Battle to hold show fit for the millennium

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The Independent Online
REBECCA FOWLER

The winner of the fierce competition to host the Millennium Exhibition, an attempt to celebrate the year 2000 with a grand project worthy of the Victorians, will be chosen next week.

The front-runners have emerged as Greenwich and Birmingham in a battle between London and the regions. They are locked in rivalry for the contract for the year-long event, which could cost up to pounds 200m and will be partly supported by lottery money from the Millennium Commission.

As Britain celebrates the dawn of the new millennium, the exhibition is expected to attract up to 50 million visitors. So far it has emerged as the most ambitious in the world, with the exception of that put forward by the Vatican City, to celebrate the first 2,000 years of Christianity.

The bidders hope to confound critics of the project, who claim it will be an embarrassing shadow of the Great Exhibition of 1851, at Crystal Palace, where the Victorians flaunted the nation's imperial wealth. David Mellor, the former Secretary of State for National Heritage, said from the outset that the Millennium Commission was a "great British disaster in the making."

According to supporters of the bid from Greenwich - which is sited on the Meridian - the capital city is the natural home for the celebrations. "The historical resonance of the 1851 exhibition and the Festival of Britain in 1951, which both happened in London, are very strong, and it is still one of the world's great cities," said Andrew Parry, project manager for the site.

A powerful consortium, including the MAI Group, led by Lord Hollick, which is part of the successful Channel Five television franchise bid, and M2000, headed by Touche Ross, the management consultancy, is bidding to operate the Greenwich site on the River Thames, in a derelict area beside the Blackwall Tunnel. It is also understood to have the support of Michael Heseltine, a supporter of the redevelopment of east London, who also sits on the Millennium Commission.

The 130-acre site, owned by British Gas, would create 10,000 jobs, according to the backers, and would bring the Thames back to life. They plan to transport visitors by river, as well as by road and rail.

The exhibition bids were submitted to the Millennium Commission last summer. Headed by Virginia Bottomley, the Heritage Secretary, the commission will meet this week to make a decision.

Birmingham has the support of lottery critics, who say too much money has gone to the capital. A London-based design company, Imagination, proposes to operate the 40-hectare site around the existing National Exhibition Centre, and has secured a pledge of pounds 50m investment from the local authority.

The plan incorporates new buildings and parking facilities for more than 50,000 cars. It would divide the site into different zones, for exhibitions, entertainment and ecology. "As the only site with the proven expertise, existing infrastructure, capability and commitment to stage an event worthy of the millennium, we are ready and waiting," said the NEC chairman, Robert Burman.

The commission has invited operators to make their plans transferable to other sites if necessary. Derby's Pride Park and Stratford, in east London - which have also submitted bids - have not been ruled out.

How the bids compare

BIRMINGHAM

Strengths

Wide experience of large-scale event management at the National Exhibition Centre.

In the geographical heart of England, with 30 million people living within two hours' travelling time.

Already has extensive parking and experienced staff.

Own train station and airport.

Weaknesses

Not the capital. Maybe too far for tourists arriving in London.

No sense of history or cultural grandeur surrounding site.

Partly dependent on motorway for transport.

Does not have support of a very powerful consortium.

Not within easy reach of other attractions.

GREENWICH

Strengths

In London, where most international visitors arrive.

Historic and cultural status, with a symbolic edge as the the centre of world time with the Meridian.

Already attracts 1.5m visitors because of other tourist sites including the Cutty Sark.

Vacant site, ripe for regeneration which would create up to 10,000 jobs.

Greenwich North station and Jubilee tube line extensions.

Weaknesses

Contaminated site, which would need capping.

No experience of large-scale event management.

Poor road, rail and air access.

Limited parking.

Will infuriate lottery critics.

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