RIVAL city Southampton has been accused of having ‘sour grapes’ after its leader accused the government of bribing Sir Ben Ainslie into building his America’s Cup base in Portsmouth.
Councillor Simon Letts made the claim in a meeting that ministers threw cash at the Olympian and were ‘running around in a blind panic’ thinking up ways to show they cared about the city in the wake of the loss of shipbuilding.
He said talks had been held with Sir Ben to move to Southampton.
But opponents have criticised Cllr Letts for being ‘short-sighted’ and say it was a no-brainer Sir Ben chose the Camber to pursue his dreams given its proximity to the harbour – and the huge opportunity to boost tourism.
The accusations, which have been shot down by Sir Ben’s Land Rover BAR sailing enterprise, come in light of the government awarding the team £7.5m to help set up in Portsmouth in 2014.
But Department for Business, Innovation and Skills spokesman says Sir Ben had made up his mind to set up in Portsmouth before applying for funding.
The economic impact of investment decisions made anywhere in the Solent region affects every part of it, and so it’s disappointing Southampton cannot see the wider benefits. This is an example of sour grapes.Councillor Luke Stubbs, Portsmouth’s Tory planning, regeneration and economic development boss
And Portsmouth’s Tory planning, regeneration and economic development boss, Luke Stubbs, said: ‘Portsmouth Harbour is a major asset and that probably had more to do with the choice of this city than anything else.
‘The government cannot tell Ben Ainslie or anyone else where to put their business. They have chosen Portsmouth, and are happy with their choice.
‘The economic impact of investment decisions made anywhere in the Solent region affects every part of it, and so it’s disappointing Southampton cannot see the wider benefits.
‘This is an example of sour grapes.’
An economic report into the benefits of Sir Ben’s base being in Portsmouth and the America’s Cup World Series held this summer revealed Sir Ben’s race team brought £3.8m into the city and £8.2m across Hampshire.
Portsmouth South MP Flick Drummond criticised Cllr Letts for being ‘short-sighted’. She said: ‘I know Ben Ainslie really wanted to come to us because of the open water access, and if he and his team had gone further along, there would be shipping lanes they would have had to deal with. It’s disappointing Southampton has taken this view. We should be looking at the whole area, not each individual city.’
Sir Ben had earmarked three potential sites for his base in 2014 – the Camber, land next to Southampton Dockyard and Centenary Quay in Woolston. The dockyard was ruled out as other development came about.
A Land Rover BAR spokesman said: ‘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.’
Portsmouth council leader Donna Jones said the city was the ‘perfect location’ – and she joked Cllr Letts ‘knows Southampton was always second choice’.
She said: ‘Whilst two sites were explored in Southampton, Portsmouth was the preferred location for a wide range of reasons.
‘The access to the water is better, and there is a great beach and viewing area in close proximity to the racing.’
Cllr Letts, who represents the Bitterne ward for Labour, last night withdrew his comments, saying that when he made them he did not know that the money offered by the government would have been given as a contribution to any site, not just Portsmouth.
‘I am now aware there was an open offer to the Solent,’ he said.
Cllr Letts, who attended the World Series Friday practice session in July as a guest of Cllr Jones, said that he now accepted that the bid had been an ‘even-handed’ process and that other factors such as Portsmouth’s waterfront had swung the decision.