Labour politicians are calling on Tories to borrow the millions needed for a new heritage museum in Southampton rather than flog art masterpieces.
They fear that raiding the city’s world renowned art galley to raise the cash will damage its cultural reputation and want the council to instead dip into the remaining £75m borrowing limit set by Government.
But ruling Tories claim it’s a reckless plan that would lead to cuts in frontline services or higher council tax to meet repayments.
They hope a painting by British artist Alfred Munnings and a sculpture by French master Auguste Rodin will help them find a third of the £15m cost of a heritage museum and expanded art gallery, that could host a centenary Titanic exhibition in 2012.
Objectors last week handed over a 2,500-name petition against the controversial art sell off.
Their calls were backed by two of the country’s most influential cultural bodies – the Museums Association and the Tate.
Labour MP for Southampton Test, Alan Whitehead, said: “The new heritage centre is an exciting prospect but it is not true that the only way to fund it is by selling off the contents of the art gallery.
“The prudential borrowing route is there for precisely this kind of investment and ought to be used.
“Southampton’s reputation in the arts world is slowly suffering – we need a new route urgently and this is it.”
Labour’s leisure and culture spokesman councillor Derek Burke said: “We want Southampton to be proud of its arts and culture, not try to play one off against the other. The art is our heritage as much as the Titanic or our medieval walls.”
Tory Cabinet member for leisure and culture Cllr John Hannides insisted there was “no alternative” to selling art to pay for the Sea City museum.
“To say there is £75m before we reach our limit is financial recklesness.
“If they propose to borrow £5m you will be paying back at least £0.5m a year in interest and repayments. They need to explain whether they intend to reduce funding to frontline services or put up council tax.
That approach illustrates why Labour aren’t fit to run the city.”
Labour councillors will bring a motion calling for the extra borrowing at the next meeting of the council in November.
Cllr Hannides said they had a chance to bring an amendment to the council’s borrowing plans when they were discussed last week.
Conservatives are awaiting a decision from the Attorney General, Baroness Scotland of Asthal, for permission to dispose of the two pieces of art.