LIVERPOOL has raised the stakes in its bid to take Southampton’s title as the country’s premier cruise port by investing in a new passenger facility.

The former grade II-listed Cunard Building is set to become a baggage handling and check-in centre as Liverpool City Council looks to take over its lease.

But experts in Southampton say the move will not affect the city’s position as a top UK cruise destination.

Council chiefs in Liverpool claim the move “negates” the need to build a costly permanent home for the facility, which is currently housed in a temporary structure on the waterfront.

The authority will be delving into its reserves to pay for the lease, adding there will be “no borrowing costs or adverse impact on frontline services”.

It is the latest development in the ‘cruise wars’ between the two ports. As reported, the Port of Liverpool clinched a £35m Government grant in August to put towards the cost of dredging the Seaforth estuary to accommodate giant container ships.

It came as Southampton embarked on its own privately- funded docks transformation project after securing a £70m European Investment Bank (EIB) loan.

Cllr Simon Letts, leader of Southampton City Council, said: “We are an established port and the largest in western Europe. We have the infrastructure and support here. The number of cruises we have is going up year by year – we had an extra 100 cruises this calendar year.

“This is about establishing Southampton as a visitor destination where cruises come and their passengers visit the city, enjoy the forest, and everything it has to offer.

“Our strategy is the complete reverse to Liverpool.

“In the current financial climate, it is a surprising move.

It depends on where they are getting the money from. It’s a strategy where they are getting public money and putting it into private partnerships.

“They have done a number of big projects with the private sector and it’s fairly typical of Liverpool’s economic strategy.”

Doug Morrison, director of the Port of Southampton, said Southampton should “not fear competition”.

He said: “I ultimately think Southampton’s location and history will provide us with an edge over anyone in the UK. Nothing surprises me about Liverpool. You would expect the port would invest in the terminal.

“They have a different rulebook to everyone else.”

A spokesman for Cunard said: “Cunard has heard about Liverpool City Council’s plans to develop the Cunard Building with interest and welcomes any plans to make use of this magnificent building’s full potential.”

Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson added: “This is an iconic building on the city’s world famous waterfront and this opportunity to purchase the leasehold will deliver significant benefits and secure the future of the building.”

A decision will be made on the lease at the council’s cabinet meeting on October 11.