Portsmouth v Southampton: Where is the best place to live?

By Simon Carter

OK, time to come clean. Before joining The News in February, I worked at the Southern Daily Echo newspaper for 15 years, breathing Southampton air for all that time and managing to survive with my health intact.

The envy of Southampton - The Spinnaker Tower at Gunwharf Quays.

But please, those of you who pull a face whenever the 'S' word is mentioned, don't hold my employment history against me. And anyway, you'd have been a keen fly on the wall at some of the editorial meetings we had.

That's because we often looked down the M27 towards Portsmouth with an envious eye.

For several years we badgered the local council to do something, anything, to give Southampton city that elusive WOW factor. And why did we do that? Because Portsmouth was stealing so much of the south Hampshire glory, that's why. As a paper, we were at times envious of Portsmouth.

The Spinnaker Tower might have ended up going wildly over budget, but the undoubted fact was this – it went up, structurally as well as in price. And in going up, it gave Portsmouth an instant icon which could adorn many a marketing poster, as well as a unique visitor attraction. They didn't have anything like this in Southampton at the time and – more than a decade on – they still don't.

Gunwharf Quays has changed Portsmouth's image.

Perhaps that's why in a recent YouGov survey which asked more than 55,000 people for their views on 57 UK cities, Portsmouth came in ahead of Southampton.

Portsmouth was 34th with an approval rating of 64 per cent, while Southampton was eight places behind on 55 per cent. If I was a Portsmouth citizen, though, I wouldn't have crowed too much – after all, your city was still ranked behind Stoke-on-Trent (16th!), Plymouth (29th) and even Gloucester (33rd).

Anyway, putting that survey to one side, let's look at some other examples of Portsmouth getting the upper hand on Southampton from a city perspective.

Long before the Spinnaker was dreamt of, Southampton hosted the first Great South Run in 1990. It was a big success, but that didn’t stop the event being moved to Portsmouth 12 months later. It has been a huge annual event ever since, earning Portsmouth both worldwide publicity and massive financial windfalls. Those with long memories at the Echo used to moan about that every time the race came around in late October.

Thousands of students hit the shops at Gunwharf Quays for the annual Student Shopping Night.

Remaining on a sporting theme, Southampton were desperate for Olympic sailing legend Sir Ben Ainslie to make the city his America's Cup base in 2015, but despite talks lost out when Ainslie, who lived just down the road in Lymington, chose Portsmouth instead. As a result, Southampton council leader Simon Letts accused the government of bribing Ainslie into moving to Portsmouth – comments he later withdrew after 'sour grapes' jibes from Portsmouth politicians.

Against those 'wins', Portsea Island suffered one major sporting 'loss' to the lot at the other end of the M27.

For more than a century, Portsmouth hosted several Hampshire cricket games every year – more than 300 first class matches in total – but the last came in 2000 before the county built their new home at West End on the outskirts of Southampton.

In my book the loss of county cricket should be mourned more than an athletics race celebrated – however big that race might be – or championing the fact you've sweet-talked an Olympic legend into basing himself in your waters rather than in Southampton ones.

WestQuay shopping mall in Southampton.

Financially, though, the GSR and America's Cup races would have boosted the Portsmouth economy more than 18 years of Hampshire playing occasional games in front of a few thousand spectators. And money talks, right?

Elsewhere, despite the loss of county cricket, Portsmouth triumphs in many head-to-head comparisons.

Musically, my time at the Daily Echo coincided with Portsmouth’s Victorious Festival not only starting but quickly morphing into one of the best of its kind anywhere in the south. That was a source of exasperation to us at the Daily Echo too.

For the past few years, Common People and Let’s Rock have brought thousands of music fans back to Southampton Common but, in terms of big names, Victorious usually wins.

Look at this year’s respective bills: Victorious boasted the likes of Paul Weller, Kaiser Chiefs, Brian Wilson and The Prodigy compared to Common People’s Lily Allen, Boney M and the Jacksons. Craig David, born and bred in Southampton, was even due to perform in Portsmouth rather than his home city in 2018 before the second day of Mutiny was cancelled in the wake of the deaths of two festivalgoers.

