With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement to the House about the millennium exhibition.
The Millennium Commission, of which I am chairman, announced this morning its preference to hold an exhibition, based on the theme of time, on the Greenwich peninsula in the year 2000. Following consultation, the commission announced last year its aspirations for a national exhibition to provide the focus for the celebrations of the year 2000. The commission believed that there should be a single shared experience for the whole nation as we move into the 21st century, and that we should celebrate our achievements, abilities and potential as a nation.
The commission, with only grant-giving powers, needed to identify a location and an organisation capable of producing an event that would meet the commission's aspirations and justify the expenditure of lottery money. The commission therefore conducted two separate competitive processes, to identify the potential site and the potential operator. In January, it announced that it had decided not to proceed with the Derby or Stratford sites, and that it had asked Imagination Group Ltd. to develop further its proposals for the exhibition, to enable the commission to make a fully informed choice between the two remaining sites—the national exhibition centre and the Greenwich peninsula. Today's announcement by the commission takes the process closer to a firm commitment to finance an exhibition.
The commission was impressed by the NEC's potential: it was at the heart of the country, was well networked and had a sound operational track record. The strength of local support and the dedication and commitment of the team greatly impressed the commission; I pay tribute to that. The commission decided, however, that Greenwich offered the greatest potential as the site for an exhibition that would meet the commission's aspirations, allowing more people to see a more exciting presentation of the exhibition theme based on time. The chosen site is on the prime meridian, and the Imagination proposals for Greenwich feature "The Circle of Time", adding a potential dramatic landmark.
Moreover, the Greenwich peninsula could enable the commission to deliver a substantial legacy by regenerating an important part of south London through a potential permanent entertainment and leisure development, together with residential and retail space. It could also stimulate the further regeneration of the remaining British Gas landholding on the peninsula. That would represent excellent value for grant.
I stress that the celebration will not be confined to Greenwich; there will be a nationwide programme. The programme organisation will begin later this year. In 1997, we will see the development of a series of regional centres to shape the content of the exhibition. Artistic, scientific, historical and sporting components will be incorporated into the millennium exhibition. In 2000, each region will own a week in the millennium exhibition programme and will deliver its vision of the new millennium. The exhibition will be presented in 12 themed pavilions, each focusing on a different interpretation of time—such as "Action Time" and "Past Time"—with parallel entertainment, education and activity programmes.
The commission is inviting Sir Peter Levene to examine the work completed to date and the work that Imagination, British Gas and English Partnerships are undertaking, and to provide advice to the commission by its May meeting as to whether a sound and commercially viable proposal is deliverable. If so, the commission expects to confirm the grant, partnership funding, planning and other implementational issues by September. British Gas will now proceed with site decontamination and preparation works on the Greenwich peninsula.
For the first time, the commission has made public its financial commitment to the exhibition—in principle, it is willing to commit up to £200 million in lottery grant to the exhibition, and the remaining capital and operating costs will be raised from other sources. The commission stressed that the exhibition depends on the private sector to deliver its full potential. The commission will need to be fully satisfied of the viability of the whole project, including the firm commitment of private sector support, before confirming its grant decision.
The exhibition is the single most significant event to be funded by the national lottery. The lottery is already helping to regenerate the cultural fabric of the country, providing financial assistance to projects that develop social cohesion by bringing people together to participate in sport, the arts and heritage projects. It is changing the landscape for community involvement.
With a project of this scale, it is inevitable that there will be implications for Government. In order to ensure that the Government's participation is well planned and co-ordinated, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has today announced that he has asked my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister to convene a ministerial group that will have the task of overseeing the Government's role and taking forward the necessary planning of any Government involvement in this event.
This unique opportunity to stage the millennium exhibition would not be possible without the contribution from the national lottery, which has already brought benefits to people across the country. It provides the means by which the dreams and aspirations of the people can find their realisation. Future generations will look back on the millennium exhibition as the time and the place when the United Kingdom showed the world just what we can achieve, working together as a nation to leave a truly lasting legacy for the future.
