THE government has been accused of “bribing” Sir Ben Ainslie into building his America’s Cup sailing base in Portsmouth instead of Southampton.

The Olympic sailor redeveloped a waterfront site at The Camber in Old Portsmouth after Whitehall contributed to the cost by giving him a £7.5 million handout.

It came just months after ministers decided to move naval shipbuilding from Portsmouth to Scotland, resulting in the loss of more than 900 jobs.

Sir Ben’s enterprise, which earlier this year was visited by the Duchess of Cambridge, is set to result in massive economic benefits for Portsmouth at the expense of its south coast rival.

The claim – strongly denied by the government and Sir Ben himself – was made at a Southampton City Council meeting by the leader, Cllr Simon Letts.

The Labour group leader faced a question from Conservative councillor Paul O’Neill, who asked: “As Southampton used to be called the home of ocean sailing, does the council now regret not having the vision and determination to push more effectively for this?”

But Cllr Letts said: “What was happening was that the Portsmouth dockyard was closing and ministers running around in a blind panic thinking of ways to show they cared about the city.”

He said Sir Ben, from Lymington, was “bribed by government” with the funding, while the fact that Portsmouth also has more open spaces with a view over the waterfront was also a factor, adding: “On grounds of logical sailing arguments Southampton was not to be the best on offer.”

He also said both he and Southampton Itchen MP, Royston Smith, then leader of Conservative opposition, had met with four-time Olympic gold medallist Sir Ben to discuss a coming to Southampton-move.

Cllr O’Neill said that the public perception was that it had been “too little, too late”, but Cllr Letts described that as “rubbish”, adding “If the government had given us £7.5 million we might have got it. But they didn’t”.

Last night Sir Ben’s enterprise – Land Rover BAR – expressed “surprise” at Cllr Letts’s comments, saying the cash was not dependent on it choosing Portsmouth.

Daily Echo:

(pictured above: Sir Ben Ainslie)

A spokesman said: “In December 2013, after securing the initial funding to start the America’s Cup campaign from the team’s founding investors, we immediately started looking for a permanent base in the UK, preferably in the Solent region.

“After an extensive search, three sites were identified as fitting the team’s operational criteria – The Camber, land next to the cruise ship terminal in Southampton Dockyard and Centenary Quay in Woolston.

“The ABP site was quickly ruled out as a proposed development deal had already been agreed with another party.

“The team carried out a thorough evaluation of both remaining sites. It was a difficult decision, with both sites offering great potential.

“The government funding application allowed the team to locate at any of the identified sites in the Solent and was not specifically linked to Portsmouth.”

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, confirmed that it was Sir Ben’s decision to base his campaign in Portsmouth.

Dubbed Britain’s greatest sailor Sir Ben, 38, of Lymington, has vowed to bring the America’s Cup back to Britain.

A new report reveals the massive economic benefits already being reaped by Portsmouth in the run-up to the competition, due to be held in New Zealand in 2017.

One of the qualifiers was held in Portsmouth this summer and a similar event is due to take place in the city next year.

The KPMG report shows that this year’s regatta attracted more than 200,000 spectators who spent a total of £5.9 million in the city.

It claims the figure would have been as high as £10.2 million had the event not been hit by stormy weather, which resulted in the final day being cancelled.

It adds: “Almost a third of all 49 companies surveyed reported an increase in sales of up to 25 per cent, “A further nine per cent experienced a 26-50 per cent increase in sales. One business reported an increase in sales of 100-150 per cent compared to the expected revenues without the event.”

The report adds that Land Rover BAR could generate nearly £100 million for the region in the next two years.

It has already netted £38 million for the UK, including £8.2 million for Hampshire, as well as creating 555 jobs.

The report says: “Many of these are specialist and skilled roles, including the technical designers and specialist boat builders involved in designing, developing and building the America’s Cup catamarans.”

The grant was awarded by the government in July last year.

Speaking at the time a government spokesman said: “The headquarters will initially employ about 90 people, with many more potential jobs in the supply chain.

“It will become the focal point for the design, construction and development of the team’s boats and will also provide sports science and fitness facilities and a visitors’ centre.

“An apprenticeship and training scheme will ensure the site is sustainable and there will be a drive to ensure the project acts as a catalyst to encourage participation in sailing sports, all areas of the marine industry and develop the talent of the future.

“The project has the potential to bring significant economic and sporting benefits to the UK, particularly for Portsmouth and the wider Solent area.”