CLEAR-the-air talks are to be held between town councillors and county officials over a controversial scheme to find a new operator for a weekly market.

Durham County Council is seeking bids to run Barnard Castle's Wednesday market – and says it will only consider those which will pay a minimum of £5,000 a year for an operator's licence.

However, furious members of Barnard Castle Town Council insisted the county authority has no right to offload the market onto a new operator.

At a meeting this week, Councillor John Watson said the market was established by the Balliol family, who later forfeited their lands to the monarch.

James I bestowed a royal charter on the market and handed it over to the lord of the manor, who kept control until November 27, 1919, when responsibility was transferred to Barnard Castle Urban District Council (UDC).

It passed from the UDC to Teesdale District Council in 1974.

“The district council had the opportunity to pass it back to the town council when the recent local government reorganisation took place, but it is now in the hands of Durham County Council,” said Coun Watson.

Members were told that during Teesdale District Council's time, the market was profitable, but based on figures provided by the county authority, it would be a loss making venture if the town council was to bid for the licence.

Accusing Durham County Council of skullduggery, deputy mayor John Blissett said: “Why should we pay £5,000 a year for something that is ours anyway and should have been handed over in 2007. It is ours by right.”

Coun Tony Cooke added: “It is an asset they took over from Teesdale District Council, so why should they want such an astronomical figure? This was given to them on a plate.”

Coun David Kinch suggested offering to pay a token £1 peppercorn fee to run the market.

Members said they did not accept the terms under which the future operation of the market was being offered and agreed that their clerk should discuss the situation with Durham County Council.

Joanne Waller, the county council's head of environment, health and consumer protection, said: “I have arranged to meet the town council following their discussion to see if I can help regarding the details of the process involved and to understand any points the council would like to clarify.

“The tendering process is designed to be fair to all, including the town council, and to have the interests of the local community at its heart.”