Millennium Exhibition could be scrapped

Plans for the Millennium Exhibition have been drastically reined back by pounds 120m amid growing concerns on the Tory backbenchers over whether it should go ahead at all.

Even as the new budget of pounds 580m, including a pounds 200m grant from lottery funds, was being presented to the Millennium Commission for approval yesterday, several backbenchers expressed doubts. Tim Devlin, Tory MP for Stockton South said: "Why not instead promise every town above a certain size a swimming pool, or a small concert hall, ensuring that the money is spread around?"

David Wilshire, Tory MP for Spelthorne, agreed. "I feel a sense of unease over so much money going to one project in London, which gets so much already," he said. "A lot of people are concerned about these grandiose projects, particularly when business has not come forward to support them. You could spend pounds 1m on 200 different schemes which would make a real difference to lots of communities. I'd be staggered if somebody didn't raise this point when the issue comes to the House."

The revised budget will be presented to ministers and to Jack Cunningham, the Labour Party's National Heritage spokesman by Jenny Page, who is now the chief executive of the Millennium Commission but will take over the running of the exhibition if it goes ahead.

In the new budget, building costs of pounds 90m for a pier, covered walkways and extra pavilions have been cut. In addition pounds 40m has been taken out of the estimates for operating costs, partly because the project will now be run directly by the Government rather than as a private commercial outfit.

The projected number of visitors to the dome at Greenwich has been reduced from 13 million to 10 million, reducing the estimated income from pounds 300m to pounds 170m. The earlier budget suggested that there could be losses of up to pounds 400m if there was bad weather or building cost overruns. This has been reduced to a maximum of pounds 200m.

A spokesman for the Millennium Central, which is to run the Exhibition, said: "We expect maximum losses of pounds 60m, and if the visitor numbers are higher than expected, there could be a tidy profit."

However, the private sector has so far promised less than pounds 50m of the pounds 150m it was expected to contribute and Millennium Central sources admit funding will be much more difficult owing to the uncertainty of the past months.

Ms Page is meeting Mr Cunningham tomorrow. His agreement is vital for the future of the Exhibition as without it, private sponsors will not put money in.

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