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EDITIONS
Thursday, 20 September, 2001, 12:51 GMT 13:51 UK
Long road to Wales's opera house
The 92m Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff looks finally like it will be built after more than three years of political wrangling.

After a thorough re-costing and re-design the National Assembly for Wales gave it a cautious green light in April.

But the road to build Wales's first dedicated national venue for opera and the arts has been long and strewn with obstacles, stretching back almost seven years.

The centre was planned as the phoenix which would rise out of the ashes left after plans for an opera house in Cardiff Bay were razed to the ground in 1995.

Rhodri Morgan
Rhodri Morgan: Has approved the plans
The Wales Millennium Centre was designed to be all embracing after accusations of elitism scuppered the original scheme of an opera house, designed by internationally-acclaimed architect Zaha Hadid.

That scheme collapsed in 1995 after it failed to secure funding form the Millennium Commission; the board of which felt the project was not economically viable; a conclusion made rather ironic in the light of the Dome fiasco.

The WMC plan emerged from the rubble of the Cardiff Opera House debacle and a second international design competition saw the Percy Thomas Partnership selected to draw up the plans.

Plans for the new centre, included a permanent home for the world-class Welsh National Opera and a 1,700-seat concert hall, as well as providing a home for Wales's premier dance company, Diversions.

Rubble

Jonathan Adam's distinctive armadillo design and pledge to create a building Wales could be proud of engendered fresh excitement within the arts world in Wales.

It promises to be unmistakably Welsh and internationally outstanding, using materials such as slate to reflect the landscape from which it will emerge.

The Wales Millennium Centre would be cost effective, open to all and a shining beacon for the new Wales and a thriving arts industry, was the boast.

Originally costed at about 75m, the centre would be funded by the Arts Council of Wales, Europe, the Millennium Commission, the National Assembly for Wales and private finance.

Rescued

But three years on and not a brick has been laid on the proposed site of the centre close to the waterfront in Cardiff. Indeed, the plot had to be rescued by the local authority late last year after the developers Grosvenor Waterside, tired of the delays and lack of progress, put the land back on the market.

From conception to planning, the cost of the scheme had spiralled from 75m to more than 100m, and then back to 75m.

The birth of the National Assembly, far from aiding the scheme, seemed to drag the project down further with the revolving door arrival and departure of first secretaries further stalling the centre.

The lack of progress at the centre over the last two years led to a whispering campaign that the project had failed to secure enough private finance to get the building off the ground.

A damning report in October last year, commissioned by the National Assembly, concluded that the centre had never been on course to meet its budget and if further funding was not made available, it would have to be wound down.

Redesign

It recommended a reduction in size and complete redesign, otherwise first secretary Rhodri Morgan would refuse to hand over the necessary finance.

Officials at the project blamed the politicians for back room wrangles, while politicians blamed the costing of the centre.

A new report with up to date costings and designs was put to the Assembly in April.

The First Secretary has approved the plans, which re-cost the project at 92m, but concerns remains that the centre's success could only be achieved at the expense of other venues.

Wales's Culture minister Jenny Randerson has ordered the Arts Council of Wales to audit arts venues across the country.

Safeguarded

The National Assembly for Wales has pledged to spend 2m on venues outside Cardiff that may be at risk.

The National Assembly has also safeguarded the project from spiralling costs during construction - whoever wins the contract to build the centre will be forced to absorb extra costs in the project goes over budget.

The building is due for completion in 2004 but there are still several hurdles left to overcome, most crucially a 25m funding shortfall and a cross-party vote on the scheme.

Assuming these hurdles are met, Wales should get its opera house 10 years after the scheme was first started.


In DepthIN DEPTH
BBC News Online looks at how the arts are funded in the UKArts funding
How the UK's cash for the arts is spent
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