Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Sir Norman Fowler: There is a railway.

Mr. Heseltine: Yes, but an enormous number of people would have travelled by motorway. They could not have been stopped. The NEC is served by cars. For many of us who travel along the motorways of the west midlands on a Thursday or Friday, the idea of injecting an enormous extra flow of private transport into that area was perceived as a disadvantage at the time. Those are broadly the arguments that led us to Greenwich. Again, with hindsight, I would not rely on public transport. There is a psyche attached to the use of the car and the way in which families entertain themselves that imposed a serious liability on us as we tried to achieve our targets.

My third point is about the after-use of the site. We are all agonising about the regrettable way in which the project has worked out. No one feels that more strongly than me. From the experiences of the London Docklands development corporation, I am aware that none of us really knows how regeneration projects will work out. Nobody would have believed me if I had stood at the Dispatch Box in 1979 and proclaimed the success of Canary wharf, City airport and Excel. I would have been laughed to scorn. Yet that was the beginning of an extraordinary phenomenon.

I do not know what will happen in Greenwich, but I know that there is a remarkable building there. It would be a tragedy if, in the short-term aftermath of the collapse of public confidence in the project, we tore down the building as an act of contrition. I hope that the Government and the Millennium Commission, which will be consulted and of which I am a member, will keep its nerve. I hope that when considering the £10 billion of lottery money that was raised through the foresight of my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon, hon. Members will bear in mind that the expenditure--far more than we ever wanted--is still to be seen in the context of the most remarkable creation in a generation of expenditure on culture, heritage and the arts that this country has ever seen.

13 Nov 2000 : Column 729

8.40 pm

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): The right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) and I have known each other for a long time, going back to our undergraduate days. It is 20 years since we faced each other regularly across the Dispatch Box. We argued about a great many things. As he is not standing again at the next general election, perhaps we shall not speak again in the same debate in the House. That being so, I pay tribute to him for the regenerative work that he did when Secretary of State for the Environment. I differed with him a good deal about some of it but he did a great deal. I thank him for the money that he put into Moon Grove in my constituency. We had a bitter argument in the Chamber, and behind the Chair he agreed to put money into my constituency, with no conceivable political gain for himself. I pay tribute to him for that and for his honest and honourable speech this evening.

The right hon. Gentleman has cause to be proud of the dome as an icon of the United Kingdom. Coming into the country from the air, it is a great landmark. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I hope that we shall be able to keep it for a long time, as it fulfils an honourable function.

If the official Opposition had conducted the debate in the manner adopted by the right hon. Gentleman, it would be a different occasion. I know that too many Conservative Members are beyond shame, but I hope that when they listened to the right hon. Gentleman they felt some shame about the way in which they are seeking to make cheap party capital, which they will fail to do, over what was intended to be a national project. It was intended to be a non-party project, and it should have remained so. Had that happened, it might well have achieved more of the visitor numbers which the right hon. Gentleman and Labour Members wanted.

The right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley), the former Secretary of State for National Heritage, paid tribute to Jennie Page, who is one of the most remarkable people I have ever met, for the way in which she delivered the dome on time. It is extremely difficult to deliver a huge building project on a specific day, one day beyond which would have been regarded as a catastrophe. She is a remarkable woman. I said to her face that her determination and single-mindedness made Margaret Thatcher seem humble. She took that in good spirit. As we said in a recent Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee report, I hope that she will be able to do further valuable work in the public sector.

We now know, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said and as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said at the Labour party conference last month, that a serious error was made, which was to believe that Governments or public bodies know how to run visitor attractions. The Select Committee, of which I am Chairman, had a relevant witness at its first hearing and first inquiry three years ago. If it was an error, and it was, that is because Jennie Page, with all her extraordinary virtues, did not know how to run such an attraction. That is no discredit to her. However, if we had known that, things might have been very different.