The right hon. Lady has made an important statement about one of the largest projects that we shall see in Britain over the coming years. She and her fellow commissioners had the unenviable task of deciding between the merits of excellent proposals from competing cities. There are natural and understandable disappointments as a result of the decision, particularly in Birmingham and throughout the west midlands.
A decision has at last been taken—after a somewhat extended and perhaps even byzantine process—during which time those hoping to host the exhibition could not discuss their proposals with those hoping to operate it, and vice versa. I am sure that hon. Members would like to know why that convoluted process was introduced. Today the right hon. Lady has made it clear to hon. Members that there is still no certainty that a viable project has emerged. It might be described as a chronicle of wasted time. However, many people share the view that Greenwich is an appropriate choice for the home of the exhibition, as the meridian has been used as the basis of international time reckoning for over 100 years.
May I make it clear to the Secretary of State that we recognise the huge potential of the millennium exhibition, not simply for Greenwich or even London, but nationally and internationally? It will be of key importance for Britain and for our economy, directly through tourism and, indirectly as a shop window for Britain, especially as Britain's and London's cultural, creative and innovative industries will have an opportunity to develop further there.
Which Ministers and Government Departments will be represented on the proposed ministerial group that the right hon. Lady mentioned? What co-ordination will take place between those Departments? What will be the relationship of that group with the Millennium Commission? Is the group taking charge of the project rather than the commission? If so, that makes it a political matter, when the purpose of the commission was to establish a non-party political approach to what was being proposed. Is not it, to say the least, curious that the Deputy Prime Minister is to chair that ministerial group, rather than the right hon. Lady? What is the explanation for that?
I must express our best wishes to Councillor Len Duval, his team in Greenwich and Greenwich Millennium Trust, on their success in winning this project. How will the Government respond to the trust's proposal that a guarantee should be given that the Jubilee line will be operational at the time of the exhibition, that a river boat service from central London to Greenwich will be provided and that there will be a connection between Greenwich and the British Rail network, perhaps by the construction of a tramway system?
Is not the proposal that the millennium exhibition site be a car-free zone very appropriate in the circumstances? But is not it essential that those public transport infrastructure developments are completed and operational in time? If that is not so, is not the right hon. Lady's claim that this will be a truly national exhibition likely not to be fulfilled as we would all wish it to be?
Can the right hon. Lady tell us more about the proposed regional centres, which will be part of the exhibition? Where will they be located, when will the sites be identified and what process will be used to decide on them? How long does she plan the exhibition to last?
What thought has been given to the potential long-term gains for Greenwich, London and the nation of such huge investments? Half a billion pounds in total—some people estimate even more—will perhaps be invested in the project. Surely we must construct buildings of quality, which will stand the test of time, as this country did in 1851 in south Kensington and again in 1951 with the Royal Festival hall. It does not create much confidence in the decisions that have been announced today, when we are curiously left uncertain as to whether the Government can ensure that the proposals will actually come into being.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his overall recognition of the complexity and difficulty of the decision that has been taken and of the special role that Greenwich can play, not only nationally but internationally. It was a difficult decision, but it was the commission's ultimate view that Greenwich offered the opportunity to leave a landmark development on that significant Thames-side site, provided a great impetus for the regeneration of the derelict site on that peninsula and offered the potential to create new economic opportunities for a depressed area. Like the right hon. Gentleman, we believe that the potential for tourism is important, not only nationally—15 million visitors are expected—but internationally.
Further details of the proposals are yet to be announced. I shall have to leave many of the precise elements to Imagination to announce itself in due course. One of the strong themes of the concept is the regional component, and different parts of the country will participate and contribute their own elements to the exhibition.
I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's reference to the 1851 and 1951 exhibitions. We want our millennium exhibition and festival to exceed even those. The right hon. Gentleman asked about the ministerial group, details of which are set out in an answer from the Prime Minister this afternoon. It includes Ministers from the different countries of the United Kingdom and the Secretaries of State for the Environment, for Transport and for the Home Department. The intention is to co-ordinate support for the millennium exhibition, including questions of planning, transport, and crowd control and security.
