Falconer admits Dome failure but refuses to quit

Millennium exhibition: Minister concedes Government project was 'too ambitious' but vows to 'see job through' in face of criticism from peers
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Lord Falconer of Thoroton has admitted that the Millennium Dome has been a "disappointing" failure which had also suffered from major shortcomings in financial management.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton has admitted that the Millennium Dome has been a "disappointing" failure which had also suffered from major shortcomings in financial management.

In a statement on the first day of Lords business since the summer recess, the minister for the Dome admitted that the £758m project "has not been a success". The Government's proposals, he conceded, had been "too ambitious".

The Government had over-reached itself in attempting to design and build the Dome within three years, and in expecting to get 12 million paying visitors within one year of operation, he said. Echoing Tony Blair's admissions at Labour's conference in Brighton on Tuesday, he said it was "not appropriate" for the public sector to run a large visitor attraction.

Lord Falconer also revealed that a bid by from Legacy Plc to convert the Dome into a hi-tech science park, featuring biotechnologies and digital industries, is close to being accepted by ministers, despite doubts the proposal would succeed.

He appeared to change tack on the Government's plans for a fresh round of offers for the site by implying that Legacy, run by the Labour Party funder and property developer Robert Bourne, was now the only bidder for the site.

If negotiations went smoothly, Legacy would be declared "preferred bidder" within the month. The Government, he said, "is not soliciting offers nor is it in serious negotiation with any other party".

Lord Falconer's announcement came as he weathered renewed demands from senior Opposition peers for his resignation following revelations this month about the Dome's serious financial difficulties.

To the indignation of Tory peers, he insisted that he had a responsibility to see the project through to its end - its closure on 31 December and its sale to a private bidder.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns, for the Tories, said the project had been "a fiasco". To Labour protests, she added: "Now you ask the jury to wait a little longer before returning its verdict. But the jury has long since returned its verdict, and the judgment of your management of this project is that you have failed utterly."

Speaking for the Liberal Democrats, Lord Harris of Greenwich said the Dome had always been a cross-party project but he said it had become a "very substantial failure".

Lord Falconer failed to deliver an expected apology to the Lords for misleading peers before the recess about the NMEC's financial position. An advance text of his speech revealed that he was due to correct statements in July that the NMEC was trading solvently, and explain that he now knew this information was wrong.

However Lord Falconer also told peers that early closure would cause greater harm than keeping it open. Up to 5,000 jobs would be lost, creditors would go unpaid, and 283,000 people with pre-booked tickets disappointed. It would also cost an additional £30m-£40m to close it early. However, he admitted, the NMEC's £758m would be overspent by 4.6 per cent.

He said: "There is still a great deal of work to be done to secure the achievements of the Millennium Experience project and to secure a long-term future. I am determined to see this project through."