EAST Devon District Council has been accused of "deliberately" allowing a prominent community hall on Exmouth seafront to become "run down", paving the way for its redevelopment.
Following a tendering process, the district council has backed a bid by the Premier Inn to take over the ownership of the site of the Elizabeth Hall.
County, district and town councillor Eileen Wragg said:"It's a sad day for the town but I can't say I'm very surprised.
"It seems the council is determined to build on the seafront as it had all the covenants lifted."
A detailed planning application is expected in February and, if permission is secured, work on the three/four storey hotel, which would include a café/restaurant could start by the end of next year.
The sale of the site is part of the Exmouth Masterplan, an ambitious document setting out future regeneration in the town.
But the decision has come as a major blow to the campaign group Friends of Elizabeth Hall which also submitted a bid to take over the site and wanted to see the hall retained for community purposes.
The group had presented a petition bearing 12,000 names against the sale of the site. In May 2010 the council paid £50,000 to landowners Clinton Devon Estates to release all the "restrictive" covenants on Exmouth seafront protecting it from development, to "facilitate the regeneration of the town".
The council was following advice that it was more practically and financially viable to pay a one-off fee to get all the covenants lifted rather than individually.
Councillor Wragg added: "A hotel will provide some jobs and bring people into the town but the community is losing a much-needed facility that will be missed by many people and groups who don't know where they will go now.
"At least with substantial development the community should derive something from it.
"It seems that this was the council's intention all along, as it's deliberately been allowed to become run down and now made unviable.
"It's a body blow to the town of Exmouth."
Friends group co-founder Jilly Green said: "This is a disastrous decision for Exmouth –it will mean the loss of a public building and public open space. Our proposed Exmouth Community Arts and Visitor Centre would have brought new and improved community facilities and visitor information to the town. It would have employed Exmouth building firms for repair and extension work and it would have employed local people both voluntary and paid and used local small business for supplies.
"If a budget 60-room hotel on this prime site is the best the council can bring to Exmouth, then residents and businesses should be very afraid about the rest of the council's plans for the regeneration of Exmouth."
A council spokesperson, added: "The council has maintained the Elizabeth Hall for public use since taking over ownership in 1974 from the former Exmouth Urban District Council.
"Since then the hall's declining use and appeal has made it difficult to justify major capital expenditure over and above that needed to keep it safe and available for use.
"Now the hall requires considerable public subsidy just to stand still, let alone develop. We just cannot justify this in today's economic climate for a facility that is used by such a relatively small part of the population.
"We have been clear about our intentions for some considerable time and we reject any suggestions that there was some kind of plot to allow the hall to fall into disrepair so we would 'have' to sell it."
All are welcome to the Friends' meeting on Tuesday, October 16, at 7pm, at Exmouth Town Council chambers.
Visit, www.friendsofelizabethhall.org.uk for more details.