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Friday, July 23, 1999 Published at 16:14 GMT 17:14 UK

UK Politics

The Millennium Dome minister answers your questions

Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the government minister responsible for the Millennium Dome, answers questions put to him by users of BBC News Online.

Q. Who owns the freehold for the Dome site?
Richard Grear

A. The freehold is owned by English Partnerships who have given the lease to the New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC) and it is them who run the Dome.

Q. After the celebrations when would you expect plots to be made available to commercial development companies? Will organisations associated directly or indirectly with the funding of the millennium project benefit from the commercialisation of the Greenwich site following the millennium celebrations?
Richard Grear

A. We've started a competition for the market to come forward for bids and proposals for what to do with the Dome and that competition has produced a significant number of bids and expressions of interests.

We would expect to be making a decision at the end of this year or the beginning of next.

There's a wide range, ranging from a visitor attraction to a centre for creative industries, to a centre for hi-tech industries to a mixed use involving leisure and industry.

It is really a matter for the people who bid to what arrangements they make with any of those people.

Q.The BBC quotes figures of an expected 12 million visitors to the Dome. This is four times the 1997 volume of visitors to Madame Tussaud's, London's most popular destination. What makes this a realistic estimate?
The BBC quotes the cost of the dome at £758m. Dome sponsorship has apparently achieved its target of £157m. Assuming all visitors to the dome pay the maximum entry price of £20 entry, the revenue before costs will be £240m. The shortfall appears to be £361m, averaging out at £30 per visitor.
These figures seem to imply that the "books" will go into the black after 30 months of maintaining these tourist volumes. Bearing in mind the (fabric of the) dome has been designed to last 25 years, how long do you feel it will be before the dome starts making a profit based on revenues? What tangible benefits will the British tax payer see from the profits derived from their investment?
Richard Grear

A. It reflects the estimate of the British tourist authority in 1998. NMEC and other organisations have done various polls asking people whether they expect to come to the Dome.

Those polls suggest a figure well in excess of 12 million - more like figures in excess of 17 million. But we stick by our target of 12.

In addition, we have made the travel companies aware of various deals that can be done for those people coming to the Dome - getting travel arrangements and somewhere to stay - and the anecdotal evidence is that they are all heavily subscribed.

The exhibition is going to last for a year, that is the year 2000. The funding of the Dome is based on no tax payers money being used. It has been funded by a grant from the lottery, that's the Millennium Commission, commercial sponsorship and ticket revenues.

In order to comply with our business plan, we've got to get about £169m from ticket sales and I'm confident we'll do that during the course of the exhibition in 2000.

Any excessive revenue over expenditure will first of all involve a repayment by NMEC to the lottery which it can then use for other millennium projects, or if the millennium is over, any national opportunity fund projects.

But remember there's no tax payers money used in the funding of the NMEC.

Q. Could you please tell me why the best that Britain can do to showcase its identity is to build some shallow Disneyland ?
Political correctness mixed with the most crass marketing techniques have removed every scrap of the essence of what the Dome is supposed to celebrate.
I cannot identify at all with the dome, it does not represent my nation and the grand things it has done. It is apologetic in its reluctance to express our identity as a nation.
Michael O'Shea

A. The Dome is not some theme park. It is a ambitious, self-confident building, the most impressive building to celebrate the millennium in the world.

We are endeavouring to put inside it an exhibition that will educate, inspire and entertain the UK on a level with that which was done in the Great Exhibition and the Festival of Britain.

I don't think it is a shallow Disneyland.

Q. What does the Millennium Dome contain that makes it a viable attraction for tourists. Compared to places such as the Epcot Centre it sounds quite uninteresting.
Leo Denham

A. The Millennium Dome is not trying to be any sort of theme park. It is trying to be an exhibition for the nation.

Not just designed to entertain - we've got to provide people with fun - but to inspire them and educate them.

