Millennium green dream falls to earth

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Two of the Millennium Commission's biggest projects outside London, which between them have been awarded pounds 71m in National Lottery cash, are in financial jeopardy because of lack of interest from the private sector.

Coming so soon after the difficulty in persuading banks and businesses to back the Millennium Exhibition at Greenwich, the new problems are a severe embarrassment for the Government. The biggest of them, the pounds 125m Earth Centre in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, has laid off two-thirds of its workforce and is three months behind schedule.

The projects' difficulties highlight the gap between public sector and private sector attitudes to funding: businessmen want to see the likelihood of a profitable return.

Billed as Britain's first "green" theme park, developing the Earth Centre, on 410 acres of slag heaps at a former colliery, will cost pounds 98m, of which pounds 50m will come from the Millennium Commission, pounds 39m from the private sector and pounds 9m from the European Commission.

Private backing was supposed to have been in place at the beginning of last month but that deadline has now slipped to the end of October. As a result of the banks and companies dragging their heels, the centre has been forced to lay off workers.

Its problems are a setback for the Millennium Commission, whose chairman, Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, hailed the Earth Centre as "the largest education complex built in the UK since the Victorian museums of South Kensington", adding: "It is a truly innovative project, constructed on entirely sustainable and ecologically friendly principles. This project offers the UK the potential to become a world leader in information on sustainable technology."

The Commission's insistence on matching its grant with money from other sources is at the nub of the problem. Suddenly, the private sector is being inundated with requests for cash from projects which have had the green light from the Commission and other National Lottery grant-making bodies.

Another prestige project, the Middleton Botanical Gardens in West Wales, is also struggling to persuade the commercial sector to invest, despite having had a promise of pounds 21m from the Millennium Commission. Michael Angling, assistant to the pounds 40m Middleton project, said it had secured half the necessary private sector cash but it was "very hard work". The problem, said Mr Angling, was that the garden, which has slipped a month in its timetable, is "in competition with so many other things".

At the Earth Centre, David Thornton said the banks were asking about "marketing strategy and advertising spend". Plans for a retail centre on the site also figured large in the private sector's thinking.

A spokesman for the Millennium Commission defended its insistence on 50/50 funding,saying the rule enabled the money to be spread around between more projects.

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