Ministers were warned of 'Dome risks' in 1997

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The Independent Online

Senior ministers were warned repeatedly by accountants that a visitor target of 12 million people for the Millennium Dome was too ambitious and carried "significant risks".

Senior ministers were warned repeatedly by accountants that a visitor target of 12 million people for the Millennium Dome was too ambitious and carried "significant risks".

The warnings from leisure industry analysts with the City firm Deloitte Consulting were first made in a report submitted in June 1997, just before the new Labour Government decided to give the £758m project the go-ahead.

The report, commissioned by the Millennium Commission, also warned that the 12m visitor target was the highest figure the New Millennium Experience Company, the Dome's operators, could hope to achieve, and suggested that it could be as low as 8m.

The document was given to Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and Peter Mandelson, then Minister for the Dome, in their capacity as members of the Millennium Commission. It was then passed to officials in Mr Smith's department, but Downing Street was unable to say last night whether it had also been given to the Cabinet.

The disclosure that at least two Cabinet ministers were given early warnings about the risks attached to the Dome's spending plans fuelled the controversy over the Government's handling of the project.

Peter Ainsworth, the Tories' culture spokesman, said it strengthened the need for Tony Blair to apologise for the project last weekend. The Government had now to accept full responsibility for the Dome's flop, he said. "Ministers' attempts to shift the blame elsewhere look more and more absurd," he commented.

Michael Heseltine, a long-serving Tory member of the Millennium Commission and a leading supporter of the Dome, admitted yesterday the commissioners had effectively gambled that the attraction would achieve the most optimistic figures and lost.

Speaking on Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Heseltine added: "If we had known it was going to cost this much, we wouldn't have done it." He said the commission had "endless" consultants reports which were "invariably cautious." Asked if that meant it downplayed that particular warning, he said: "It sounds to me you are absolutely right."

Mr Heseltine was later supported by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, who said that if he had a second chance he would still have gone ahead with the project given the evidence and criticisms at the time. "Let's be clear, nobody ever recommended we shouldn't go ahead with it," Mr Prescott said.

The Deloitte warnings emerged after the Today programme claimed that its June 1997 report had said that an 8m visitor target was the most realistic. The programme claimed that Bob Stubbs, an analyst then with the consultants BDO Stoy Hayward, also warned the Commission in June 1997 the Dome was "the riskiest project he had ever seen".

Both claims were denied by the consultants involved. A Deloitte spokesman said that in June 1997 the firm believed the 12m target was potentially achievable, but he added: "Deloitte Consulting has consistently highlighted the significant risks attached to the original ambitious projections."

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