A decision to sell the freehold of the Riverside Studios theatre and arts complex, worth at least pounds 1m, for only pounds 1 has started a political row in the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham.

The Labour-run west London council has agreed to hand over the freehold to the complex. It was previously leased to William Burdett-Coutts, the centre's director.

He will use the freehold as collateral to try to raise pounds 500,000 from banks, although he estimates he needs pounds 3m fully to restore the complex - one of the original 1950s BBC television studios.

Much work has already been done on the dilapidated buildings in Crisp Road which are due to reopen next month, by which time three theatre spaces and a cinema should be operational.

The decision to hand over the freehold has further shown the council's commitment to the studios. When they still owned the freehold, they charged Riverside Studios a peppercorn rent of just pounds 1 a year.

However, Tories in the borough are furious at the council's decision virtually to give away a freehold that they believe is worth about pounds 2m. Official valuations place the value closer to pounds 1m.

The deputy leader of the Conservatives, Emile Al-Uzaiza, said yesterday that Hammersmith and Fulham had taken a great risk, as he believed the company running Riverside would not survive.

'It has always been on the brink of financial disaster and has consistently lost money,' he said.

'We don't think it will survive even if it manages to raise the million or so pounds from banks by hocking the site.'

However, Mr Burdett-Coutts dismissed the opposition views and said he was determined to overcome the financial problems which have dogged Riverside.

'I'm not here to make a profit, I'm here to make the venue pay for itself. I wouldn't be here if I didn't think I could turn it round.'

He is planning a major appeal to raise the extra money. He will launch his fund-raising drive next month and hopes to attract support from actors and directors as well as the public.

A list of likely celebrities is being drawn up and it could include Alan Rickman, the actor who led an unsuccessful consortium's attempt to take over Riverside last year.

In addition to the theatre and cinema space, Mr Burdett-Coutts plans to make use of the Thames frontage which runs past his office window at the rear of the complex. He plans to convert a disused car ferry into a floating, three-storey, 400-seat cafe bar.