Second city back in frame for Millennium Exhibition

Inside Parliament
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Virginia Bottomley, usually so gushing at Question Time over the wonders of the National Lottery, was strangely reticent yesterday when pressed over the troubles besetting the proposed Millennium Exhibition at Greenwich, south-east London.

The Secretary of State for National Heritage told MPs that the lottery enabled Britain to fund a celebration which so far exceeded any planned by other countries. But she gave no assurance that the pounds 400m show would go on at Greenwich and even acknowledged the "great advantages" of the rival Birmingham area.

Last week the Independent disclosed that big business was reluctant to provide the pounds 200m of sponsorship required if the project is to go ahead. The Millennium Commission, chaired by Mrs Bottomley, met last Friday and gave its fundraiser, Sir Peter Levene, until the end of June to come up with the firm business plan sought by potential backers.

Jack Cunningham, Labour's heritage spokesman, asked Mrs Bottomley for an update on just how much private-sector funding had been raised for investment in the exhibition. "Has more time been allocated to the fundraising process?" Mr Cunningham asked. "Has the Government agreed to underwrite the whole project as some press reports have indicated, and, if so, will it be coming from her department or the Treasury?"

But Mrs Bottomley said she was not able to give full information about the discussions under way, "many of which are, of course, confidential".

She confirmed that Sir Peter had been asked "urgently to do more work to take forward the encouraging early commitments and understandings that have been reached". It was a complex but exciting proposal, Mrs Bottomley said.

"It will provide the nation with an opportunity to celebrate the new millennium in one place and provide a lasting legacy in the form of a very significant regeneration of an underdeveloped but exciting part of London."

Robert Maclennan, for the Liberal Democrats, took issue with the commission's condition that the exhibition would only go ahead at Greenwich if lottery money was matched by business sponsorship.

"It was the Festival of Britain and not the National Lottery which brought about the regeneration of the South Bank and made it such an exciting magnet to people interested in the arts all over the world," Mr Maclennan, MP for Caithness and Sutherland, said.

It would be a tragedy, he added, if Mrs Bottomley failed to pull off the Greenwich project to regenerate eastern London. "It should not be dependent on levels of private funding to celebrate the millennium and bring this about."

The cloud over Greenwich has the glimpse of a silver lining for West Midlands MPs. Bill Olner, MP for Nuneaton, urged Mrs Bottomley to "seriously rethink" holding the festival at Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre.

With Sir Norman Fowler, former Tory party chairman, MP for Sutton Coldfield and chairman of Independent Midland Newspapers, nodding in agreement, Mrs Bottomley said she hoped it would be possible to have clear announcements before long. She added: "I am well aware of the great advantages of Mr Olner's part of the country."