OFFICIALS at the University of Cumbria have defended plans to sell one of its redundant buildings to Premier Inn.

Hilltop near The Struggle is being lined-up as a £5 million hotel and the sale is a 'crucial' plank of the University's circa £10 million investment plans for the Ambleside campus, officials said.

Yesterday MP Tim Farron called on the uni to abandon the sale to Premier Inn due to community fears about the impact of a new 64-bedroom property on Ambleside's existing B&Bs and guesthouses.

He said a petition co-ordinated by Ambleside councillor Heidi Halliday is circulating in the town and has already amassed over 2,500 signatures against the development.

But Janet Whitworth, chief operating officer for the university, told the Gazette: "We really need the money to reinvest in Ambleside and they (Whitbread) have come forward with it. 

"We have marketed Hilltop quitely widely and we haven't been inundated with interested buyers. There wasn't a queue."

She added: "I understand some of the angst in the community but we are only talking about a 64-bedroom Premier Inn against a total of 1500 bedspaces in Ambleside - it's a drop in the ocean really."

Earlier today, Mr Farron said he had written to the university asking them to sell the building to a housing trust instead.

Mr Farron said: “I am very careful on planning issues as they are a quasi-judicial matter, but I believe that this application will not help Ambleside. 

"I actually believe it will hurt many of the businesses and B&Bs in the town.  I think it’s not just a planning application, I think it’s a policy matter that will change the whole town. I think that they should have sold the property at market rate to a local housing trust.  This would have allowed us to build much needed affordable housing for local families.""

But Ms Whitworth said: "It's all very well saying sell it to a social housing trust but those sorts of organisations haven't come forward to buy it and we need some capital investment."

The University pointed out that as far back as 2011 as part of its consultation on the future of its estate with the Lake District National Park Authority, the possibility of Hilltop being used as a hotel was established so the proposal should not be considered a 'change of use'.

Mr Farron said: "I am mindful of the need for the university to gain capital receipts from under-used buildings.  But I also think that the university has an obligation to the town. 

“The university needs the town as much as the town needs them.  This application in my view will hurt Ambleside and they have not taken this into account. I hope they do in the days and weeks ahead.”

Ms Whitworth said the sale was dependent on planning permission being granted.