Q. How does it fit in with other millennium projects across the UK?

A. The Millennium Commission has spent £2bn on millennium related activities. The funding of the Dome by the Millennium Commission is only 20% of that.

All over the UK there are projects big and small to celebrate the millennium, such as Hampden Park in Scotland, the football stadium has been substantially refurbished in part through Millennium Commission money. In Edinburgh there is the Dynamic Earth project. In Bristol, there is a science and nature park called At Bristol.

They are just an example of a huge number projects in part funded by the Millennium Commission.

Q. I have not followed this story too closely, but I was wondering if there had been much attention given to the fact that the MD will open at the start of the "last" year of the current millennium and then close just as the new millennium actually starts? "The Dome, in Greenwich, south London, will open on 1 January 2000 for one year."
Barry Shackleford, Palo Alto, California

Q. Could you please tell me: 1. Precisely what the Dome is intended to celebrate. 2. Why the Dome will CLOSE on the EVE of the New Millennium (bearing in mind that the latter does not start until 1st January 2001.
Peter Relf

A. We recognise that strictly speaking that the third millennium begins on the 1 January 2001.

However, the decision has been taken to concentrate activities, in particular the Millennium Experience, on the year 2000 since this is the year that all inquiries indicate that the public want and to treat as the beginning of the new millennium.

There's some logic in this, you might regard the year 2000 as beginning an extended New Year's Eve for 2001.

The millennium experience runs throughout the year 2000 and it is the obvious year to mark the end of the second millennium and the beginning of the third.

Q. Of course Lord Falconer of Thoroton will have to defend the government's position on this project but would he not agree that the majority view held by ordinary people in the UK on the Greenwich Dome is that it is seen as being a complete waste of money? How does he propose to change people's opinions that this architectural curiosity is not simply seen as a very expensive theme park that the majority of the people in the UK will not be able to afford to travel to, never mind get in?
Malcolm McCandless Dundee

A. I think before the Dome was built people were understandably sceptical about a substantial amount of money being spent on something such as the Dome.

But as time has gone on, first of all people have seen the Dome has been built.

Secondly, they have become aware that the building of the Dome has brought immense regeneration to the south east of London - 2,000 jobs while it was being built, 5,000 when the exhibition is on and a similar number in the generations to come.

It's going to bring half a billion to £1bn extra of tourism to Great Britain during the year 2000.

People are now saying not 'why are we having it' but 'what's going to be inside it'.

I think the elements of scepticism at the start are now being replaced by curiosity about what is going to be in it and an increasing sense that this is something which justifies itself and is something Britain can be proud of.

Q. This is just another silly example of British arrogance. The Dome is completely unwanted and will require constant pr support from government ministers. I live in the US and nobody here has come up with a comparable piece of irrelevance. I am only shocked that a rational Labour government has produced a Tory folly.
J Hardy

A. It was a project which the Millennium Commission kept going. The Millennium Commission had representatives of both the Tory party and the Labour Party on it. It is a project for the nation.

We believe that it is a project that brings regeneration and provides the opportunity for Britain to show its self confidence in what it can do for the 21st century.

Q. How have you found stepping into Peter Mandelson's shoes?

A. It is a fantastic project. I am genuinely proud of being part of the team to which Peter made an emmense contribution which is hopefully going to deliver the dome and the exhibition for the year 2000.

Q. Why was the cost of admission set so high? I think many people would have gone if it had cost (say) £8 or £10 who will not even consider it at £20, however good it is. I fear this decision will mean that the dome will not be a dome for the whole country, only for the rich.
Stephen Turner, Cambridge

A. It is a Dome for the whole country. We have proceeded on the basis that there will be no tax payers money in the Dome, therefore we had to charge people to come in.

The price we have set are, we believe, low. We are very keen that families and school parties in particular should be able to come.

For a family of five, it costs £57, which is £11.40 per member of the family. We believe that is not a price set only for the rich. Indeed, it is as inclusive as it could reasonably be.

