Falconer: Forget the Dome, think about all the jobs

Minister insists £628m of lottery money has allowed urban regeneration, but the site's Japanese buyer is still worried
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Lord Falconer of Thoroton seems to have shifted the goalposts. The Dome, he insisted yesterday, was never intended to be just a showcase of British creative genius. It was about regenerating a depressed area of south-east London.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton seems to have shifted the goalposts. The Dome, he insisted yesterday, was never intended to be just a showcase of British creative genius. It was about regenerating a depressed area of south-east London.

Speaking as pressure mounted for him to resign, the "minister for the Dome" insisted that the building had a major public benefit as an investment in Greenwich. In effect, that justified the use of £628m of lottery money to shore up the Millennium Experience.

"As a result, something in excess of £1bn of private sector money is going to go into that part of the country, one of the poorest parts. That was the prize that the Millennium Commission sought when it agreed to go ahead with the Dome project in 1996," he said on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"Without the Dome... there wouldn't have been the regeneration. Greenwich Council estimate that 30,000 new jobs will be created in the next seven years as a result of the project."

Lord Falconer is historically accurate - the Dome was always intended to be the spur for regenerating a derelict area - but this was also secondary in politicial terms. Tony Blair has led a chorus line of senior ministers claiming the Dome was intended to be "the greatest show on Earth". It would be Britain's world-beating contribution to celebrating the new Millennium.

Yet now, as another scandal about the Dome's inaccurate visitor forecasts and its appalling finances unfolds, his critics believe Lord Falconer has tried to divert public attention on to the only remaining benefit the project has to offer: its potential for regenerating the "Thames corridor".

"I don't think it's appropriate for me to resign, I want to stick with the project, and seek to deliver the benefits that the project brings, namely regeneration, the industrialisation of that part of the east of London, 30,000 jobs," he insisted.

Faced with paying out up to £228m more in lottery money for the Dome, its chief backer, the Millennium Commission, has argued throughout the year that the project's "legacy" has always been crucial.

Virginia Bottomley, when she was secretary of state for culture and chairwoman of the commission, announced in February 1996 that Greenwich had been chosen for the nation's "millennium exhibition". It was chosen over Birmingham, Derby and Stratford, east London, because it involved a vast 300 acre area of dereliction based on an old, polluted British Gas site.

Roughly 60 acres was set aside for the Dome and the remainder was taken over by English Partnerships, the Government's regeneration agency, for ambitious residential and retail developments, such as the Millennium Village.

Initially, the public position was that the Dome would be demolished after its millennium year. But, in June 1997, the new Labour government decided to keep the Dome for up to 25 years as the focus of Greenwich's wider regeneration plan. Unfortunately, that message was drowned out by the razzmatazz and spin over the Dome's millennium celebrations, led by Peter Mandelson, Lord Falconer's predecessor.

Lord Falconer's point is that without the Dome, Nomura International, a Japanese bank, would not have offered £105m to buy the site and then to spend £800m redeveloping it for an "urban entertainments resort."

Lord Falconer's position, however, raises more questions than he can easily answer. English Partnerships spent only £180m on cleaning-up the 300 acres and its own regeneration programme, which will create 6,000 jobs.

Trevor Beattie, the agency's corporate strategy director, said: "The Peninsula was one of the most polluted sites in the country and we cleaned it up."

As well as the Millennium Village, it has built 7.4km of roads, planted 12,000 trees, created a park and 12km of footpaths with a riverside walk. Sainsburys, Homebase, Jewson and UCI cinemas have all opened on the site and Holiday Inn built a 200-bed hotel which opened in time for the millennium celebrations.

No other regeneration project in Britain has received £628m in lottery money, which is more than half the £1.2bn the commission has in total to spend on other millennium projects.

Salford docks, the scheme to regenerate the north-western town that included the L S Lowry gallery, received only £40m from the lottery. The rest of the £380m budget was raised by the council almost entirely from private sources. The commission also spent only £15m for the Portsmouth Tower, the focus of a scheme to regenerate the town's seafront.

The bottom line for the Millennium Dome is that at least £105 per head has been spent subsidising each visitor's ticket. The vast bulk of the Dome's costs have been spent on its interior, its wage bill and its failure to attract 12 million paying visitors, not on regenerating the Greenwich peninsula.