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EC may fund Millennium show

Part of the cost of staging the pounds 500m Millennium Exhibition at Greenwich may be met with European Commission cash, despite the "war" with Brussels.

The possibility has prompted angry allegations that the south-east London site is receiving more favourable Government treatment than Birmingham, the other contender to host the massive event.

Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, and Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, are leading a last-minute push to secure sufficient private backing for Greenwich. At the same time, the Independent has learned that Mrs Bottomley is hopeful any gap in funding can be filled by the EC.

Last week, a delegation from Greenwich visited Brussels and held a series of meetings with the EC Transport and Culture Commissions. The party saw Colette Flesch, Director-General of the EC's cultural side, and officials in the office of Neil Kinnock, the Transport Commissioner.

A spokesman for Greenwich Millennium Trust, the exhibition organisers, said both sessions went well. No specific sums, he said, were discussed. Mr Kinnock's department was interested in making a grant towards the cost of providing a riverboat service for the Greenwich peninsula, which is expected to attract 11-15 million visitors to the exhibition. Other EC cash, said the trust, is likely to come from the Commission's Article 10 Regional Development fund.

A spokesman for Mr Heseltine said that if the exhibition goes ahead in Greenwich, it is likely to qualify for EC urban regeneration funding.

Today, Labour and Conservative Midlands MPs will join forces with the city's National Exhibition Centre, which fought Greenwich for the right to stage the Millennium celebration, to hold a presentation at Westminster emphasising Birmingham's case.

Robin Corbett, Labour MP for Birmingham Erdington said EC money going to Greenwich was an outrage, and accused the Government of "cheating".

"All along," he said, "the Government has been moving the goalposts to enable Greenwich to win by the back door." Birmingham, he added, had all its funding in place and could start work immediately.

The Greenwich Millennium Trust disputed Mr Corbett's claim, saying the peninsula, which is owned by British Gas, was always going to be redeveloped and was always going to be a candidate for EC aid.

The City of London Corporation yesterday put its backing behind Greenwich, promising pounds 5m for the exhibition.