Heseltine joins millennium fray

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The Independent Online
Michael Heseltine has thrown his weight behind the attempts to rescue the Greenwich millennium exhibition from collapse, as the pressure increased for the Government to provide public money for the scheme.

Mr Heseltine is urging the Treasury to treat the project as a private finance initiative scheme, under which government will take the risk to see it completed with private money.

The Deputy Prime Minister, a member of the Millennium Commission, has made it clear in Whitehall he is determined to ensure the scheme goes ahead despite the difficulty in getting corporate backing. "He was behind the whole concept of the Thames Corridor development, and he is very keen to see it happen," said a source.

Pressure for the Treasury to sanction public investment in the scheme was increased by Trevor Phillips, a member of the Greenwich millennium trust. He told a meeting at Greenwich, chosen as the site for the exhibition in competition with Birmingham, that the Treasury should establish a "a bottom line below which the project will not fall. However ministers disguise it, they must lift this obstacle to business confidence in the exhibition."

He warned that without a commitment to go ahead, the private sector would be wary about committing money to the exhibition in partnership deals with the public sector. "In the end, we may or may not need public money but the guarantee of support may be what unlocks the private money," Mr Phillips said.

Government sources said last night there was bound to be funding from central government in the scheme, although the crisis of funding arose over the insistence that it should be commercially viable.

Sir Peter Levene, who was drafted in to find the private finance, has been given until the end of June to show that the money is available. It is likely that he will recommend reducing the initial cost of the project from around pounds 400m to pounds 250m with the hope that it can be increased in scale later.

The Millennium Commission has guaranteed up to pounds 200m from lottery funds for the project. Virginia Bottomley, the National Heritage Secretary, and chairwoman of the commission, has told friends she is determined that the scheme will work "if it kills me".