HUNTINGDON S 18th century town hall could become offices unless local councils can quickly agree to take it off the hands of HM Courts Service. The building, which dates from 1745, was used as the district s magistrates and coroner s court until the new c

HUNTINGDON'S 18th century town hall could become offices unless local councils can quickly agree to take it off the hands of HM Courts Service.

The building, which dates from 1745, was used as the district's magistrates and coroner's court until the new combined justice centre on Huntingdon ring road opened two years ago.

Since then, the Grade II*-listed structure has remained empty, although HMCS still has a long lease on the building, which has been owned by Huntingdonshire District Council since 1974.

Traditionally, it was used by Huntingdon Town Council for meetings and other ceremonial occasions, but structural decay and difficult access stand in the way of the town council's return there.

The town council believes £800,000 would be needed to repair it sufficiently to be used again, but the cost of securing its long-term future, including installing a lift to make it compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act, is estimated to run into several millions.

Now the town council is taking legal advice following an ultimatum from the courts service that, unless a deal on transferring the lease is signed and sealed by the end of the year, commercial tenants will be sought.

"They seem to be trying to put town councillors over a barrel," town clerk Karen Cameron told The Hunts Post. "But whatever happens must be best for the town," she added.

HTC had suggested that it would accept assignment of the lease, provided that the courts service paid the £800,000 over 10 years.

A spokesman for HMCS said: "HMCS is in discussion with Huntingdonshire District Council and Huntingdon Town Council to surrender or assign the lease of the town hall building. HMCS vacated the building in 2007 and is keen to find a resolution that works best for all parties.

"However, consideration to the public purse must be made in any potential deal."

The courts service threat may turn out to be hollow. This is not a good time to be seeking commercial tenants for listed buildings in need of significant restoration and improvement.