Inevitably at times, with such an enormous project, it will be necessary to co-ordinate with the Government. We have set that in hand, but the Millennium Commission, as the right hon. Gentleman will know, is independent. It benefits from the contribution of a member who is the nominee of the Leader of the Opposition and, undoubtedly, the care and the rigour with which the decisions have been scrutinised by the commission cannot be overstated. I pay special tribute to the chairman of the festival committee, Simon Jenkins, who has taken an inordinate amount of care, time and trouble—with the rest of the festival committee—to reach the point at which we could announce the decision.
As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is in the market for another job, may I suggest that he be directed to establish a millennium-free zone, to which all those may repair who do not want to be deafened and drenched by millennium mania in the next two or three years?
I hate to fall out so strongly with such a respected and revered Member of the House, but I believe that the millennium is an important moment for the nation, because we have proud traditions and a great future also. Our nation should take the opportunity to celebrate our achievements, abilities and potential. I believe that the celebration will be a unifying event and greatly enjoyed by all.
Of course, it is right that there should be millennium celebrations up and down the land, but my colleagues and I wish to welcome the announcement that Greenwich has been chosen. It is the obvious and best site, and it will provide the most exciting opportunity for a lasting celebration for the local, regional and national good.
Can the Secretary of State confirm that we shall use the opportunity afforded by the announcement to ensure that the whole of the Thames, from Battersea and Vauxhall down to Greenwich, becomes Europe's leading arts, recreational and cultural centre? Can we ensure that the exhibition is truly a people's exhibition that all people can afford to visit?
Finally, it is an irony that the Government's greatest exhibitionist has been chosen to run the exhibition.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his recognition of the wonderful site for the exhibition. I think that it will be a great success, not only nationally but internationally. Many people endorse his vision of the Thames, and the national lottery gives us an opportunity to invest in many environmental improvements and projects of artistic excellence along the Thames. It is exciting to see that wonderful river being improved and restored and people taking opportunities to benefit from it. The hon. Gentleman is probably aware that some of the concepts involved in the festival at Greenwich will use the Thames as it should be used, which is as a means of transport.
Given the high precedent set in 1851 and 1951, I sympathise with my right hon. Friend on the challenge with which the commission was faced. I congratulate the commission on the thoroughness and imagination of the consideration that led to the decision. I hope that the architecture will be worthy of the traditions of Inigo Jones and Sir Christopher Wren, so that the whole nation can unite behind making the exhibition a worthy successor to its great predecessors.
I thank my right hon. Friend, whose diligence and foresight did much to set in place the work of the Millennium Commission and the ideas that it has initiated. I was slightly alarmed when I was passed his first document as chairman of the Millennium Commission, as it reminded the readers that the last millennium was presided over by Ethelred the Unready. We hope to be better prepared than that.
I take to heart my right hon. Friend's comments about architecture. I believe that the millennium should be a moment for recognising the past and celebrating the future. Good design in the buildings that are part of the exhibition and in all those buildings funded by the national lottery should be one of the key criteria.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and for the decision that the millennium festival and exhibition should be located on the meridian line in Greenwich, which is the most natural place to celebrate the millennium in Britain. The decision will be warmly welcomed in an area that has suffered disproportionately from industrial decline and unemployment, because of the regeneration capacity and the scope for creating up to 10,000 new jobs. I put it to the right hon. Lady that a great deal of work will need to be done over the next three and a half years on a tight time scale, and I urge her to ensure that the Millennium Commission and the Government give their full support to all those in Greenwich who will be working flat out in the months and years ahead, to ensure that the exhibition is truly worthy of its predecessors in 1851 and 1951.
The hon. Gentleman is right to identify the amount of work that remains to be done in order to bring this site of enormous potential into full life. The legacy of the river walks and the leisure, entertainment, residential and retail opportunities is formidable, but it will be a major task, with a tight timetable. I am confident that, with the good will of all the parties involved, we can achieve it.
When my right hon. Friend said that the millennium should be
a single shared experience for the whole nation
does not that invite us to allow the nation, through a free vote in the House, to express an opinion on the two sites, closely contested as the decision was? I have no idea whether the people of Scotland, Wales or the north would prefer to go to London rather than Birmingham, but at least let there be a free vote after a short debate to look at the options.
