Business shuns Millennium show

Ambitious pounds 400m plan for national exhibition may founder for lack of sponsorship
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The Independent Online
Plans for an ambitious pounds 400m exhibition at Greenwich to celebrate the millennium have run into trouble because private companies are not prepared to put up finance to match public lottery money.

At least two likely major corporate backers have told the Independent they are not interested in taking up proposals from the organisers, the Millennium Commission, to bankroll the exhibition.

Their reluctance to invest is a serious blow to the commission, which was hoping the exhibition would be a massive advertisement for British achievement. It also highlights the weaknesses in the Government's insistence on private-sector support. Companies are reluctant to come forward unless they are guaranteed a proper return.

Sir Peter Levene, the Prime Minister's efficiency adviser, and the businessman who spearheaded the turnaround in the fortunes of Canary Wharf, will report to the commission later today on the commercial viability of the project and his search for large private-sector sponsors. If that commitment is not forthcoming, the Government has said it will not sanction public funding for Greenwich. Around 20 million people are expected to visit the exhibition, which will be based on an old gasworks site and has been billed as the biggest millennium event in Europe.

In the absence of heavyweight private-sector support, officials are preparing several contingencies. These include seeking donations from a variety of companies rather than one headline sponsor. Another option being explored by Sir Peter is for a smaller, regionally based celebration.

This last proposal appeals to at least one large company. A British Telecom spokeswoman said yesterday it had ruled out being a major backer of Greenwich because the south-east London site did not fit with its image as a country- wide operator. BT had been approached but, said the spokeswoman, "would not want to be a main sponsor".

Another possible business supporter, Richard Branson, has also given Greenwich the thumbs down. The Virgin tycoon said that two months ago he received an approach seeking between pounds 40m and pounds 50m but has since given up on the idea.

Companies are also reluctant to commit themselves because the proposals they have received are not firm enough, making it impossible for them to gauge the return on their investment. "Lack of concrete plans" was given by British Airways, another widely tipped backer, as the reason for withholding support, but the airline was going ahead with its giant wheel on London's South Bank.

Insiders cite the absence of detailed plans and major backing as signs that the exhibition proposal is in jeopardy. It is inconceivable, they say, that enough cash will be found before the expiry of the deadline at the end of this month. "The vibes are not good," said an official at one of the local government organisations involved. "There is not much time left."

A commission spokeswoman said the exhibition was still on course. However, she stressed: "The Millennium Commission has always said that before it goes ahead and commits money it has to be convinced the exhibition will be commercially viable. We have not said it will definitely happen."

Imagination, the design company whose Greenwich proposal won the approval of the commission, is also showing signs of impatience. "This is one event which can't open late," said a spokeswoman.