Portsmouth City Council under fire for funding project without guarantee

The steelwork of the new Sir Ben Ainslie sailing centre being built in Old Portsmouth, next to the Bridge Tavern. Picture: Tony Hicks
The steelwork of the new Sir Ben Ainslie sailing centre being built in Old Portsmouth, next to the Bridge Tavern. Picture: Tony Hicks
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CITY leaders have come under fire for not getting a guarantee in writing that the £863,000 spent clearing land for Sir Ben Ainslie’s race base would be recouped.

Tax campaigners say it is a ‘complete fiasco’ Portsmouth City Council had no firm assurance the bill for work it carried out at the Camber Dock would be covered by government.

Ben Ainslie Racing was awarded £7.5m by ministers to make the project a reality, but the council’s clean-up costs were not refunded, despite the authority asking for them.

Andy Silvester, campaign manager for the Taxpayers’ Alliance, said: ‘The council appears to have spent the money without any sort of guarantee that they’d be reimbursed and that’s before we ask whether it’s appropriate for the council to subsidise swanky centres for America’s Cup sailing.

‘Somebody must be held accountable for what looks like a complete fiasco, and the decision to fund it in the first place must be reviewed.’

Cllr Aiden Gray, Labour spokesman for planning, regeneration and economic development, said: ‘We should have had some cast-iron guarantee put in place.

‘Now we have been left to foot the bill for essentially a millionaire’s sport.’

Cllr Luke Stubbs, Tory cabinet member, said there was ‘never an option’ to get written confirmation – and work on the land had to be done in a hurry.

‘It was never an option to get things in writing – that’s not how the government operates,’ he said.

‘The work had to be done in a hurry because the government had put a timetable on it and said it wanted to make an announcement on the funding.

‘That doesn’t mean we didn’t think about the possibility we might not get a reimbursement from the government – of course we did.’

A bid for costs was submitted earlier this year when the Lib Dems were still in power.

Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Lib Dem group leader, said he was never part of negotiations and that responsibility was down instead to officers overseeing the council’s assets. I was never asked for any authority to spend any council money on this at all,’ Cllr Vernon-Jackson said.

‘I knew there was some expense, but not nearly £1m.’

David Williams, the council’s chief executive, said it had warned all along there was a risk it would not get its money back because of timings involved with the development.

‘Throughout the process we made it clear there was an element of risk if the bid was rejected, or if the full amount wasn’t awarded,’ he said. ‘That turned out to be the case.

‘However, there is little doubt that the presence of BAR in the city is already having a positive impact, and will be a huge boost to the economy, and within nine years we will have recouped the relocation costs through annual business rates of £100,000.’