Having spoken to some of the people in the design industry and some of the technologists who will be involved in the project, I can tell my right hon. Friend that there is already a fear that, if too much of the money available is spent on infrastructure and buildings, we may end up with a slightly tattier exhibition inside them than would be the case at the more cost-effective site in the midlands.
I am not convinced that a vote in the House would be the most appropriate way of making the decision, although I would dare wager with my hon. Friend that, if hon. Members had to make a decision, they would all favour their own constituency and, following that, they would probably say that the capital city was as good a place as any in which to have the festival. That is simply a humble matter of conjecture. In a speech 18 months ago, the Prime Minister referred to the Millennium Commission's work and said:
Never have so many advised so few about so much. And it will get worse. But since the Commission is a fiercely independent body, and will remain so, I do not regard myself as in any way disqualified from adding to their burden.
He was referring to matters other than where the site of the millennium festival should be, but his words were indeed prophetic.
Is the Secretary of State aware that there will be considerable dismay in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland at the total failure to recognise that there are nations within the United Kingdom as well as regions? Is she further aware that the vast majority of my constituents will be unable to go to the exhibition in Greenwich, even though I welcome the fact that there will be an exhibition there? Why on earth did we not have a multi-site exhibition at several of the major cities, including, of course, Glasgow?
As the hon. Gentleman sees the plans unfold in the year ahead, I think that he will be reassured by the extent to which all parts of the country will be involved in the millennium exhibition and festival.
With regard to different projects in various parts of the country, I am reminded that only recently there was a major Millennium Commission announcement for Hampden park. I seem to remember that, last Friday, Cardiff Arms park heard that it was to receive £46 million. Indeed, all parts of the country are benefiting, and the Millennium Commission has announced a number of substantial projects in all parts of the country, not only in the capital city.
Is my right hon,Friend aware that there is no point in having a capital city unless it is treated as such? Is she further aware that the National Heritage Select Committee recently took evidence from the British Tourist Authority, that the great majority of potential foreign visitors want to come to London? That being so, the decision that has been made will result in more visitors coming to Britain, which will benefit the economy as a whole.
It is my view that we should be proud of our capital city. It is a cultural, commercial and communications centre of very high quality, and the millennium festival will add greatly to the opportunities.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the correct title under statute of English Partnerships, which has been bought into this, is the Urban Regeneration Agency, which is funded by £190 million a year of Government money? Will she tell us at what point and on what date urban regeneration became a key factor in the millennium exhibition? If it was a key factor, no one in the midlands would ever have bid for what in effect is a green-field site at the national exhibition centre. It naturally follows, therefore, either that the rules were misunderstood in the midlands or that they changed after the exercise began.
Will the Secretary of State further confirm, as she has not yet done so, that Imagination will be the operator at Greenwich, because at no time did it ever give details of the millennium exhibition at the Greenwich site out of choice? It did so only after Birmingham's bid, which was seen to be superior to the other operator, had been seen behind closed doors. It tried to transpose what it had done for the NEC to Greenwich. Will Imagination be the operator at Greenwich?
First, to deal with English Partnerships, its work is to promote the reclamation and development of vacant, derelict and contaminated land throughout England, to stimulate local enterprise, create jobs and improve the environment. It acts primarily as an enabler, working in partnership with other bodies involved in urban regeneration. It is believed that its involvement in the scheme at Greenwich will enable the work to be completed in time for the millennium. The commission always took the view that the legacy from the exhibition was important. There are legacies of various kinds, but a legacy involving major regeneration and restoring the river walkways was one that captured the imagination of the commission.
Of course, Birmingham was not the only other site. My right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) was a vigorous champion of the Derby proposal. The site is magnificent, but the commission took the view that it was not possible to bring it forward to the short short-list. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) has been a formidable champion of the NEC case and of the significance of the west midlands. The commission was aware of the great excitement and the pressure from people in various parts of the country to favour their particular sites.
