Labour holds key to millennium exhibition

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The Independent Online
The grand Millennium Exhibition plans will have to be dramatically scaled down unless the Labour Party gives its backing to the scheme within weeks, it was claimed last night.

Although the Government this week sought to inject new life into the ailing scheme by promising to underwrite them, Labour's refusal to give wholehearted support because of doubts about the cost are inhibiting business sponsors, say sources close to the scheme. "The project is at a critical stage," one said. "It is probably okay for a couple of weeks but if they do not say `yes' by the end of January then the project on the scale that has been conceived will not be possible.

"The project can go forward without Labour but everybody knows there might be a Labour government and it is important for confidence in it that they support it."

The future of what is intended as the pounds 700m centrepiece of British millennium celebrations, at a site in Greenwich, south-east London, was thrown sharply into focus yesterday by the departure of Barry Hartop, the man who had headed development so far. Mr Hartop was seconded from the Welsh Development Agency for an initial three months, paid for by British Airways.

But the Government's decision, revealed in The Independent yesterday, to underwrite the plans has transformed it into a public scheme which will have to come under the control of a secretary of state.

As Secretary of State for National Heritage, Virginia Bottomley is already in charge of the Millennium Commission, and another minister will take control of the Millennium Exhibition. Roger Freeman, the public service minister who was drafted in to coordinate the Government's response to the BSE crisis, was named last night as a likely candidate. The private sector has so far guaranteed only one third of the pounds 150m expected sponsorship.