A national park authority has put off a decision on closing a learning centre to explore the chance of teaming up with partners to continue its service.
Officers had recommended closure of Losehill Hall near Castleton in the Peak District to save an estimated £250,000 to £300,000 a year on running costs.
The sale of the building would also raise a substantial amount of cash for the Peak District National Park Authority which expects to have to find savings of 20 to 30 per cent as the coalition Government slashes budgets in its October comprehensive spending review.
But opponents of the closure plan, including former park authority chief executive Michael Dower, said the proposals were premature and other options should be considered.
Now, the authority has asked for the public’s views on the proposal. It said it would give local people, staff, customers and interest groups a six-week period to offer further solutions.
Authority chair Narendra Bajaria said: “We have considered carefully the management team recommendation and also views of staff and members of the public and we really appreciate the thoughts they shared with us.
“Everyone, the staff, union and people who use Losehill Hall were rightly proud and passionate about its role. They played an important part in the authority deciding to give more time for public consultation before making this very difficult decision.”
The hall, built in 1882 as a private house for a wealthy local businessman, remained in private hands until 1952 when the Co-operative Society developed it as a holiday and education centre.
The former Peak Park Planning Board bought it in 1970 with help from the Countryside Commission, and it was officially opened as the Peak National Park Study Centre in 1972 by Princess Anne. It has undergone considerable improvements and extensions since, and is an eco-centre, generating energy from a biomass boiler.
In 2009-10 the learning team hosted education visits across the national park for 22,500 people, from primary schoolchildren to university students, families and community groups. Losehill Hall also provided conference facilities for 3,900 people and training for more than 1,000 environmental professionals.
However, the authority says closing the centre would represent 15 per cent of the savings needed over the next four years. Meanwhile, exploratory talks with potential partners will continue; two have so far expressed an initial interest.
The jobs of 41 individuals who include learning and hospitality staff and 45 casual workers such as education visits leaders are at risk if the closure goes ahead. The authority said a statutory process of looking for redeployments has to start immediately, followed if necessary in three months by redundancy notices, though this could change if a potential partner wanted to transfer some staff.
Former Ramblers’ Association director Alan Mattingly urged the authority to reject the closure plans.
“Quite apart from the value of Losehill Hall to current generations, the centre has played a truly historic role in the development of national parks and of public access to open country in national parks,” he said.
“For example, in his 1989 book Forbidden Land, the legendary Tom Stephenson, instigator of the Pennine Way and one-time secretary of the Ramblers’ Association, refers to a conference at Losehill Hall which he attended in 1979 with the Duke of Devonshire. There, the duke ‘declared himself an unexpected ally of ramblers’.
“He spoke from experience of the compatibility between, on the one hand, access on foot to moorlands and, on the other hand, grouse rearing and sheep farming on those moors. Exchanges like that paved the way for nationwide access legislation two decades later.
“Selling off Losehill Hall would be like flogging of the national heritage. Please don’t do it.”
Members of the public will be able to add their view from tomorrow at a special web page set up by the Peak District authority. A drop-in consultation event for the public is also being arranged. A report will then go to the next authority meeting on 3 December.