Port Solent recently celebrated its 30th anniversary and hundreds of people poured into the marina to eat and drink in one of the 15 restaurants and pubs that adorn the boardwalk areas.

The new Watermark WestQuay development in Southampton, centre.

But did you know that, in terms of waterfront living, Southampton got there first? Its equivalent, at Ocean Village, opened in 1986 with Danny La Rue performing the official unveiling of the Canute's Pavilion shops complex the following year. But three decades on it lacks the buzz that a visit to Port Solent can provide.

Canute's was demolished in 2008, there are a lot fewer restaurants in Ocean Village, and the Cineworld cinema closed last month. A sparkling new hotel has certainly added to the skyline there, but overall I would prefer to live in Port Solent if I had the choice of the two. And I'm not biased towards Portsmouth or Southampton; I'm just someone born and bred in Exeter (15th in the YouGov list) with a reasonable knowledge of both cities' attractions and speaking, or writing, as I see it.

And this is what else I see – Portsmouth boasting the better waterfront facilities, with Gunwharf Quays a great location for some outlet shopping and something to eat while looking out to sea (and across to blocks of flats in Gosport). The views from Portsdown Hill on a sunny, clear day are also simply wonderful. I'm a sucker for a good cityscape, and nowhere in Southampton provides such spectacular views.

And while Portsmouth can offer up Southsea to anyone wanting a day out topping up their tan on a beach, the best Southampton can do is Weston Shore. I wouldn't want to swim there, the 'beach' is more dirty shingle than sand, but the views are great ... if you like views of oil refineries, that is.

And the Historic Dockyard is simply dripping with, er, history. Southampton's SeaCity Museum does its best but is no match for HMS Warrior and Mary Rose. In fairness, though, what is if you're looking to immerse yourself in that sort of attraction.

I asked my partner, who has lived in Portsmouth for the best part of 30 years, if there was anything she thought the home of the Saints did better than the home of Pompey.

'Shops,' was her one word answer, and it's an unarguable point.

WestQuay, with its flagship John Lewis store, offers the high street retail experience you cannot find in Portsmouth. Ikea might not be everyone's cup of tea – or, indeed, plate of meatballs – but it also undoubtedly helps boost visitor 'footfall', an expression I detest.

Those in the blue corner will hold up Gunwharf and Port Solent in opposition to WestQuay and its restaurant-dominated sibling WestQuay2. I'm a big fan of both the former, but there are better shops and a wide range of places to fill your stomach in the latter pair.

Returning to money, there is one possible obvious answer as to why a succession of Southampton councils has gone down the retail route – the buoyant cruise ship market. Every time a ship visits the city it’s worth about £2m to the local/regional economy – and with 500 such visits in 2017 that's a cool £2bn. And cruise passengers like to visit shops.

Aesthetically, a debate about whether Portsmouth or Southampton is the nicer-looking city could take up several of these columns and still we wouldn't be close to a definitive answer, if one exists.

I will, though, quote from the Southampton-born architecture critic Owen Hatherley's excellent book A Guide To The New Ruins of Great Britain. Talking of the rivalry between the cities, he writes: ‘Portsmouth is alleged to be an insular island, yet has played the Blairite iconic architecture/urban regeneration game far more effectively, with its Spinnaker observation tower and glass sky scrapers forming an incongruously slick enclave in amongst the two-up-two-downs. Southampton's urban renaissance entails nondescript retail and Barrett boxes.'

See, we're back to the Spinnaker again. Hatherley wrote that in 2010, but the subsequent eight years hasn't changed my view that he is right. And just think – if you hadn't knocked down the Tricorn (see last week's column) I'd be saying even nicer things about Portsmouth!

Glorious Victorious - a huge crowd for Ska Dogs on the Seaside Stage Picture: Vernon Nash (180424-0465)

Common People festival, Southampton

Thirty years on and still looking good - Port Solent, Portsmouth.

Twilight at Ocean Village Marina, Southampton.

Sad loss - county cricket at Burnaby Road, Portsmouth.

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