New Labour may not have won the General Election until last May, but in the eyes of many its victory was assured some time earlier. This cast a shadow over what has now come to be seen as a Labour initiative – the Millennium Dome, or, in New Labour parlance, the New Millennium Experience, in Greenwich.
The Dome was, of course, a Conservative idea championed by then Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine. And, in the run up to the election, Tory involvement in the project looked set to be a stumbling block in its future.
Towards the end of 1996 Labour shadow ministers were making broad hints that the whole Greenwich celebration would be scrapped should they form the next Government. A spokeswoman for then shadow heritage secretary Jack Cunningham told Design Week he was concerned about its viability, and “will not write a blank cheque till he is convinced it comes in on time and budget” (DW 13 December 1996).
Meanwhile, design group Imagination, which had been appointed to develop the Dome, came under pressure to bring down its proposed 700m budget to 580m.
The following January saw a political agreement of sorts. Labour agreed to give its support to the celebrations if it won the election on the grounds it could review the project as soon as it formed a Government. The prospect of the creative work then being carried out getting scrapped if Labour won the election is unlikely to have helped the design process.
Come May and the election, such fears would prove to be well founded. Imagination admitted after Labour’s victory that it was no longer involved in the creative process, with barely any of its creative proposals being used, despite a 7.6m pay off from the Millennium Commission (DW 28 November 1997).
Control of the project was by now firmly in the hands of the New Millennium Experience Company. Initially formed in February 1997, as Millennium Central, to run the Greenwich event, the company went through a name change after the election. Described as a publicly owned company there is only one share, owned by Dome Secretary Peter Mandelson as the Government’s representative.
This, and the Dome’s use of “public” Lottery funds, has led to accusations of its being dictated by political, rather than creative, concerns. Chief among the accusers has been former Dome creative chief Stephen Bayley, who made widespread and now infamous comments after his departure from the role.
Some elements of the Dome’s interiors have now been unveiled, but as many still remain shrouded in mystery. The sections so far revealed don’t appear to have caused a riot – and the question of whether available budgets will match the ambitions of their designers remains unanswered. And there have been steady leaks of information about Dome in-fighting from a variety of sources.
Design groups have been given a high profile, and a tall order, inside the Dome. Eleven groups – Bentheim, Muf, Eva Jiricna Associates, Park Avenue Productions, Zaha Hadid, Jasper Jacob Associates, HP:ICM, Land, Media Projects International, Spectrum and Work – have been brought in to create internal attractions.
The acid test of the Government’s handling of the Dome – and of the efforts made by those design groups – will be the public, rather than the media, reaction when it opens. Ministers are no doubt hoping that the much-quoted analogy about the Festival of Britain in 1951 – that everybody criticised it before it opened but still talks about it – will hold true.
Labour has taken on the Dome with enough public enthusiasm that the public will associate this Government with it no matter what the outcome. Should it fail Labour will find it difficult to blame the Conservatives for leaving them with a doomed project. The Tories must be rubbing their hands in anticipation.