Throughout, the commission has acted openly, fairly, and swiftly in making a decision that it felt was right for the nation as we celebrate the new millennium.
Is the Secretary of State aware that there will inevitably be great disappointment in Birmingham about the decision, but that that is as nothing compared with the anger that will be felt at the manner in which the decision was made, the latest example of which was raised by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker)? How does she explain why the corporation of London was briefed and allowed to announce the decision last Friday, when all other information of any kind was being refused point blank to the rival bidder? Is there any conceivable way in which Birmingham and the NEC could have won the so-called contest?
I shall answer my right hon. Friend's last question first. Undoubtedly, the NEC might well have won the contest. It is well known to all of us as Ministers; it is accessible, provides an excellent service and is extremely popular. I can speak warmly of the constructive and co-operative approach of the team there. The decision was very finely balanced, but for reasons that I have set out, the commission's view is that the right place to hold the festival is Greenwich.
As for information becoming public, I am a mere novice in this place and in politics in general, compared with my right hon. Friend, and he will know how, with the best will in the world and the most careful preparation, information that one greatly wishes to remain confidential sometimes hits the public domain in advance. That is a source of great regret. However, the exhibition is an extremely complex matter and many different interests are involved. My right hon. Friend will know that keeping matters confidential is difficult enough even within Government, and I think that when one is taking forward plans involving so many different bodies, it is understandable how the information was released, much though I deplore the fact.
Is the Secretary of State aware that one region that has not benefited from millennium funds is the northern region? One element of the exhibition that she described could be provided by the International Centre for Life, proposed by Tyne and Wear development corporation and supported by Newcastle university and Newcastle city council. That is the most innovative, futuristic and imaginative scheme yet put to the Millennium Commission, yet it has been inexplicably deferred. Will the Secretary of State look into that?
I am aware of the project that the hon. Gentleman describes, because many of those involved in it were associates of mine in a previous job. It sounds an exciting project, but it must be well established, with funding properly settled, and several other issues must be resolved first. I must correct the hon. Gentleman about millennium funding, because Tyneside, for example, has received £5.7 million for the Smith's park regeneration project. I was in Newcastle only the other day, and I marvelled not only at the investment in the area and the regeneration taking place there, but at how much of that now revolves round arts, sports, heritage and the other cultural activities to which the lottery has made the most formidable contribution.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if the mantle of Prince Albert is to sit easily on the shoulders of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, it is important, first, that the buildings that house the exhibition are of pre-eminent quality and, secondly, that the exhibition is not dominated by gimmicks, but is a reflection of the best that this country has produced and can produce? Does she agree that the whole thing will be a total mockery unless the Royal Naval college at Greenwich is properly reprieved and remains a public building and institution through the next millennium?
Far be it from me to deflect from the formidable contribution for which we hope from the Deputy Prime Minister, but his role as a member of the Millennium Commission is probably at least as significant as his role as chairman of the ministerial group. This is a highly complex, important project. Vast sums of money and a tight timetable will be involved and it is important to be able to streamline the relations with different Departments. The question of building design is given careful consideration, and the chief architectural adviser at the Department of National Heritage will shortly meet all the different lottery distribution bodies to discuss their measures, to ensure that the buildings constructed as a result of the national lottery are of high-quality design.
How is it that this Government and previous Tory Governments always seem to make of any issue to do with the arts and the heritage—and we have only got to ask people who work in those areas—either a minor farce or a major tragedy? How does this arise time after time in this area? More specifically, would the right hon. Lady be prepared to receive representations from some of her colleagues as to an excellent project that is being thought up, which will be an illuminated statue trail all the way from the National gallery to the Tate gallery?
It takes one to know one. The only major tragedy, of course, would be if the Labour party were ever in power. It seems to want only to cap the prizes and to increase the lottery's operating costs, which would mean that we would be unable to invest in these great opportunities. The hon. Gentleman refers to a statue trail, which is one of many exciting initiatives presented for lottery funding. I would be extremely sympathetic to it, but I am merely the humble chairman of the Millennium Commission, which is served by a group of independent-minded, wilful human beings who do not follow a three-line Whip from their chairman.
