Birmingham poised for festival revenge

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The Independent Online
Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, launches a last- ditch attempt today to persuade business chiefs to back the giant Millennium Exhibition planned for Greenwich.

Details have emerged which show that Birmingham, the rival site, has the financing in place and the overall cost of its project would be much less.

Figures obtained by the Independent reveal that Birmingham has firm indications of support from, among others: the multi-millionaire Richardson brothers, who made their fortune developing much of the West Midlands.

Other backers include Pertemps, a large employment agency; EMAP, the media group; Blenheim, thetrade show promoter and the West Midlands Business Focus Group, which represents many local businesses.

Roger Dickens, chair of the Business Focus Group, said its members -Tarmac, Lucas, Caparo, Wagon, IMI and local chambers of commerce - had all promised support.

Don Richardson, one half of the Richardson twins, said yesterday that they were prepared to inject pounds 50m of their own money to bring the exhibition to the West Midlands.

So far, no entrepreneur has come forward with anything like a similar amount for Greenwich.

The National Exhibition Centre, where the Birmingham version would be held, will also put up another pounds 50m. All profits from the event, expected to be pounds 20m, would also be reinjected back into the cost of putting it on.

John Cole, marketing director of the NEC, said several other large commercial organisations had committed funding.

The cost of transforming the 300-acre Greenwich peninsula in south London, presently a disused gas works, to accommodate the massive exhibition, have risen to a much higher figure than previously declared.

Officials at the Millennium Commission, which has committed pounds 200m of National Lottery receipts to the project, are talking in terms of a pounds 500m event, as opposed to a widely-quoted pounds 400m.

Refurbishing the area and providing the sort of long-term quality improvements businesses will seek will cost pounds 200m, bringing the overall cost to pounds 700m.

Birmingham politicians and entrepreneurs are so keen to host the Millennium Exhibition that they are even talking of going it alone and putting on their own. Organisers have asked them to bide their time.

Today, London captains of industry will assemble in Whitehall to hear impassioned pleas from Mr Heseltine, who chairs the ministerial committee on the millennium celebrations, Sir Peter Levene, who has been drafted in to find the private sector backing, and Gary Withers, the managing- director of Imagination, the designers of the Greenwich event.

British Gas, owners of the Greenwich site, will be present, along with senior representatives from British Petroleum, BT, British Airways and Eagle Star, the finance group.

In Birmingham, officials are keeping their fingers crossed that with the deadline for Sir Peter to report back to the Commission three weeks away, Greenwich's problems will prove insurmountable.

They point out that their site on the northern fringe of the NEC is ready to be built on and involves none of the decontamination work that has beset Greenwich. Outline planning permission has already been granted.

The NEC plan would entail an avenue of huge U-shaped pavilions, each representing a different theme: history, endeavour, enterprise, invention and the arts. They would be complemented by giant spheres drawn from around the country, each with a distinct regional flavour.

Once the exhibition is over, the NEC would be left with an extra 48,000 square metres of space, taking its overall capacity to almost 200,000 square metres - enough, local organisers say, for Britain to host the world's largest business fairs.