Reach for the sky with dreams of a new century

Plans to mark the millennium grow higher, wilder and more extravagant by the day. Ambitious schemes for turn-of-the-century towers, Ferris wheels and statues share a common characteristic - an obsession with size, with each new proposal more ambitious than the last.

Not to be outdone in the "mine's bigger" stakes last night came Richard Branson, fuelling rivalry between his own pet project and the much-publicised South Bank Ferris wheel sponsored by his arch-rival British Airways.

Mr Branson, no stranger to headline-grabbing stunts, has put forward proposals for a tethered gas balloon which would offer paying passengers views of London from 1,000ft - twice as high as the Ferris wheel.

The balloon, which would be the second of its kind in the world, would be 90ft in diameter and would ascend with 50 passengers at a time from Greenwich. At 1,000ft in clear conditions it would offer a view of Greater London and surrounding counties and even overlook the Canary Wharf tower on the Isle of Dogs, at 800ft the tallest building in Britain.

Mr Branson was happy to point out that as well as being twice as high, the pounds 1m balloon project would be a lot cheaper than BA's pounds 7m Ferris wheel.

"Since British Airways have picked an idea from last century for their millennium project, we thought, why not go back another for ours?" he joked. "I came up with the idea in Marrakesh when I was hoping to launch my round-the-world balloon trip.

"We spent a lot of time waiting around for the weather, thinking of mad ideas, and this was one of them."

Another sky-high scheme has been put together by a consortium of businesses, which proposes a pounds 92m communications and observatory tower, called Globorama, which would be built next to the Millennium exhibition in Greenwich, south-east London.

The 200m tower, expected to attract 2.4 million visitors by the year 2000, would give panoramic views of London. Through satellite technology it would also provide viewing platforms offering the chance to interact with major cities and natural environments "live" across the world.

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