Acrimony over plans for royal yacht as Manchester faces legal challenge

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The Independent Online
Government plans to save the Royal Yacht `Britannia' for the nation are descending into legal acrimony. Steve Boggan reports on moves which may sully the good name of the vessel in her "retirement".

The Government is to face legal challenges over its decision to shortlist Manchester as one of two sites where the Royal Yacht Britannia will finally come to rest.

Two London consortia and a Glaswegian team, angry that they were not chosen to provide a home for the retired yacht, are planning a judicial review of the Government's decision to shortlist Manchester with Leith.

Their main gripe is that they believe the Manchester plans were submitted after the closing date for bids, a claim the Manchester team and the Ministry of Defence, which is handling the issue, vehemently deny.

Manchester's bid, put forward by Peel Holdings plc, owners of the Manchester Ship Canal, was not in before the first deadline last spring. After that, the MoD whittled down applicants from 20 to six - again, not including Manchester. However, MoD officials said Peel Holdings expressed an interest during the summer and made a formal, detailed bid before the second deadline of September 30 last year.

But Lords of the Isles, representing a consortium which planned to moor the ship in South Quay on the Isle of Dogs, say they were told the Manchester bid was late, was imposed on civil servants by ministers and is, in any case, inappropriate for the future of the vessel.

The Manchester bid involves placing the vessel at anchorage off the Manchester Ship Canal near Peel Holdings' pounds 200m Trafford Park shopping development. The Lords of the Isles bid would have placed Britannia in South Quay, adjacent to the London Docklands Development Corporation building.

However, on December 10, George Robertson, Secretary of State for Defence, named Manchester and Leith as the final competing sites. Lords of the Isles said it believed the decision was "political" and its objection was backed by Swift International, another London consortium, which planned to moor the vessel at Greenwich.

Separately, the Glaswegian biddder, Clyde Heritage Trust, is consulting lawyers. Mike Stanger, its spokesman,said: "We believe the MoD has breached European rules and its own rules during the tender procedure. We feel that the goalposts weren't simply moved - the whole game was changed."

"There is something odd about the imposition of a bid after the deadline in an area (Manchester) which we believe could not sustain the royal yacht and bring in the pounds 2.5m a year needed to maintain her," said Ian MacNeil, spokesman for Lords of the Isles. "We understand the bid was late and we have been told by officials at the MoD that they were ordered to consider it. We want to know why."

Peel Holdings in Manchester is 55 per cent owned by John Whittaker, thought to be among the richest 120 people in the country. An MoD spokesman said the Peel bid was submitted inside the deadline, a statement which would appear to be supported by correspondence given to The Independent by another bidder.

A final decision on the resting place for Britannia will be made in the spring.