Big business comes to aid of Millennium

The planned Millennium Exhibition to mark the start of the 21st century will definitely take place at Greenwich in south-east London, it was announced last night. After months of doubt and controversy about the funding of the pounds 500m exhibition, Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for National Heritage, announced that the event's future was assured.

"The exhibition at Greenwich will go ahead and the country can look forward to a celebration of which it can be very proud indeed," she said yesterday. "On the basis of the substantial support received from the private sector, we are happy for work on the exhibition at Greenwich to continue."

Mrs Bottomley, who is chairman of the Millennium Commission, which met yesterday afternoon, would not reveal how much money had been received in sponsorship.

Sir Peter Levene, the businessman and government adviser, told the Millennium Commission that he was now confident of securing enough private-sector backing for the event. After weeks of behind-the-scenes arm twisting in Whitehall, companies have been persuaded to drop their initial reluctance and offer support.

While the target figure of pounds 144m had still to be met, Sir Peter told the commission he felt confident it would come once work on the site had started.

Sponsors had been invited to take a pavilion for pounds 12m each. So far, only British Airways, British Telecom and the City of London Corporation have publicly pledged their support. Others thought to be interested include GEC, British Aerospace, Amec, BAA and London Electricity.

Sir Peter's report to the commission followed a recent emergency meeting between Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, and captains of industry called after business reluctance became apparent. Under the original scheme, the commission would put up pounds 200m from National Lottery receipts, the private sector would find pounds 144m, and gate receipts and licensing deals would account for the remaining pounds 156m.

Without sufficient private backing, ministers were contemplating scaling down the event or scrapping it. At the meeting, Mr Heseltine is alleged to have emphasised that backing for the exhibition should be seen not as a commercial decision but as an act of faith.

MPs for Birmingham, which lost out to Greenwich, have reacted furiously to claims that some of those at the meeting may have gone away believing they would receive peerages in return for their cash. In an early day motion tabled in the Commons yesterday, Labour MPs Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton North-East) and John Spellar (Warley West) called on the Government to ensure it was made clear that awards of peerages were "the sole prerogative of the Queen".

Mr Spellar said: "Mr Heseltine should make very clear where he stands on this. If he didn't mean to give that impression at the meeting, then he should make it clear."

He warned companies to think twice before committing cash to Greenwich: "A company that trades on a national basis, like BT, should be thinking very carefully about whether it should be stabbing Birmingham in the back to bail out a bid which is obviously not viable."

Mr Heseltine declined tocomment on the allegation.

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