CASH-strapped council bosses in Southampton are being urged to sell off art to help safeguard vital services.

Opposition Conservatives say they believe pieces of the city’s largely-hidden £190m collection could be sold to help keep libraries and Sure Start centres open.

The idea has sparked a war of words between the Tories and Labour council chiefs who both claim to have received legal advice backing their position.

Civic chiefs have again insisted it is not legally possible to cash in on any of Southampton’s 3,500 artworks, even if they wanted to, because most of the collection is owned by trusts set up through bequests.

It comes two-and-a-half years after the former Tory administration failed in a controversial bid to sell an Auguste Rodin statue and Alfred Munnings painting, which prompted outrage from art lovers.

Despite giving up on the plan in 2010, the Conservatives now want to see the Labour-run council raise up to £10m by auctioning off the two pieces. They say the money could be used to pay for the new arts complex, avoiding the need to take out an expensive loan.

The cash being saved from the revenue budget could go towards services facing cuts as Labour tries to fill a £20m budget black hole.

Cllr Jeremy Moulton, deputy leader of the Tory group, said: “There’s a small proportion of the collection that we have been given professional advice on and we can sell, and it’s not part of the core collection.

“If we were to sell £10m worth we could back-feed the funding for the arts development, which means we wouldn’t have to borrow £10m, so we save on the repayments. That £1m a year we could put into protecting frontline services.

“When we’re looking at cutting Sure Starts, I would rather put children first before statues and paintings.”

However, the city’s leisure boss, Cllr Warwick Payne, insists it is impossible for the council to sell any art – as was proved by the previous failed attempt.

Although he said Labour had looked into “all options” for raising cash, including art sales, there is a difficulty with selling assets because the money they generate will only last for a certain time, “so before long you would be left with nothing at all”.

Cllr Payne said: “The Conservatives ran the council for five years and had a clear political will to sell part of the art collection to pay for other projects, but were unable to do so.

“The art may well be cared for by the council, but it isn’t owned by the council. The principle of selling council assets to repay loans is one we’ve already looked at. That logic is perfectly sound.

“I checked out the status of the art collection within a fortnight and came up with the situation of a legal brick wall.”

Cllr Moulton maintained Cllr Payne was “wrong”.

He said: “We’ve been given legal advice and it’s definitely not that. It’s not that we can’t do it, it’s that he doesn’t want to do it.”