Last chance to hire costly memorial to political folly

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The Independent Online

The sound of Sir Paul McCartney rehearsing in the Millennium Dome this week may have upset local people who have been complaining about the racket. But for those who familiar with the on-going saga of perhaps Labour's most embarrassing project, it will come as something of a surprise that anything is happening at all.

The sound of Sir Paul McCartney rehearsing in the Millennium Dome this week may have upset local people who have been complaining about the racket. But for those who familiar with the on-going saga of perhaps Labour's most embarrassing project, it will come as something of a surprise that anything is happening at all.

Since the closure of the Dome more than three years ago, the visitor attraction has continued to cost taxpayers £250,000 a month in maintenance. During the same period, it has been hired out for fewer than 60 days, raising £1.3m.

With a deal for the tent's future about to be finalised, the Dome may well be in the final stages of its current life as a memorial to political folly.

Within a few weeks a deal is expected to be sealed between the Government and the private consortium Meridian Delta and Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) to transform the Dome into a 20,000-seat entertainment venue.

But for fans and critics of the deal alike, the question remains as to why the edifice has remained empty for so long and at such expense to the taxpayer.

On a day to day basis, the venue, which has a capacity for 45,000 people and is the largest fabric structure in the world, has fewer than seven people working full-time on site. Harvey Goldsmith, the music impresario, who is currently working as a consultant to AEG, said: "The problem is it's bloody enormous. You could build a town and lose it in there. I'm not surprised that it hasn't been hired more frequently over the last three years.

"Rent costs an absolute fortune and, as Paul McCartney has proven this week, it's not sound proof which is always going to cause problems."

He added: "It should have been a different structure from day one. It was built to serve a purpose for the Millennium Commission and in its current configuration, it's no good for anything else."

The deal, which was unveiled two years ago, will mark the end of the road for a venue that has emerged as Britain's biggest white elephant. Although the white tent was initially hailed as a cutting edge showcase of Tony Blair's 21st century "New Britain", the ambitious project was dogged with problems.

The opening night on New Year's Eve 1999 was marred by transport delays, leaving numerous VIP guests - including several newspaper editors - stranded for hours on a station platform. The exhibition received dire reviews, organisers were criticised for lengthy queues and with 6.5 million people passing through its doors it fell well short of the 12 million visitor target.

The Government hopes its future will be brighter. The development of the Dome forms part of a 20-year regeneration programme for the site on the Greenwich peninsula, including the creation of a "mini city" with 10,000 homes and 24,000 jobs.

While construction work is scheduled to begin early next year and upon completion two years later, the Dome will be handed over to the private ownership of AEG.

The Government is planning recoup up to £550m from the new scheme, which counts as one of the biggest regeneration developments in the country, if it hits profit targets over the next 20 years.

English Partnerships, the government regeneration agency, remains responsible for the day-to-day running - and hiring out - of the dome until construction work begins. "The Dome will be available for hire until works start on the arena," said a spokeswoman for the agency. "The reason it hasn't been hired out more is because it has a capacity for 45,000 people and it is only really cost effective for big events."

Sir Paul rehearsals mark only the 11th occasion the space has been hired out since the Millennium exhibition closed to paying visitors at the end of 2000. Other events range from the British Model Flying Championships and the Festival of Asia to corporate sports games and Ministry of Sound parties.

Despite the imminent completion of the sale, it will also be some time before the Government will be able to wash its hands entirely of the Dome fiasco. The property wing of British Gas is threatening to take the Government to court for £20m it claims to be owed from the sale of the land to the consortium.

The most difficult task facing the soon-to-be new owners, however, is likely to involve trying to disassociate the Dome with its status as a fallen symbol of New Labour.

As one passer-by said, to the sound of the voice of Sir Paul drifting across the empty industrial spaces of the Greenwich peninsula: "Makes a change to hear music coming from there. But it would be nice to hear it inside the Dome rather than outside - surely that's what it was built for in the first place?"

TEN FACTS ABOUT THE DOME

It is the largest dome in the world, 80 times the volume of the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Festival of Britain in 1951, the Dome's forerunners, aimed to present a portrait of a nation but faced harsh criticism.

If the Dome - with the biggest roof in the world - was turned upside down and placed under Niagara Falls, it would take 10 minutes to fill with water.

Peter Mandelson went on a fact-finding mission in 1998 to Disney World in Florida in his capacity as Dome secretary.

Some 18,000 double-decker buses can parkin the Dome, which has 10 times the floor area of St Paul's Cathedral.

A four-day auction of memorabilia raised £3.5m in 2001, but much of the Body Parts exhibition ended up being recycled or dumped.

The roof is large enough to contain 3.8 billion pints of beer.

In 1997, Peter Mandelson proposed it become a surf-ball arena to showcase what he claimed would become a major 21st-century sport - only the sport doesn't exist.

It is the largest fabric structure in the world, with 10,000sq-m of fabric supported by 43 miles of cable.

At 50m high, 320m in diameter and spanning 80,000 square metres, the Dome could house 117 tennis courts, 12 football pitches and the Eiffel Tower on its side.

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