Casino panel condemned over bidding process

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Indy Politics

Ministers are facing condemnation over the selection of Britain's first Las Vegas-style "super-casino" as the public hearings aimed at choosing a site for the development begin.

Conservatives and Liberal Democrats warned that they are losing faith in the independent Casino Advisory Panel, which will recommend where the first super-casino can be built.

Members of the panel will hold the first of a series of public meetings today to take evidence about plans by the American company Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) to open a casino on the site of the Millennium Dome.

AEG has already caused controversy after John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, was criticised for failing to register a visit to the home of its billionaire owner, Philip Anschutz, last year, during which the tycoon bought Mr Prescott a cowboy outfit. The company was also forced to apologise yesterday for producing a document which wrongly claimed that local faith groups supported the casino plan.

Today's meeting will be the first of a two-week series of hearings in which the panel will also question six rival bidders. The panel will also make recommendations for a further 16 smaller casinos.

Representatives of anti-casino groups, church leaders and local political figures will give evidence during the meetings, before a final recommendation is made to the Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell later this year.

An interim ranking released by the panel in July placed the Greenwich site as the front-runner.

Conservatives and Liberal Democrats attacked the panel for failing to assess local and regional support for the casino plans. They said the bidding process had been shrouded in secrecy and warned that potential conflicts of interests declared by panel members undermined the independent bidding process.

Hugo Swire, the shadow Culture Secretary, said Ms Jowell should reveal more information about the assessment of the rival bids.

Mr Swire said: "The process of awarding the super-casino licence has been rocked by continuing allegations and controversy. Admissions that the concerns of faith groups and local residents were misrepresented in evidence undermines the Casino Advisory Panel."

Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat culture spokesman, warned that the final decision on a site could be open to legal challenge and said the public had not been given an opportunity to object. He said: "There have been question marks surrounding this process, not least because of the need for so many independent members of the panel to absent themselves from discussions. My fear is that when the final recommendation is made... we will still have a long way to go because challenges to the decision are likely."

A spokesman for the advisory panel defended its procedures and insisted that the public meetings would give objectors a chance to make their views known. He said: "It is for the panel to take all the evidence and considerations into account."

The seven contenders

Greenwich

Anschutz Entertainment Group, owned by American billionaire Philip Anschutz, is the front runner to open Britain's first super-casino at the site of the Millennium Dome in Greenwich, east London. The bid, backed by Greenwich Council, would place the casino alongside a 23,000-seat arena and hotel complex. The bid was given the highest rating in an interim ranking by the Casino Advisory Group earlier this year.

Cardiff

The city council has appointed Casino operator Aspers, a joint venture between the Aspinalls Group and the Australian Packer Organisation, to run the project in the Cardiff Bay area, which it is claimed will regenerate a 75-acre brownfield site and provide 1,500 jobs.

Blackpool

Planners envisage a 23-acre conference and casino "quarter", based around a master plan for the redevelopment of the Victorian seaside resort. The city, which hopes eventually to boast a "cluster" of casinos, says it has had 22 expressions of interest from casino operators hoping to develop the site.

Manchester

A super-casino is proposed in east Manchester, based around facilities built for the Commonwealth Games. It is predicted to create 2,700 jobs. The city council is working with a consortium led by Kerzner International, one of the world's largest casino empires.

Sheffield

Three international casino operators have proposals for a regional casino, including at Sheffield United's Bramall Lane. Las Vegas Sands, MGM Mirage and Sun International have detailed planning applications ranging from £84m to £200m.

Newcastle

There is interest from casino operators, with MGM and Isle of Capri both taking options on land in the city centre. The council says a casino could generate £33m a year and help create a convention centre that could bring a further £60m to the city.

Glasgow

Runner-up to the Dome in the interim rankings. The proposals include plans for Ibrox Stadium from Las Vegas Sands and Glasgow Rangers, as well as proposals by Kerzner International for a casino at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre.

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