Middle England may host millennium party

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The Independent Online
AS THE race to host the millennium festival moves into the final furlongs, an unexpected frontrunner for first choice has emerged - Derby, in the East Midlands.

The possibility of Derby being chosen as the home of the extravaganza, planned by the Millennium Commission to celebrate Britain's past and future, may surprise Southerners.

But some commissioners in the quango are understood to be "effusive" about the package Derby can offer as the site for the year-long festival in 2000.

Sources say it is head-to-head with Greenwich in south-east London as front-runner, leaving Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre bid, and that of Stratford, east London, behind.

The four were shortlisted from a total of 53 bids for locations including York, Glasgow, Carlisle, Huntingdon - the Prime Minister's constituency - Winchester, Milton Keynes and the Isle of Wight. London First, the consortium promoting the capital, immediately threw its weight behind Greenwich, while the NEC in Birmingham emphasised it was the only site ready to go - the other three need reclamation work.

Greenwich is promoting the fact it lies on the Meridian Line and when the clocks strike at the end of the century there will be only one which "tells the time for the whole world" - that on the wall of Greenwich's Old Royal Observatory.

But Derby has fought back, saying its City Challenge site of Pride Park would be the most democratic location as it lies "in the heart of England".

Its bid has been put together by a consortium including Derby City Council, Derbyshire County Council, Derby Chamber of Trade and Derby University. As the Millennium Commission has discovered, they can marshall impressive arguments in favour of their bid.

The consortium claims it can offer low labour costs - 60 per cent of London's at pounds 243 a week - the lowest land values of the four, the largest site at 180 acres, and 30 million people within three hours' drive.

Comparison of costs will be a crucial factor for the consortia bidding to run the festival.

Fifteen operators have bid, and the shortlist will be announced on Friday. Whoever is chosen will look carefully at costs - they will be leasing or buying the winning site - with a view to making a profit on an investment of up to half a billion pounds.

The decision on both operator and site will be made in the next few weeks, but one thing is clear: Londoners counting on holding the festival near their city may be in for a surprise.