The leader of Hertfordshire County Council has hit back at MPs who criticised the council's sale of its art collection as a “major cultural loss”.

The county council took the decision to dispose of the bulk of its collection – which began in the late 1940s, so artworks could be loaned to schools – back in 2017.

Earlier this year more than 450 items from the council’s collection were sold at auction for £469,282.

And now hundreds more are being given-away to schools and other organisations – which will leave the council with around 200 items.

The county council says the move will mean they can invest in the remaining smaller collection – ensuring that it is properly looked after and made more accessible to the public.

But the decision has been controversial and last month an influential group of MPs – led by Sharon Hodgson MP – highlighted the council’s action in a letter to Secretary of State Gavin Williamson.

In that letter, Ms Hodgson – and other the senior members of the all-party parliamentary group on art, craft and design in education – suggested legislation surrounding the protection of cultural assets was “not adequate” in this scenario.

And she suggested the council’s actions had set a “worrying precedent for other local authority collections”.

But now the leader of Hertfordshire County Council, Cllr David Williams, has written back to the group to defend the decisions taken.

In that letter he points to the number of works that will remain in public ownership and the reduced need to loan art to schools.

He also points to the plans to make the remaining collection more accessible and for it to be better stored and cared for.

In the letter he states: “The county council has invested significant time and effort to ensure that we do not have a significant art collection languishing in less than suitable conditions, inaccessible to our residents.

“This has led to some difficult decisions but will ultimately improve the access to the collection and investment in both nationally significant and locally significant works that will remain within our care.”

Although the collection was initially set up to benefit school, Cllr Williams says schoolchildren now have much greater access to artworks, both physically – with visits to museums and galleries now commonplace, locally and abroad – and digitally.

And he tells the MPs that by 2012 school loans had dropped so significantly – with just one in five artworks on loan – that the service had already been suspended.

He also stresses that hundreds of works from the collection are to remain in public ownership.

“The county council has now gifted 175 works to educational bodies and local museums in Hertfordshire, thereby keeping them in public ownership,” writes Cllr Williams.

“We are now in the process of gifting over 800 more works to schools, museums and community organisations.

“Thereby retaining a larger proportion of the collections in Hertfordshire and more importantly, ensuring works can be taken out of storage and displayed as widely as possible to members of the public, making these works accessible and of far greater educational value.”

In the letter he tells the MPs the 202 works are to be retained by the council – including works by Hertfordshire artists Henry Moore, John Akers, Mary Hoad and David Stowe – will be properly conserved and made more accessible.

Cllr Williams’ letter was set to Sharon Hodgson MP, who is chair of the all party parliamentary group for art, craft and design in education.

It was also copied to the National Society for Education in Art and Design