It is all very well for Conservative Members to sneer and talk about Mickey Mouse. The Disney organisation knows how to run visitor attractions, but Disneyland Paris was a catastrophe when it first opened. It is now the only visitor attraction in democratic Europe that has more

13 Nov 2000 : Column 730

paying visitors than the millennium dome. However, it got it all wrong to begin with. With its incredible wealth, it had to bail everything out and start again. A huge commercial organisation that knows how to do things, has huge experience and has a brand name unrivalled in the world could not get things right. It is regrettable that the Conservative party started to make cheap political capital out of the dome, and discreditable even to it.

Mr. Gale: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kaufman: No. I shall proceed.

We have only to look at the history. I am making no excuses for my right hon. Friends. They are the Government, and they should take responsibility. Let us remember, however, that the Government had been in office for only six weeks when they decided to continue with the dome. Most of my right hon. Friends in the Cabinet had no experience of government and had never sat on the Government Benches. I thank the right hon. Member for Henley for saying that they decided bravely to continue it. It had started under a party which had been in government for 18 years. We were told that it was the party of business.

I do not think that we can blame a fledgling Labour Government, after 18 years in opposition, for believing that the Government who had been in office before them knew what they were doing. The timetable can be traced in the report which the Select Committee published in August. In June 1994, the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), as the first chairman of the Millennium Commission, talked about

In February 1996, the Millennium Commission selected the Greenwich site. With great respect, I believe that it was right to do so. There was the road transport factor along with regeneration and the symbolism of the meridian line, which I believe was extremely important. The commission did that long before the general election. At the beginning of 1997, it set up the New Millennium Experience Company and appointed Jennie Page as the chief executive. It decided, a policy which the Labour Government continued, to appoint a Minister as sole shareholder, rightly believing, as did the previous Government, that in the end the matter came back to the House, or in the case of Lord Falconer, the other place. [Interruption.] There is no point the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) giggling about the House of Lords being a House of Parliament. When Harold Macmillan became Prime Minister, for a time he had a Member of the House of Lords as his Foreign Secretary. It is a House of Parliament, and the Conservatives dominate it, so they had better not sneer at it quite so much as they do.

I do not criticise the Conservatives for doing all that. It is easy with hindsight to say that the big error was the estimate of visitor numbers. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, in a non-contentious manner, gave the history of the estimate of visitor numbers. The Select Committee has conducted a series of inquiries into this matter. Its eighth report published in August contains a

13 Nov 2000 : Column 731

memorandum submitted by the Millennium Commission on 24 May 1995, which is nearly two years before the Labour Government came to office. It said:

But 15 million was considered likely.

A memorandum in July said:

In February-May 1996, a year before the general election, a memorandum said that the commission

On 16 May, it said:

In January 1997, it said:

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the right hon. Member for Henley are absolutely right to pinpoint the fact that those, as it turned out, highly over-optimistic projections are at the root of the financial problem. All the overhead factors were built in on the basis of that visitor number. Once they were built in, they could not be built out again. We could not change the building. We could not suddenly reduce the number of staff. As my right hon. Friend said, the staff are wonderful. Their sheer courtesy and kindness help to make this visitor attraction a great experience for those who go to see it.

Let us be clear about this. The hon. Member for East Surrey said that we should have realised long ago that the dome would be a failure. It is a failure in relative terms: it is not a failure as a paying visitor attraction--it is an amazing visitor attraction.

Members on the Conservative Front Bench--not the few grown-ups left in the party, such as the right hon. Member for Henley--have dissociated themselves from this project. I was on the underground train on the night of 31 December last year with my niece and her husband. They had come down from Leeds to join me in the celebrations. She has a proud picture taken with the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition on the underground station. He was there that night. He did not dissociate himself from the dome that night. He was part of it. It would be greatly to his credit if he remained part of it. He is doing his party no good, because the electorate are not fools. A Gallup poll in The Daily Telegraph today shows that 42 per cent. of the electorate blame the last Conservative Government for the present rail chaos, and 15 per cent. blame the present Labour Government.

One of the reasons why the Conservatives will be trounced at the next election and why their chances of returning to office at any time in the foreseeable future are small is that they have contempt for the electorate.

13 Nov 2000 : Column 732

Eighteen years in opposition at least taught me not to have any contempt for the electorate. I learned that the voters know what they are doing.

Next Section

IndexHome Page