Labour kills millennium show

Heseltine's rescue bid is rejected
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The pounds 580m Millennium Exhibition looked doomed last night, with the Tories and Labour wrangling over who was to blame.

In an extraordinary and desperate attempt to save his cherished scheme for a huge dome at Greenwich, in south-east London, Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, visited Tony Blair's offices at the House of Commons to beg Labour to give its sanction for the project. He was looking for a guarantee of an extra pounds 200m in contingencies in addition to the pounds 200m already promised by the Millennium Commission.

He left empty-handed after what was described by Mr Blair's office as "an amicable meeting". The Labour leader stuck to the line set out by Jack Cunningham, the party's national heritage spokesman, to the effect that Labour, while supporting the scheme, would not allow any extra money to be earmarked for the exhibition.

Mr Cunningham admitted that the existing grandiose project for a huge dome housing a dozen pavilions on the theme of "time" might not go ahead without Labour's immediate agreement. He raised the prospect of a more modest project on the reclaimed Greenwich site, although Mr Heseltine is likely to make a last-ditch attempt to rescue his pet scheme with further negotiations and possible alterations.

The Government had wanted to issue a joint declaration with the Opposition over the future of the scheme but Labour wanted to add a paragraph to the effect that it reserved the right to review it after the election if it won and that there should be a limit to the budget.

Labour's co-operation is essential because private sponsors, which are expected to contribute up to pounds 150m, will not commit themselves until political certainty is removed. Government sources and Millennium Central, which is to organise the exhibition, argue that the project cannot go ahead unless Labour agrees to underwrite the contingency, estimated at between pounds 195m and pounds 219m, in addition to the pounds 580m budget, for bad weather or cost overruns.

Simon Jenkins, chairman of the Millennium Commission's exhibition sub- committee, said the scheme would have to be cancelled if the organisers had to wait until after the election for the go-ahead. "We can't have hanging over this project the possibility that in four months it will be cancelled," he warned Labour. He said contracts needed to be signed and 50 staff were waiting to start work.

A spokesman for Millennium Central also criticised Labour, saying: "It's time Labour came clean. If they are against the project, they should admit it and refuse to back it. Instead they are trying to kill it off without getting the blame."

Mr Cunningham said Labour was not responsible for the Government's failure to produce a coherent project. He listed meetings and conversations he had had with the organisers and Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for National Heritage, and said: "Ever since October, I have been told I must sign this statement now or the scheme will collapse."

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