HC Deb 03 February 1997 vol 289 cc664-6
7. Mr. Austin Mitchell

To ask the Secretary of State for National Heritage what estimate she has made of the costs that would be incurred by her Department in the event of the cancellation of the millennial project at Greenwich. [12222]

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley

As I informed the House on 20 January, an exhibition will take place in Greenwich to mark the millennium. Significant progress has been made on the project since then. Greenwich council gave planning permission last week and I understand that English Partnerships is close to completing its purchase of the site. The detailed design work is well under way and contracts have been let for work to begin on site. The millennium exhibition will be a showcase for Britain; it will be enlightening and enjoyable, involving the nation as a whole.

Mr. Mitchell

The right hon. Lady has not answered my question, which was about the costs of junking the exhibition. Would not the cost of junking the exhibition be small compared with the humiliation and extravagance involved in going ahead with what essentially will be a boil on the bum of the millennium? It is a project which has no purpose—unlike the exhibition of 1851 and the festival of 1951—which business does not want, in which companies will not invest, which is being built in a place that no one wants to go to, and could not get to even if one did—and which will have no permanent value apart from a Hezza-dome, which is likely to be as transient and as vainglorious as its progenitor. Would not the money involved be better spent on putting schools, museums, galleries and public buildings on line to national culture, rather than being chucked away on an expensive piece of land reclamation?

Mrs. Bottomley

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should debate the design with his noble Friend Lord Richard Rogers, who may feel that it is a subject for a television debate with the hon. Gentleman.

Despite the shameful amateur dramatics of the Labour party, it has consistently supported a millennium exhibition at Greenwich, both through its nominee on the Millennium Commission and in other discussions. The Labour party also believes that for Britain to have a world-class exhibition on a magnificent regeneration site, with a futuristic building alongside the wonderful naval college, will be a tremendous opportunity.

When the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, my hon. Friends see more of the detail of the exhibition, they will understand the messages involved and the degree to which the exhibition will involve the nation as a whole. I look forward to that shortly.

Sir Norman Fowler

Do I understand that, in addition to a vast amount of public money, my right hon. Friend is considering setting up a public corporation with a Minister in charge? Are we not getting into rather curious policy territory with the exhibition?

Mrs. Bottomley

It is the view of the Millennium Commission and the Government that the right structure for the operating company is a non-departmental public body, for which the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will be responsible—because, as chairman of the Millennium Commission, I cannot pay the grant to myself in another capacity. I know my right hon. Friend, and I was very surprised to hear him ask his question without mentioning that he is absolutely delighted by the launch of the Digbeth millennium point—a £50 million project in Birmingham—and by the many other ways in which the national lottery has supported his constituency, thanks to his active championing of the case.

Mr. Thurnham

Will the Secretary of State say what lessons have been learnt from the very high costs of the Greenwich site? Are we not in danger of spending too much millennium money in London, as there are plenty of derelict sites elsewhere in the country?

Mrs. Bottomley

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for accepting that as a planted question, because I wanted to tell him that Greater London has received only 15 per cent. for capital projects, as opposed to 19 per cent. for the northern region. To date, £767 million has been awarded to 94 projects in 2,045 sites across the United Kingdom. As I said, only a small share of that money has come to London from the Millennium Commission. In the past quarter, the largest increase was in the area in the west midlands represented by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler).

The hon. Gentleman will also be aware that, apart from the £200 million being spent on the millennium exhibition, £200 million will be spent on millennium awards, which will have an endowment attached. I should like to spell that out to Labour Members, because they have invented a new concept, called an "endowment fund". If they did their homework, they would discover that the Millennium Commission has already taken up that concept.

Mr. Jessel

As well as all those other schemes across the country, does not my right hon. Friend think that people at home and abroad will be absolutely astonished and utterly amazed if we get to the millennium—once in a thousand years—without some grand, national, central exhibition to celebrate it?

Mrs. Bottomley

I do—[Interruption.] Labour Members cheer and sneer. The millennium is a quite remarkable and very exciting moment, and I pay tribute to the work of churches and of those in local authorities, the arts, sports and the heritage fields for the work that they have already done in finding ways in which the millennium can be celebrated which will genuinely lead to renewal and regeneration of communities across the country. I hope that we will be able to set out those plans in more detail in the near future.

Mr. Raynsford

Does the Secretary of State agree that, although some hon. Members on both sides of the House might have preferred another location, there is only one logical location for Britain's millennium exhibition—in the place to which the entire world will be looking in the year 2000? The meridian line in Greenwich determines time around the world. Now that we have a proper and sensible budget to which we can work, is it not essential to focus on making a success of the exhibition, so that all hon. Members and people across the country can take pride in it, as the rightful successor to the great exhibitions of 1851 and 1951?

Mrs. Bottomley


Mr. Booth

In addition to that praise of Greenwich, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether holding the millennium celebrations there—on a derelict 400-acre site which is the last in central London to require urban regeneration, and which is one of the most polluted in the world—will not only transform it from dereliction to celebration but represent a great event for the normal people of London and a great triumph for the Government?

Mrs. Bottomley

I thank my hon. Friend. The opportunity of such a major regeneration project close to the heart of our capital city is enormously worthwhile. I recently travelled on the new Jubilee line to see the large underground station that will be available at the site.

My hon. Friends should also be aware that Bristol has a major £41 million millennium project, Newcastle has a £27 million regeneration project, Cardiff has a £46 million project, Salford has a £15 million project, Hampden Park in Glasgow has a £23 million project, Doncaster has a £50 million project, Portsmouth has a £40 million project and Birmingham—

Madam Speaker

Order. Let's finish this off. Come on.

Dr. John Cunningham

We all know that, if the right hon. Lady and her right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister had had their way, there would have been an open-ended cash commitment to a project at Greenwich, which was heading towards costing the people £1 billion. Will she assure us that she, like us, is committed to working to make sure that the Greenwich millennium project stays on course and within budget, and that not a penny more than that budget will be spent on it?

Mrs. Bottomley

The right hon. Gentleman knows full well that neither the Government nor the Millennium Commission had any intention of signing a blank cheque. The Labour party had a nominee on the commission. Information has always been readily available. I am delighted about the magnificent project, which I believe will be delivered to budget, in spite of the shameful scaremongering and positioning of the Labour party in recent weeks and months, which can only threaten the project, rather than achieve the result that would be in the nation's interest.