david aaronovitch

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The Independent Online
If ever you feel inclined to bend to the "wouldn't it be better if a committee of wise men and women ran the country?" argument (a variant of which is to praise the House of Lords, precisely because it is not democratically elected), stop quickly, and say these two words: "Millennium Exhibition".

As I write, a huge attempt is underway to save the project, which is to be based on contaminated land of a former gas works in the London borough of Greenwich.

The problem, we are told, is that the materials from which the Greenwich Millennium dome is to be made must be ordered right now - this minute - if they are to arrive in time. To do that the project must be sure of that section of its funding that is pledged by the private sector. And the private companies will not stump up unless the Government guarantees extra Lottery support, if required, to minimise possible losses.

But - and here's the twist - it's the Labour government whose support they are demanding, and Labour is not keen on giving that pledge.

On Thursday the Evening Standard - whose columnist Simon Jenkins is a leading member of the Millennium Commission - laid into Labour's refusal to commit itself.

Labour had "almost certainly doomed" the whole enterprise. The shadow Heritage Secretary had "dithered, dallied and holidayed" while a project "involving hundreds of millions of pounds and thousands of jobs has ... awaited a clear judgement from him". With the certainty of inside knowledge it stated that at "every stage Labour has been told as much as government ministers about the Greenwich project". Finally, it asserted such prevarication was "a grim omen for the future".

There is something surreal about all this. While it is certainly true that Dr Cunningham's enthusiasm for his brief (following a spell as shadow Foreign Secretary) is not substantial, and his work rate is unprodigious, can it really be true that a huge project, planned by a committee (appointed not long after the last election four-and-a-half years ago), should depend on commitments from an opposition that has not been in power in this country for nearly two decades?

There is a dispute about who told whom what and when. Dr Cunningham argues that the urgent need for Labour in opposition to write a blank cheque (payable by Labour in government) for up to pounds 500m in Lottery money over two years is a recent phenomenon. And it must be any reasonable person's suspicion that had the private sector poured money into the venture at the rate originally anticipated, Dr Jack's agreement would not have been so assiduously sought.

But the private sector has not stumped up. The chairman of the project resigned last month. And the public have not been excited by the scheme.

The idea of an immense exhibition on the theme of time has failed to set the nation alight - and the prospect of the site's long-term use as yet another sports or leisure centre is depressing, rather than uplifting. The budget for the Exhibition, already high, went higher, and then was slashed as the ambitious nature of the plan was scaled down. Even so there is a massive contingency element, which if entirely spent, would absorb pounds 200m alone.

From the day when Tony and Gordon become next-door neighbours in Downing Street, all kinds of folks will be looking for lots of cash, and will be turned away.

To find the money for the projects that the new government will regard as essential, will mean scouring budgets, fiddling with invisible allowances and tax rates and - not least - applying Lottery monies to things like homework centres (it is instructive that most of the criticism of Labour's homework plans focused on those children who had nowhere to study). Putting up VAT and income tax rates will not be an option.

Now ask yourself which you would rather have, a network of homework centres fitting into a plan to transform the education of under-achievers? Or a guarantee to an unelected bunch of journalists and quango-ites, that their overruns on an insufficiently popular project will be bankrolled?

So my message to Tony Blair is this. Do not be bullied by the likes of the Standard and the members of the Heritariat. The electorate will have put you in power to achieve much more important things than indulging such people's whims. Say No.

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