I’ve just got back from the local community consultation between around 350 Portsmouth residents, the city council and Ben Ainslie Racing. It was great.
Ben Ainslie is a genius at the helm when it comes to one of the world’s most exhilarating sports. Among many other trophies and prizes, he has won 11 world championship titles and 4 gold medals for Great Britain at the Olympics. His legendary win against New Zealand when he took the helm in the US team in the America’s Cup is one of the most extraordinary feats in recent sailing history.
Now Ben wants to bring his excellence to Portsmouth, building a brand new state-of-the-art boat shed on the car park at the Camber Quay, Old Portsmouth. If it goes ahead, the building is going to be 27 metres tall and it’s going to have a visitor centre and VIP lounge above the boatshed. In that boatshed innovative technologies will be used by highly skilled boatbuilders. Boatbuilding will be back in Pompey.
You can probably tell I’m very much in favour of this development. I’ll be frank, I was expecting at that meeting a good old-fashioned spat between developers on one side and nimbyistic residents on the other.
I was wrong. Watching Sir Ben’s presentation and the responses by the locals, the arguments against the building were much more varied and nuanced than I’d expected. Sir Ben himself was there, and prefaced his talk with an appeal to “get everyone on board” with the project, intending to show locals the benefits of the development.
From Sir Ben’s point of view, there will be numerous benefits. Besides the employment generated, there will be the regattas in the Solent. Then there will be the educational element for local schoolkids who will visit the site, as well as the putting of Portsmouth on the map.
Eventually, once the super-duper yacht is built and Britain wins the America’s Cup for the first time ever, Sir Ben hopes to hold the next America’s Cup here, in Pompey. It’s an aspiration, it’s a vision… one that was worth €1billion to Valencia when they did it.
I mean, how do you say no to all that?
Some people did say no. For one local resident, Ken Bailey, whose family has lived in Old Portsmouth for 200 years, it was the wanton archaeological damage to a “fragile and important” site that made him so angry. As he put it, Old Portsmouth is “the womb of the city”, and English Heritage have also expressed misgivings about the development. As someone with a deep love of the history of Portsmouth, I can see the merit in his argument.
However, Ken’s further argument that the site and its environs have always been historically low-rise seems a peculiar one. Only recently, Strong Island published a photograph showing Old Portsmouth as it was in the 1950s when the power station was situated just across the dock from the Camber, supplied by an unending stream of coal on a conveyancing system that stood 30 metres tall. The power station itself dominated the area and was far taller than the proposed BAR sheds.
The power station, coal silos and timber yards are long gone. What is left is a scrappy car park, some old boat sheds and the Bridge Tavern. The last will be preserved.
Malcolm Hill, another resident, expressed concerns that the whole process had been pushed through way too quickly without consultation of the locals. Others echoed this view, and Donna Jones, the new leader of the council acknowledged this as an issue and said it was something the council would learn from in the future.
The argument went to and fro in this way, and the recurring theme of the building’s height was the one around which objections centralised. It was one that Ben Ainslie was forced to answer: would he consider lowering the building? Perhaps not having the VIP centre?
At this point, after being pushed, finally the truth came out. The answer was no. The building needs to be that height in order to meet all of its functions.
I found that moment to be a relief. Sir Ben had clearly reached the point where he realised that those he couldn’t take on board would have to make their own ways to shore – and a very changed one at that. No more pussyfooting around.
This attitude was expressed by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston most eloquently when he talked about Britain’s excellence at yachting. “I’m one of those people who believes we are an aggressive maritime nation who can still kick the shit out of the rest of the world.”
I liked that.
On Wednesday, the council planning committee will make a decision. Do I expect it to be turned down? After, as Donna Jones announced, the council has already spent £1.4 million on preparatory work “in case the application is approved?” Not a hope in hell.
I’m glad of it. For someone who loves this city, and also sees it struggling with lack of belief in itself, with kids on a downer on their home town feeling they have limited aspirations, this will be a centre of excellence that will draw in other excellence. It will become part of the rich current of maritime history that has flowed past Point since the Romans housed their fleet, the Classis Britannica, at Portchester Castle long ago.
On a slightly less arty-farty level, as Donna Jones put it: “The leader of Southampton City Council has told Sir Ben that if we don’t want him, they’ll have him there. I’m telling the leader of Southampton City Council, we do want him!”
That got some cheers.
So, get ready to see some very posh boats in the Solent, some time soon.