One side-effect of Peter Mandelson’s fall from office is that
responsibility for the Dome and millennium projects devolve to Chris
Smith, the Culture, Media and Sports Secretary.
Now I happen to watch his activities pretty closely, and rate him as one
of the quiet successes of the Government. But even as Smith hastened to
issue assurances that the Dome would be a big success, I was questioning
my knee-jerk hostility to the project - all part of an attempt at a new
year mental spring clean. There is something insidious about the way
years of largely negative press coverage on any touchy subject - from
the euro to the Millennium Experience - can build prejudices.
But I suspect the team who are marketing the Dome will find a swell of
popular enthusiasm at last building up as the year progresses, to the
point where tickets actually go on sale.
A few days ago I met up with the chairman of one of the biggest
companies backing the venture. His excitement was palpable. He was old
enough to have visited the Festival of Britain 50 years ago and
experienced the huge enthusiasm it created. The Dome will be exactly the
same, he said.
So what are the plus points? The first is that an insalubrious ’brown’
river site has been rescued for the entire UK by this strange
combination of public and private money and effort.
For this the honours must go to Michael Heseltine who as a long-standing
campaigner of inner city regeneration saw its potential, and also won
all-party backing. The current rash of stories about whether the Jubilee
Line extension will be ready in time also have an honourable place in
tradition, and should be viewed in context.
All major civil engineering works of this kind overrun, ratchet up
costs, and get held to ransom by key workers. The Thames Barrier was
But enough of the new tube - the section between Waterloo and the Dome -
is expected to be running by 31 December to render items such as a
recent despairing Radio 4 news feature on trying to drive there through
congested south-east London, pointless scaremongering.
The further long-term plus is that the UK is pitifully short of huge
covered places, where family groups can spend a day out regardless of
the weather. You only have to visit the Natural History Museum or a big
shopping mall on a Sunday afternoon to see how people love to get
Also visitors gain more than an educational shuffle through delights
such as a giant human body and regular shows are planned. EuroDisney
suffers precisely because it is so exposed.
Chris Smith has inherited a sound, bold project, far easier to sell to
the public than we’ve been led to believe. I’m raring to go.