and, in some cases, unlawful.

He said that new responsibilities for inspecting care homes, handed down to the National Care Standards Commission since April, meant the council must wait for a commission inspection of Stoneleigh before taking steps to close it.

The council had also failed to consult residents and relatives properly, in breach of article six of the Human Rights Act, he said.

Mr Oley urged relatives to make formal objections through the council's complaints procedure followed, if necessary, by an approach to the Local Government Ombudsman.

He said that, under new rights in the Local Government Act 2000, relatives could even push for a county-wide referendum on the closure plans, if five per cent of the electorate signed a petition in support of a vote.

George Hadden, whose 91-year-old father is a Stoneleigh resident, said the families hoped to join forces with other relatives in the county facing a similar predicament.

"We are going to take this all the way," he said. "This is a fight we have to win."

No one from Durham County Council was available for comment yesterday.