Thought up by the Tories, endorsed by Mandelson and Blair, run by highly paid executives - unloved and unwanted by nearly everyone else. This is the desperate state of the Millennium Dome less than two years before completion. And despite the latest bail out by Blair, there are few signs that it is getting any more popular.
Certainly it is not a popular project in the London Borough of Greenwich where it is located. Stuck on a former toxic waste dump by the river, the sight of the dome's tentacles rising into the air as it is constructed has not gladdened the hearts of local residents. They see the dome as an expensive eyesore, and they contrast Blair's enthusiasm for a project which no one knows quite what to do with, with the projected closure of local amenities. For in the borough alone the Greenwich Theatre, Greenwich District Hospital and the nearby Shooters Hill fire station are all to be shut down for lack of funding.
Nationally, there is little more enthusiasm. A Mori poll in August last year showed that 72 percent opposed the project, preferring the money to be spent on hospitals and schools. As many as 67 percent have no intention of going at all. A local television poll taken on the day the dome's contents were revealed asked, 'Based on what you have seen today would you visit the dome?' A total of 67 percent said no, only 33 percent said yes.
Peter Mandelson, the 'dome dictator', has picked a few choice people to help him run it, including Michael Heseltine. It must be some time since two such unpopular politicians have been united in so unpopular a scheme. Mandelson visited Florida to see Disneyworld and pick up some ideas. Disneyworld bosses instantly distanced themselves from the dome, stating, 'We would not want to be associated with this - it looks as if it could be a disaster.'
The project is costing a massive £758 million. Originally it was claimed that this cost would be £580 million. Probably its eventual cost will come in at around £1 billion. Some £150 million is being asked from private investors, most notably giant Japanese companies Nissan and Toyota, along with British Telecom, the British Airports Authority and Swiss watch maker Swatch, each thought to have pledged millions. Companies like this don't part with such sums of cash without expecting a big return. For that cash they will get a high profile for their company logos in the run up to the millennium and expansive advertising in the dome. A further £200 million of the money is supposedly going to come from ticket sales - just like the Channel Tunnel. That got into such an enormous debt that it couldn't even pay the interest. If it does come from receipts and the dome gets 12 million people through the door, a ticket will cost around £20 a head, requiring 33,000 visitors a day! Visits look like being limited to five hours a go. That works out at £4 an hour (somewhat more than the expected minimum wage) and involves getting round each exhibit in 25 minutes.
As for those in charge of the doomed project no expense has been spared in looking after them. Chief executive Jennifer Page is enjoying a £500,000 three year pay deal, including a £45,000 success fee if the dome opens on time! She's also pocketing £67,500 in pension contributions. While working at the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, Page was heavily involved in the privatisation of Britoil. Chairman Robert Ayling is busy trying to salvage his reputation at British Airways, having provoked the strike amongst cabin crews that cost around £125 million. He is no friend of workers - he threatened mass sackings during the strike - but a good friend of Tony Blair and Jack Straw.
Deputy Chairman Sam Chisholm is known at BSkyB as 'The Rottweiler'. He rakes in an amazing £6.85 million a year, including shares and other bonuses. That's £18,714 a day!
It's not just the fat cats employed by the New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC) who are getting their fill of the booty.
- Sir Richard Rogers, the architect who drew up the plans for the dome, stands to make £7.5 million.
- M&C Saatchi, the Tories' favourite advertising agency, has landed a £16 million contract for the project.
- Mark McCormack, multi-millionaire sports agent, is set to make up to £15 million for his role organising business sponsorship.
- British Gas is laughing all the way to the bank having seen £20 million spent buying and cleaning up previously unusable toxic land. After the whole show is over, British Gas stands to get the land back, and cleaned up!
- £50,000 has also been handed out in payment for the latest millennium logo, an imaginative blue 'M' above an orange curve!
In contrast, the £750 million spent on the dome could provide:
- A hospital bed for everyone who needs one, or four state of the art hospitals.
- A year's free travel on buses for everyone in Britain.
- A home for every homeless person.
- The tuition fees demanded from a quarter of a million students over three years.
- An increase of £350 a year in pensions for a decade.
The money, if spent on debt relief for poor countries, could save the lives of 6,091,000 children, prevent the deaths of 199,000 women in childbirth and provide primary education for 30.6 million children in Africa.
The dome is being sold to local residents on the promise of jobs for the thousands currently on the dole. A figure of 7,000 jobs building and running the dome has been bandied about. But at its peak the construction phase hopes to provide 3,500 jobs - most for less than a year. When the dome is in full swing, the 'Millennium Experience' itself will only last a year. Workers on site have already been forced into signing a no-strike deal cobbled together by union representatives from GMB, UCATT and TGWU, and will have little recourse to defend pay and conditions when expected speed ups come near the end of construction.
Another major problem will be traffic. Greenwich is one of the most polluted boroughs in the capital. Incidence of asthma amongst children outstrips that in any other borough, and recent traffic schemes have created much controversy. In 1999 over 1,500 vehicles will need access to the site every day - and the estimated 12 million visitors will also need access. Park and Ride sites are proposed. Eltham, Woolwich, Stratford and Catford are also threatened with hosting mass car parks. One of the more bizarre plans is a cable car network, running from Canary Wharf and Canning Town. But the main way of travel holds more problems - the tube. It is doubtful that the Jubilee Line extension will be able to handle the required 4.3 million passengers in a year. Its opening date has been delayed because of signalling problems and may be changed again.
Supporters of the dome claim they can make a go of using the river. The idea that they can shift 2 million people by boat along the Thames to the dome is sheer fantasy. The only entrepreneur who has expressed an interest in running the river bus service so far is Richard Branson. If his train company is anything to go by, the passengers will be lucky to get there before the dome falls down. Perhaps a regular balloon flight to the dome will prove more reliable. It is also claimed 1 percent (a quarter of a million people) are going to walk to the dome!
New Labour claims that we will all come to love the dome. It is compared to the Great Exhibition of 1851 or the Festival of Britain in 1951. But 1851 marked the massive expansion of British capitalism and its empire. Britain was then the largest power in the world. In 1951 the festival came on the back of the most comprehensive package of reforms ever introduced, with the NHS, secondary education and welfare reform. Its centrepiece, the Festival Hall, is still in daily use nearly 50 years later.
If the millennium fiasco tells us anything, it is about the decline of British capitalism and its inability to deliver such basic reforms. After two decades of decay and the rundown of public services which this government is doing nothing to put right, we are offered a plastic dome built on an old rubbish dump.