IT COULD have been the bid that rejuvenated a key part of Southampton and created 1,000 new jobs.
But civic chiefs in the city believe their bid to host Sir Ben Ainslie’s America’s Cup base was doomed from the start as Government ministers had already earmarked up to £9m of funding – but only if it was based in Portsmouth.
Portsmouth city planners gave the go-ahead for the scheme in the city on Wednesday, and Sir Ben has admitted Government funding is a “significant” part of the budget for the base.
Meanwhile, Southampton City Council leader Simon Letts says he was told by sources within Westminster that the money would only ever be made available if the base was in Portsmouth.
It is the latest blow to hit Southampton, a city often billed as the home of ocean sailing, after it lost out on hosting both the roundthe- world Clipper Race and Olympic Games sailing events in recent years.
And it also comes after the closure of the Ford Transit factory in the city last year.
No Government funds have been made available to date to help with the impact of the closure on Southampton.
When Lymington-based Sir Ben, the most successful Olympic sailor of all time, announced plans that he wanted to base his America’s Cup bid in his home county, the plans sparked excitement in Southampton.
The base to build the vessel capable of winning the UK’s first ever America’s Cup would not only bring immense prestige to a city famed for its maritime connections, it would also have a huge economic benefit.
In a report, Sir Ben said the new base would create up to 1,000 jobs, while it would have a lasting legacy long beyond the America’s Cup by providing a headquarters for future maritime projects.
The former Vosper Thornycroft site at Centenary Quay, Woolston, also provided the perfect site, as it already has planning permission and deep-sea berths.
But along the coast in Portsmouth a rival bid was prepared – and Sir Ben eventually decided to go with Southampton’s south coast rival.
On Wednesday planners in Pompey gave the green light to the project, effectively ending Southampton’s faint hopes of luring Sir Ben and his team to the banks of the Itchen.
But with Southampton seemingly ticking all the boxes for the base, what led him to shun the city?
After all, the city had lost the chance to stage the prestigious Clipper Race – which it had hosted in 2011-12 – due to a lack of funds to host the event.
And the city also failed in a bid to bring Olympic sailing to the city in 2012, with the event going to Weymouth.
But Councillor Letts says his team’s bid was doomed to failure by March this year, saying that Minister for Portsmouth Michael Fallon had already earmarked a pot of up to £9m to secure the base in his city.
He said: “We were given a clear steer from Government that this funding was allocated for Portsmouth.
“The funding was predicated by the fact that Portsmouth would find a site and get it through planning.”
As a result Southampton did not bid for funding, while Portsmouth City Council and Sir Ben Ainslie Racing handed in a bid which is being formally considered at the moment.
He says the Government said grant funding would be made available to Sir Ben after last year’s decision to cut more than 1,000 jobs at the BAE Systems shipyard in Portsmouth.
Cllr Letts said: “I think it’s all to do with the Government having some tangible project to assuage their guilt over shutting the shipyard, which would make them look better in the runup to the General Election.”
He says Southampton only made a fresh bid to lure Sir Ben back up the Solent in the wake of opposition from residents which could have jeopardised the plans.
But despite the opposition of some residents in Old Portsmouth, planning permission was officially granted.
Itchen Labour MP John Denham added: “I think the Government has got an attitude problem. Instead of thinking ‘How do we grow the economy of south Hampshire’ for largely political reasons and the fact that I have heard Michael Fallon describe Portsmouth as the poorer relation, they are giving Portsmouth a helping hand, which I think is the wrong approach.”
A spokesman for Mr Fallon’s office declined to comment on the claim the Government had invited the funding bid.
He said: “The economic and sporting benefits of Sir Ben Ainslie’s project would benefit the whole of the Solent area and its marine industry.
“The Government has been approached by the team for funding to help support locating in Portsmouth and is carefully considering how it can help support the project.”
However, Conservative opposition leader at the council, Royston Smith, says he believes the funding was not the key issue in the bid.
Saying he believes the letter sent to Sir Ben before last week’s decisive meeting was “much too little, much too late”, he added: “I think Southampton lost its chance months ago when the two bids were handed in. It’s a massive, massive draw and you would move heaven and earth to make it happen, because something like this is the chance of a lifetime.
“I don’t think the council did enough to make that happen.”
When the Daily Echo asked Sir Ben what the main reason was for choosing Portsmouth, he said: “Portsmouth is the best venue we can be at. It serves a number of purposes in terms of having a team that’s open to the public.
“We really want to be accessible to the public.
“It’s a fantastic sailing venue for us to get out and be testing and training on the boats.
“It was just about the venue, in terms of getting out sailing. Getting into the water, and training and testing very early on and also the accessibility, the ‘footfall’ to the public if you like, that we can get to the people in Portsmouth, because it’s on Camber Quayside, which is right in the centre of Portsmouth in the old town.
“We weren’t able to do that in Southampton.”