Failing lottery projects 'need £15m safety net'

Struggling attractions: Museums expert calls for scrapping of the next big scheme and for cash saved to be used for bailing out other plans
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The Independent Online

A senior museums director has called for a National Lottery project to be scrapped because of fears over the viability of other lottery-funded visitorattractions.

A senior museums director has called for a National Lottery project to be scrapped because of fears over the viability of other lottery-funded visitorattractions.

Patrick Green, president of the Museums Association, said the Millennium Commission should consider putting the £15m it would save from abandoning the Portsmouth Tower, which is now two years behind schedule, into an emergency fund to help other projects.

Dr Green said projected visitor numbers for many lottery-funded attractions were "wildly over-optimistic". Since they could face financial difficulties, they needed a crisis fund to help them survive. However, the Millennium Commission, which has spent £1.2bn on helping to build the attractions, had not put aside any money to help shore up their income.

"There are a number of projects opening this year, some next year and the year after that, and some of those will not get the visitor numbers they are predicting," he said. "For those that get less, our concern is that there doesn't appear to be a safety net in place."

His concerns were partly borne out by figures released by the Millennium Commission yesterday, which showed that three out of 13 of its biggest national projects have already shown lower-than-expected visitor numbers.

While the majority of projects, such as the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff and the Lowry Centre in Salford, exceeded their targets by an average of 48 per cent, visitors for the Slimbridge wildfowl centre in Gloucestershire were 6 per cent below target. For the National Forest Discovery Centre in Staffordshire, numbers were 13 per cent below target.

The commission said the wet summer had affected the Slimbridge and National Forest centres. The worst affected was the Earth Centre in Doncaster, whose visitor numbers were 63 per cent below its 320,000 target.

Mike O'Connor, the commission's director, said that only a quarter of its 200 lottery-funded projects relied on visitor income. One of those, the Tate Modern, had attracted a million visitors in its first three months, 174 per cent more than planned. The Big Idea in Irvine, near Glasgow, which celebrates inventiveness, had exceeded its 31,358 target by 44 per cent, partly because its target of 10,000 school visits for the year had already been met.

Mr O'Connor said: "These visitor figures are very promising and indicate that the vast majority of newly opened attractions are enjoying huge amounts of public support. We realise these are early days but early indications are very encouraging."

A commission spokeswoman said there was no question of the Portsmouth Tower being scrapped. The commission had signed contracts to fund the project, which it still believed would successfully regenerate the city's seafront.

Peter Ainsworth, the shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, said Dr Green's comments would reinforce the resentment felt by the owners of commercial attractions. They already believed that lottery-funded schemes had an unfair advantage.

Given the drop in overseas tourist numbers because of the high value of sterling, and the poor weather, Dr Green was correct to fear that projections may prove optimistic. But Mr Ainsworth said that no extra lottery money should be made available. "Where projects are manifestly failing, it seems unfair for them to expect they will necessarily be bailed out."

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