Previous SectionIndexHome Page

8.23 pm

Mr. Michael Heseltine (Henley): I can claim to be the only Member who has been involved in every stage of the Millennium Commission and the saga of the dome. Indeed, in a rather unusual circumstance, I was the Deputy Prime Minister who negotiated many of the arrangements of government that have been discussed today.

As a millennium commissioner, on the change of Government I was consulted by the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), and as a result of that was asked whether I would remain in something of the same position as I had held in government, in order to preserve the continuity of the decision-making processes that had been established and were under way.

Consequently, I have seen the inside story. With hindsight, all of us would do things differently. One thing that I would not do differently in any way was the decision to attempt to replicate the great historic successes of 1851 and 1951. Nor would I change the decision to use the opportunity for the dome investment to regenerate one of the poorest parts of the London borough of Greenwich.

I feel particularly strongly about that because in 1979, I made one of the more regrettable decisions of my career: I left out the sites at Greenwich and Lewisham from the decision that we took to take over land in the five London boroughs to the north of the river. Fifteen years later, the Greenwich site was as derelict as on the day I left it out.

I have thus seen matters from the inside. It would, I suppose, be possible for me not to participate in this debate, which is inspired by my political party, but it would, I think, be less than frank and honourable to the House, which is entitled to hear the views that I have developed.

I shall keep the House for only a moment or two, and explain, as the Secretary of State said, that if the accounting officer of the Millennium Commission is to appear before the Public Accounts Committee in the next few days, and if the accounting officer for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is to report on events for which I had responsibility, it is incumbent on me not to make their task more complicated than it is bound to be.

There are three issues on which I shall speak: first, the all-party, non-party atmosphere in which the project was conceived and delivered; secondly, the decision about the 12 million attendance; and thirdly, the after-use of the Greenwich peninsula.

13 Nov 2000 : Column 726

My right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), when he was Prime Minister, asked me to become a millennium commissioner. He named a number of colleagues with whom I have worked over the years. Some of them have gone and been replaced, but the one certainty about the decision that he took is that the commission would be non-party, all-party. To this day, I could not tell the House in all honesty which way members of the Millennium Commission would vote in a general election.

I know that the late Lord Montague--Michael Montague as he was then--was appointed to the Millennium Commission as a nominee of the Labour party, so from the earliest days, clearly, one of our members was appointed in order to ensure that the Labour party believed in and was on side with all the decisions of the commission. He became a Labour life peer before his premature death after the election.

I now know, of course, that Patricia Scotland QC has become a Labour working peer, but when she initially became a member of the Millennium Commission, I did not know that she was a member or supporter of the Labour party.

Listening to the comments in the commission, I could guess at the political affiliation of one or two of my colleagues, but certainly not all of them. I can never remember any stage, in any of our discussions from that moment to this, when party politics or party allegiances played any part whatever in the decision-making processes in which we engaged.

When we faced a significant hurdle in the life of the dome--that is, the general election campaign--I became preoccupied with the uncertainty inevitably created in the circumstances. There was a moment--I have been critical of this matter in public--when I thought that the Labour party would stand back from decisions of which it had clearly been aware and which it had supported--decisions made after consultations with those on the Labour Front Bench.

So preoccupied did I become by the damage that this was doing to the dome project that I asked to see the then leader of the Labour party, the present Prime Minister, and put to him as strongly as I could the fact that his party had been committed to the project from the first stage. Labour knew all about it, and had complete access to all the information and figures. In those circumstances, a sudden decision by the Labour party to abandon the project would have been--at least--a major breach of integrity.

Hon. Members have referred to the reappraisal that took place. The new Government decided to proceed with the project, and I remained part of a working team that met almost every Tuesday afternoon. The plans were unfolded at those meetings. My colleague from the Millennium Commission, Simon Jenkins--again, of no known political affiliation--took an equal part in those decisions.

My second point is about the projected 12 million attendance. I have spent much of my commercial life launching projects. I have never known one yet that was certain, did not carry an element of risk and did not involve consultants who said, "It can't be done." However, the Millennium Commission took the best evidence that it could about possible numbers. It was ultimately down to the commissioners, not the Government, to decide whether to proceed on the basis

13 Nov 2000 : Column 727

of figures that were high but not unreasonable. I vividly remember the meeting when we made that decision. I shall not say that my views were uninfluenced by my judgment of consultants--I have used many consultants. The late, great Charles Clore said:

An element of that applies to consultants.

The other profound influence on my views was my experience with the Liverpool garden festival. When the plans were put to us, I was told, "Secretary of State, we are forecasting 3 million visitors. We'd like you to endorse that figure." I said that I would state that I was advised that we were expecting 3 million visitors; I was not prepared to endorse the figure. I felt ashamed of that later because 3.6 million visitors went to the garden festival on Merseyside in six months.

When I took part in the decision-making process on the dome, I remembered that 3.6 million visitors had come to Merseyside in six months. I knew that the dome would be a national endeavour, sited in London, that it would embrace a huge number of tourists, and that it would carry all-party support and massive private sector financial support and all that went with that. It therefore seemed reasonable to back expert advice that around 10 to 12 million visitors were possible.

The precise moment at which everything appeared to go wrong does not accord with my memory of the reporting of the dome endeavours from the mid-1990s onwards. I have been engaged in the development of many controversial public projects, but I have never known one so undermined and vilified by the national press from the moment that it was announced. Of the many reasons for not achieving this, that or the other target, one reason for not gaining the private sector financial support that we might have expected, was that every time we endeavoured to raise money from the private sector, our attempts were met with massive contemptuous dismissal from the national press.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield): Did I misunderstand my right hon. Friend, or did he imply that it was his intention from the start that the project should go to London?

Mr. Heseltine: I personally was inclined that way. I appreciate the persuasive battle that my right hon. Friend fought for Birmingham. I was open-minded, but I had an instinct that we were considering a national project for the capital city. I shall outline the factors that determined that the project went to Greenwich, and influenced my other colleagues on the commission, who spoke for themselves.

My right hon. Friend can at least give me credit for being one of the national exhibition centre's most frequent visitors. However, we did not believe that it offered the opportunity for a spectacular architectural innovation; we believed that the Greenwich site did that. Secondly, we did not believe that the national exhibition centre offered the same incredible regeneration opportunities--opportunities that were not so desperately needed on the NEC site as they were in Greenwich.

Mr. McCabe: If regeneration was such a central criterion for the right hon. Gentleman, why was it not

13 Nov 2000 : Column 728

mentioned in the original competition that the Millennium Commission announced? Why were the Birmingham NEC group and the city council told that they could not use regeneration arguments to support to their bid?

Mr. Heseltine: I would have to look back at the relevant documents to ascertain whether I agree with the simplicity of the hon. Gentleman's case. Let me put a counter-argument as it occurs to me. We divided the competition into two parts: proposals for building the dome and proposals for a site. With hindsight, the Millennium Commission had no power to organise the dome. We could only ask others to present proposals. We were preoccupied by the risk that we might have got a fantastic site in, for example, Birmingham and a wonderful proposal for, for example, Derby. We had to decide how we would cope with that. We therefore decided to split the competition between the organisation and the site. Birmingham had incomparably the best proposal, which was presented by Gary Withers of Imagination. However, the problem of the site remained.

There was also a powerful additional argument for Greenwich that I had not deployed before the hon. Gentleman questioned me. In Birmingham the motorways were a problem. The NEC would have been a car-served site.

Next Section

IndexHome Page