CASH strapped chiefs in Southampton have been urged to rethink the sale of public art to pay the bills after one of London’s poorest boroughs decided to sell a £20m sculpture.

A controversial plan to sell off valuable masterpieces lying hidden in Southampton’s Civic Centre was shelved two years ago in the face of fierce opposition.

But last night there were renewed calls for art to be sold in the city as Labour council leaders finalise plans to tackle the city’s worst ever financial crisis.

The debate has been revived by a decision by Tower Hamlets council to sell a Henry Moore bronze sculpture valued at up to £20m to plug a £100m budget deficit over the next three years.

Mayor Lutfur Rahman overruled councillors to make the “tough decision” to sell the 1957 sculpture titled “Draped Seated Woman”, but known to locals as “Old Flo”.

The work has been on loan to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park for the past 15 years.

Mayor Rahman said the proceeds could be used to fund local heritage projects, affordable housing, community safety or improve opportunities and prospects of youngsters.

The decision has provoked a strong reaction from leading figures in the art world, including Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle. They have urged Tower Hamlets to rethink the sale of “family silver” for short-term financial gain. Mayor of London Boris Johnson has also called on the council to reconsider.

A plan in Southampton by the then ruling Conservatives to raise up to £7m by selling a Rodin sculpture and Munnings painting similarly saw the city labelled as philistines by the art world.

The city’s former leisure boss Cllr John Hannides attempted to revive the plan in September but it was ruled out by Labour councillors who are now in charge of the city.

They claimed the proposal was still unworkable and a waste of time, and would damage the city’s reputation and jeopardise future arts funding.

Cllr Hannides said last night: “There are surplus items and it doesn’t make makes sense for them to be stored in vaults never to be seen when at the same time we know the city would benefit considerably from £10m to support our investment in arts and culture.

“If there are similar proposals elsewhere in the country then it would be sensible for those in public office (in Southampton) to consider that as a way of financing those kinds of investments.”

Cllr Hannides said selling non-core items from the council’s £180m, 3,500-piece collection could help fund a flagship £21m arts complex at Guildhall Square or safeguard frontline services by freeing up interest payments on council borrowing.

He said times and attitudes had changed and legal hurdles and red tape had been overcome or relaxed.

Conditions now in place would make sure any sale would not harm the art gallery’s national status, he said.

Stephen Boyce, chairman of Culture Southampton and a former deputy director at the Heritage Lottery Fund, recently told the Daily Echo he would be supportive of selling some art from the extensive collection with the right safeguards, if it was identified as not relevant and money raised went for arts projects.

But council leader Richard Williams last night told the Daily Echo: “In light of what has happened in Tower Hamlets I have had some people to look into the issue but it is not as straight forward as it sounds.

“While it is technically possible, once you start to sell off art, you lose the accreditation with the Heritage Lottery Fund to bid for new art.

“It is also not an easy fix for the council’s finances because any money that we would get from the sale of art would go into our capital budget but it is our revenue budget, to pay for salaries and services, which is our priority.

“If the sale of art did provide a solution to our revenue problem then that would be very interesting.”

Labour leaders in Southampton will on Monday unveil draft budget proposals to plug an estimated £26m budget deficit in the next financial year as a Government funding squeeze tightens.

One senior Cabinet member has privately told the Echo he would be open to the idea of selling art work to ease future budget pressures.