THE last private firm bidding to run Southampton’s flagship Titanic-themed museum has pulled out.

Council bosses are now planning to manage the £15m Sea City themselves for at least a year.

And as dignitaries yesterday celebrated the highest point of the new building being completed, opposition councillors claimed that there is a £5m hole in the budget to pay for it.

Southampton’s leisure boss last night insisted that there is “no gap” in the funding, but admitted that the authority might have to settle outstanding bills up front, before fundraising efforts bring in the cash.

Cllr John Hannides added that the council running the museum to begin with is in the best interests of taxpayers.

He said that the process to find a private firm to manage Sea City Museum has proved difficult because the council wants any deal to provide better value than managing it inhouse.

Specialists have assessed the costs to the council of running the attraction, which is due to open in time for next April’s centenary of the Titanic disaster, and all private bids have been measured against that.

Cllr Hannides said: “We have said unless you’re able to exceed the performance that’s already estimated if it’s a council operation then it would not be in our interests to put it out to tender. On that basis we’ve been able to exclude some bids, or companies have removed themselves from the process.”

Cllr Hannides said that part of the problem for firms has been that bids are based on pessimistic guesses of visitor numbers to minimise risks.

The council hopes that by successfully running the museum for one or two years it will provide a proven business model that can be offered again to firms, some of which he said remain “very enthusiastic” about taking on the project.

The project is being funded by a £4.9m Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant, £5m of council cash and a further £5m from “fundraising”.

As representatives from HLF, the council and builders Kier Southern gathered at yesterday’s topping out ceremony, Labour councillors said that no cash has yet been found from private benefactors or sponsors, leaving “hardpressed council taxpayers”

to pick up the bill.

Cllr Hannides said that a fundraising team has been recruited, but it would be “unfair” to expect immediate results.

He is confident that the money will be raised, but admitted that the council would provide any “cash flow” needed to pay bills in the meantime.