We are also making one million places free for school children who come in school parties so we think it is very inclusive.

Q. I would like to ask Mr Falconer how many schools and hospitals could be built with the money spent on the Dome.
Graham Pointer, St Andrews, Scotland

Q. What else could the nearly £800 of tax money been used on?
If economics is correct about opportunity cost, then the government should tell the people what it didn't spend £800 on?

Q. Yep, my question is.........WHY? All that money, could have cured cancer, or reduced the TV licence or something else that was worth while. instead of this waste of money, time, effort, land, materials, manpower and electricity.

A. Before the Dome was built, the north Greenwich peninsular, where it is, was a desolate and unusable 300 acre site in the east of London - unusable because it was contaminated with gas.

As a result of the building of the Dome the site is decontaminated, there are jobs for between 2000 and 5000 people in the area. A millennium village with 3,000 homes is in the process of being built. The area is being regenerated.

If you ask people of Greenwich, Lewisham, Newham, Tower Hamlets, they are delighted that hope and regeneration has been brought to a formerly depressed part of London, in addition to the £1bn of extra tourism.

So the Dome has a huge and identifiable repayment aspect for the UK.

On top of all of that, it's, we believe, going to provide an exhibition that will education, inspire and entertain the nation.

You can't spend money from the lottery on schools and hospitals, it's spent on things that aren't mainstream government activities. The money from the lottery could never be used on schools and hospitals.

Q. I would like to know why an alternate project that would last, wasn't created, such as the construction of the worlds tallest building. This would have greatly increased London's and the UK's prestige and would have given a clear message to the world of British excellence and construction as its best and not just a 'tent' that will be pulled down in several decades time.
Peter Snowdon

A. This building is now one of the famous buildings in the world.

There are only three buildings you can see from outer space - the Dome, the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China.

That uniqueness is reflected whenever I go abroad people have heard of the Dome. Whenever you fly back to Britain to London, the pilot always says 'look to your right and you can see the Dome'.

It is truly almost as famous as the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, the Pyramids.

The building will, we believe, last for generations, although after 25-30 years the roof will require maintenance. There aren't any many buildings where the roof doesn't require maintenance after 30 years.

Q. Can you guarantee the Dome will be completed on time for its opening? Will the public, who have paid for the Dome be invited to the opening on New Years Eve?
John Masters

A. I can guarantee the Dome will be ready both inside and outside on the 31 December 1999.

I can tell you that so far it has been within budget and on timetable all the way along.

The Jubilee Line Extension, of which we estimate over 50% of the visitors will come, will be up and running before the Dome opens on 1 January 2000.

We've already opened North Greenwich tube station and we anticipate in the summer to connect North Greenwich to the centre of London, Waterloo, and then by the autumn complete the whole of the Jubilee Line Extension.

In addition, there's going to be new river transport, better bus links and a fixed link from Charlton railway station down to the Dome.

We're going to transform the transport infrastructure to get to the Dome.

We hope the opening event on 31 December will have very substantial representation of the ordinary people of the United Kingdom. Through the media competitions are going on to try to select people who local communities want to go to the Dome for the 31st.

Q.Although there are the obvious claims for building the Dome at Greenwich, do you not think it should have been built in a more central location to enable easier access for the whole of the UK's population. People living outside London will not only have to pay for entry to the Dome but also for transport - which may not be ready anyway.
Chris Harrison

A. It is obviously not possible to have selected a site for the Dome which would have suited everybody.

We are very conscious of the fact that the closer you are to the Dome, the cheaper and easier travel will be. We have therefore negotiated with travel companies, in particular the association of train operating companies and coach companies, for reduced prices for travel and almost have in every case been able to get them to agree to prices below their normal prices if you're going to the Dome.

For example, National Express coaches are running a service from anywhere on mainland Britain to the Dome, free entry to the Dome, and return trip back for £29.99.

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