IT is the final piece of the jigsaw.
Work can finally start on the last stage of the transformation of Hampshire’s Ageas Bowl into a worldclass cricket ground after the controversial taxpayer-funded £40m bail-out was signed off by council chiefs.
Once the final £48m development is finished, the 25,000-seater West End venue will be the country’s only “model Test match ground”, boasting a four-star Hilton hotel, additional conferencing and hospitality facilities and a state-of-the-art media centre.
But the work, which it is hoped will be fully completed by the time England next play a Test in Hampshire, against India in 2014, can only go ahead thanks to the Liberal Democrat-controlled Eastleigh Borough Council agreeing to buy the lease of the 167-acre Rose Bowl site for £6.5m.
Council leaders and bosses at Rose Bowl PLC, which runs the stadium, yesterday finally put pen to paper on that deal.
A separate plan was also agreed by the council last year to pay for a £30m luxury hotel at the ground, funds for which would be transferred on completion of the building.
Delighted Ageas Bowl chairman Rod Bransgrove praised the authority for its “foresight”.
He said: “Building this hotel and transforming The Ageas Bowl into a model Test match ground will have an overwhelmingly positive effect on the local economy through creating and protecting jobs as well as boosting tourism to the region.
“The deal will create a lasting legacy for the south coast area as a whole, not only by preserving county cricket in Hampshire nor, indeed, solely through encouraging regular top-level international cricket in the region.
“This fantastic venue and its excellent facilities and staff, in combination with the great work done by the Hampshire Cricket Board, will ensure aspiring young cricketers in the area have every opportunity possible to fulfil their sporting potential for years to come.”
Council leader Cllr Keith House, who has consistently argued the bail-out was needed to safeguard and create jobs, said he is looking forward to see work begin.
He said: “This is fantastic news. As well as creating jobs for local people and opportunities for local business it gives the council significant new rental income to help protect vital local services and keep council tax down.
“We’re also committed to making sure that people across the borough benefit from this partnership through the chance both to watch and take part in sport.
“The prestigious world class venue will also help to keep Eastleigh on the international sporting map.”
Critics have labelled spending council cash on the private venture as “reckless and far too risky”, after a council report revealed the perilous state of finances at the parent firm.
Eastleigh Tory opposition leader Cllr Godfrey Olson had criticised the decision to go ahead with the deal as “an ego trip” for Cllr House.