Bid to keep HMS Illustrious in Portsmouth looks doomed

The decommissioning ceremony for HMS Illustrious''  ''Picture: Malcolm Wells (142372-6605)
The decommissioning ceremony for HMS Illustrious'' ''Picture: Malcolm Wells (142372-6605)
HMS Queen Elizabeth at Portsmouth Naval Base

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THE bid to keep HMS Illustrious in Portsmouth may be lost after plans for her to remain in the city as a convention centre were withdrawn.

The last of the Royal Navy’s Invincible-class carriers ended its 32-year career yesterday as hundreds gathered in Portsmouth to bid her farewell.

Now the 22,000-tonne ship has been decommissioned, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) will weigh up proposals for her future that must be in the UK, including bids from Hull and Southampton.

The bidding process closed in June, but the MoD would not say when a final decision will be made.

But The News can reveal an idea to turn the carrier into a floating convention centre in Portsmouth – the only known bid for the city – has been scrapped because of a lack of space and the huge amount of money needed to fund the project, creating concern amongst city leaders.

Portsmouth City Council leader, Donna Jones, described the city as ‘the rightful home of HMS Illustrious’.

‘It would be such a shame for the city if the ship moved somewhere else,’ she said.

‘Portsmouth desperately needs a conference centre for a large number of delegates.’

John Ferrett, negotiations officer for The Prospect Union and leader of the Portsmouth Labour party, said: ‘Given that Illustrious has served out of the city it would appear to be really perverse to have her then based somewhere else.

‘If Illustrious is going to be preserved, then it should be in Portsmouth.

‘We are the home of the Royal Navy.’

The news came as about 450 of the ship’s company took part in the decommissioning ceremony yesterday.

Carl Leroy Smith, chairman of the Shaping the Future of Portsmouth’s city image group and a local architect, had been leading the proposal to turn the aircraft carrier into a conference centre.

He said: ‘We, the Portsmouth and South East Hampshire Partnership, withdrew our bid for HMS Illustrious having explored the viability of keeping the ship in Portsmouth with various experts and local organisations.

‘The two key issues were there is not really room in Portsmouth Harbour to keep her and raising funds and running a viable business as a visitor attraction.’

One firm interested in taking over the carrier, Southampton design firm BMT Nigel Gee working in partnership with Sigmund Yacht Design, said earlier this year it wanted to give it a makeover.

Hull City Council is said to be working with the National Museum of the Royal Navy on plans to take the warship to Hull, either permanently as an attraction, conference centre and education and research facility or temporarily for Hull’s City of Culture celebrations in 2017.

Asked about the proposals, Cllr Jones said: ‘I understand Hull is putting in a strong bid to take it up there.

‘Portsmouth has far more culture than Hull and I think this is the rightful home for the ship.

‘I would ask those making the decision in the MoD to leave her here in the city.’

Cllr Jones questioned whether Portsmouth Historic Dockyard might have put forward a proposal to use the ship as an attraction.

But a spokeswoman for the dockyard said that would not be happening.

Crowds of proud family, friends and veterans gathered at Portsmouth’s naval base yesterday for the decommissioning of Illustrious, which served in the Falklands, Bosnia and the Gulf and clocked up 900,000 operational miles.

Fifteen of the ship’s 17 former commanding officers attended the ceremony, as well as Lady Sarah Chatto, whose mother, the late Princess Margaret, launched ‘Lusty’ in 1978. Lady Chatto spoke of her family’s pride for the aircraft carrier and described it as an ‘emotional day’ before inspecting the ship’s company.

Britain remains without an aircraft carrier until HMS Queen Elizabeth – the largest warship ever built for the Royal Navy – arrives in Portsmouth in early 2017.