TAXPAYER-owned theatres, museums, libraries and leisure centres could be improved if outsourced to a charitable trust, a council leader said today.

Simon Henig, Labour leader of Durham County Council, said handing management of flagship venues such as the Gala Theatre, Killhope Museum and Hardwick Park, Sedgefield, to a non-profit-making trust could mean they were ‘better off’.

"It’s the responsibility of this council to find as many ways as we can to move forward while protecting as many services as possible.

"These services may well be better off in a trust," he told a cabinet meeting at County Hall, Durham.

Coun Henig was speaking as his cabinet agreed ‘in principle’ to transfer into a trust the running of 39 libraries, 15 leisure centres, the Gala Theatre and all services run by Leisureworks in Derwentside and Leisure Connection in east Durham.

Councillors also ordered more research into transferring management of the Durham Light Infantry (DLI) Museum, Killhope Museum, Middleton-in-Teesdale outdoor learning centre and countryside, sports development and arts development services.

Final decisions are set for September and the handover could follow in April 2013.

Council chiefs hope the move would save more than £1m a year in VAT and business rates and allow services to attract more outside funding.

The new trust could be one of the biggest of its kind in the country, with an annual budget of more than £30m.

Coun Henig said the proposals represented a sensible way forward.

Coun Patricia Jopling, Local Liberal councillor for Crook North and Tow Law, asked whether £500,000 earmarked for revamping Elite Hall, in Crook, could be spent on reopening Glenholme leisure centre.

Cabinet member Maria Plews said the cash was unlikely to provide a solution for Glenholme but had been ringfenced for Crook.

Plans to slash opening hours at libraries were deferred to Wednesday, February 8.