ONE of Hampshire's biggest military bases is set to stay open - but under private ownership.

The Ministry of Defence wants to sell Marchwood Military Port under defence cuts that aim to save more than £4.3bn over the next five years.

News of the possible sale sparked fears that the base could close in a devastating blow to the local economy.

The port, which occupies a 300-acre site on the western shores of Southampton Water, employs 600 troops and 150 civilians.

But the huge facility, also known as the Sea Mounting Centre, is set to continue under another operator.

Peter Luff, Parliamentary under secretary of state of defence, said: "The current assumption is that Marchwood would continue to deliver Sea Mounting Centre services required by the MoD under private ownership.

"No other UK location offers the benefits available at Marchwood nor could deliver the Defence Sea Mounting Centre requirement as cost effectively."

New Forest East MP Julian Lewis described the minister's statement as "relatively encouraging".

He said: "There appears to be no question of the operation of the port closing down or being located to another part of the country."

However, Dr Lewis wants to know if a private owner would be allowed to carry out commercial activities on the site.

Associated British Ports (ABP) has expressed an interest in buying the land following the rejection of its plan to build a huge container terminal at nearby Dibden Bay.

Campaigners fear that a terminal could now be built on the Marchwood land.