A CAMPAIGNER-turned-councillor who fought controversial plans to sell some of Southampton’s £190m art collection has insisted she believes it is still impossible for the council to flog any of its masterpieces.

But she has backed her party leader for refusing to rule out the idea.

Southampton’s Labour council bosses appear to have softened their stance on the possibility of cashing in on some of the largely-hidden collection, as they desperately try to find £20m-a-year in savings to balance the books at the cashstrapped authority.

As revealed by the Daily Echo, finance chief Cllr Simon Letts, who has announced cuts that will see more than 300 council jobs axed, admitted he was “open-minded” on the issue of selling art, while council leader Richard Williams refused to rule out a sale.

But Cllr Mary Lloyd, who was a leading member of the Southampton Save Our Collection group which spearheaded the campaign against the then-Tory council’s proposed sale of two masterpieces in 2010, said she believes selling pieces would still not be legally possible.

She said a new independent panel being set up to oversee the running of the city’s art gallery and hundreds of paintings and sculptures will essentially take the decision out of the hands of elected officials.

The scheme was dropped two years ago in the face of huge opposition, including from the Museums Authority, which said it would not sanction the move.

Earlier this year councillors, who are automatically trustees of the Chipperfield Trust, which oversees the collection donated to Southampton by Robert Chipperfield a century ago, voted to appoint a panel of experts to advise on the best way to use the artworks. Cllr Lloyd said: “There’s a conflict between our role as councillors and as trustees of the gallery and collection.

“As far as it’s possible, we’re resting the decision in a group of very professional, very knowledgeable and experienced people – they are experts across the arts and fundraising.”

Cllr Lloyd said even attempting to sell art had caused serious damage to Southampton’s reputation in the art world, with sponsors pulling out of touring exhibitions and the removal of offers to leave art to the city.

“You can’t even say ‘we think we might’ without causing a lot of damage,”

she said: The councillor added even though using cash fromselling pieces to help pay for the new flagship arts complex is a “better reason” than the SeaCity Museum as the Conservatives had wanted, she believes it is not an option.

Cllr Lloyd said: “It’s quite natural for people who don’t know the situation to look at the art collection and say why can’t we cash in on some of that?

“Simon’s is a moral position, but we’ve got things that are going to make it probably impossible to do it.

“And Richard is making a statement that’s absolutely inclusive and clear. He cannot say I rule out sales and he can’t say we will sell.

“He’s doing the right thing, as he usually does. It’s up to the committee to have those deliberations. He’s giving those people the respect and space they need.”

Cllr John Hannides, who was the Tory leisure chief behind the attempted 2010 sale, said last night the new panel would advise in the best interests of the collection, but not stop councillors from selling pieces if they believe it is the right thing to do.

And he insisted the rules have now shifted to make a sale a realistic prospect if the council wanted to do it.

He said: “It has changed dramatically and it’s very surprising that people haven’t bothered to look at what’s happened in recent years and understand the impact that it has on those art galleries that chose to sell art.”