A call has been made for empty council buildings to be handed over to community groups to give them a fresh lease of life - rather than being sold off to generate money for County Hall coffers.

The opposition Labour group at Norfolk County Council says redundant buildings owned by the authority should be offered to the community at a peppercorn rent and support given to groups keen to get them back in use.

But Conservative leaders at the council said they need to sell property to bring in money to spend on other building projects - and that processes already exist to help groups take on some of the properties.

Wymondham & Attleborough Mercury: Wensum LodgeWensum Lodge (Image: Sonya Duncan)

The call by the Labour group comes in the wake of controversy over the future of a number of Norfolk County Council-owned sites, such as Wensum Lodge and Angel Road Junior School and decisions to sell properties such as Holt Hall.

Steve Morphew, leader of the Labour group at County Hall, said: "If the county council no longer has an operational need for a building they own, we should be offering it for use by the community for the public good.

"Selling off assets before giving the community a chance to take them on is a waste and loses the opportunity forever."

A process does exist to give buildings protection, where councils can give properties Assets of Community Value status - as Norwich City Council has done with Wensum Lodge.

That gives the community six months to come up with a bid to buy them, before they are offered on the open market.

Wymondham & Attleborough Mercury: Steve Morphew, leader of the Labour group at Norfolk County CouncilSteve Morphew, leader of the Labour group at Norfolk County Council (Image: Denise Bradley)

But Mr Morphew said: "Asset of Community Value protection is limited, grudging and doesn’t give support and encouragement to those with good ideas who need enough time, resources and access to expertise to see if they can be made to work.

"It's not easy to turn an idea into a sustainable project. Experience shows us those that come to fruition create jobs, strengthen communities and improve well-being.

"It could well be in the long term this could reduce the call on council services and finish up saving money, but time will tell."

Mr Morphew said successful examples of communities taking on council properties over the past decade include the Charles Burrell Centre in Thetford and the Silver Rooms in Norwich.

The Charles Burrell Centre, a former secondary school, was leased to Thetford Town Council and turned into a hub.

Wymondham & Attleborough Mercury: The Charles Burrell Centre in ThetfordThe Charles Burrell Centre in Thetford (Image: Archant)

The Silver Rooms, which was once a day centre for older people, was leased to a community group and is now run by volunteers as the Silver Road Community Centre.

Wymondham & Attleborough Mercury: The Silver Road Community CentreThe Silver Road Community Centre (Image: Copyright: Archant 2015)

The Labour group has started its own consultation into what people think of their proposal.

However, Jane James, the council's Conservative cabinet member for corporate services and innovation, said the authority did need to sell some assets in order to raise money for other capital schemes.

Wymondham & Attleborough Mercury: Jane James, Norfolk County Council cabinet member for corporate services and innovationJane James, Norfolk County Council cabinet member for corporate services and innovation (Image: Jane James)

She said planned projects, such as the multi-million learning hubs in Great Yarmouth and King's Lynn and new schools for children with special educational needs were funded through such receipts.

She said: "That money gives us the opportunity to deliver projects which will make a real difference to communities."

Mrs James said there was already an internal process at County Hall, when deciding whether to declare a property surplus to requirements, to establish if any other department at the council could make use of it.

And she said the Asset of Community Value process presented an opportunity for groups to take on buildings.

Wymondham & Attleborough Mercury: Norfolk County Council's County Hall headquartersNorfolk County Council's County Hall headquarters (Image: Mike Page)

But she added: "We are always happy to listen to what local communities think, but the challenge we have when it comes to renting properties out for a peppercorn rent is whether you are doing the right thing.

"Having dealt with community groups, I know that some are fantastic, have really good business plans and are aware of what they are taking on, while some are not.

"Even if we lease something, we will still have responsibilities over those buildings and we need to make sure it is the sensible thing to do.

"It is a tricky balancing act, but we are always happy to talk to people."