Does the Secretary of State understand that many people in the north of England will not share in the grumpy noises that have been made on the Back Benches and that they will look forward to visiting the exhibition? They would much prefer to visit it in London than in Birmingham, which they think of as a place that people go through on the way to London. They will think it especially appropriate for the exhibition to be in London, remembering that 90 per cent. of lottery awards so far have been awarded to places outside London.
Will the Secretary of State give particular attention to the problem of Cumbria, which sits uneasily between the northern and north-west regions, to ensure that, when the regional role arises in 1997 and 2000, Cumbria has a special place, bearing in mind the magnificent future that it has?
Although my right hon. Friend expressed sentiments with which I think many hon. Members would agree, perhaps he was unduly harsh about the joys of Birmingham. I think I made it clear that there were many strengths in Birmingham's bid, and it is certainly a magnificent city. I shall certainly bear in mind my right hon. Friend's comments about Cumbria. As we reach the first anniversary of the distribution of lottery awards, all the distributing bodies wish to be sure that every part of the country has benefited. It is remarkable that, although awards have been made for under a year, already 5,121 awards totalling £1,225 million have been made. That is a remarkable success story in a short time.
Does the Minister acknowledge that the whole bidding process has been an absolute charade? Will she confirm that the decision about London was taken some time ago and that the excuses that have been trotted out about Birmingham and the other cities are merely to fit that decision? Will she explain the position of Imagination? Which site does it favour, bearing it in mind that it worked on the Birmingham bid and has now been brought into the London one? Were the bidding rules changed? Birmingham complied exactly with the time scale, but can the Minister explain why London was given additional weeks to put together its proposals?
The commission has sought throughout to be absolutely fair and even-handed. It set a timetable that it knew was tight, but there was always the potential to ask for further information, to satisfy itself on additional points as it made progress. Imagination is a most exciting concept, involving "The Circle of Time" and the participation of all parts of the country. In its original presentation to the festival committee and the commission, it had worked up proposals for all the different sites that are involved. When the commission first saw the Imagination proposals, "The Circle of Time" plans had been worked out for the Greenwich peninsula.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend would agree that the decision is a considerable tribute to the beneficial effects of the national lottery which, of course, was introduced by a Conservative Government. Will she go beyond the statement on the success of Greenwich and consider the frankly overdue enhancement of many of the benefits along the great River Thames? They include Bankside, the plans for the beautiful Battersea park by Wandsworth council, and the plans for further along the river by my own borough, the royal borough of Kingston upon Thames. That is all good news for London, which we should look at as a whole.
It is indeed good news for London, and I note that a news release from London First today states:
This is a unique opportunity to regenerate a major part of London and will provide a lasting legacy for the generations to come. As importantly, it will act as a springboard for London to lead the world into the next millennium.
Does the Secretary of State agree that there are three other sites close to the chosen exhibition site, which could house associated activities? They are the Meridian site in West Ham, which is less than a mile away; the royal docks, which are 500 yd from the site; and, pre-eminently, Greenwich town. Will she answer the question of her hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) and assure us that the premises of the Royal Naval college will be available during that period? Finally, because Greenwich is a measurement not only of time but of longitude 0 deg, will the right hon. Lady and her groups take suggestions about enlarging the millennium concept into the international and global spheres?
The hon. Gentleman reminds me of some of the other sites involved, especially the Stratford site, which has enormous potential and where I have no doubt that considerable development will take place. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) and the hon. Gentleman for omitting to mention the Royal Naval college—a magnificent Sir Christopher Wren building. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is leading efforts to find a viable future purpose for that truly magnificent building. The hon. Gentleman is probably aware that we are proposing that it should become a UNESCO world heritage site. He will therefore understand to what extent my Department is involved in ensuring that that wonderful heritage is not only safeguarded but properly and fully used.
Following that point directly, is my right hon. Friend aware that the Select Committee considering the Armed Forces Bill is tasked among other things with considering granting our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence the right to issue a 150-year lease for Greenwich hospital? Does she agree that her announcement should cause one to look more imaginatively at the whole Greenwich site, and perhaps consider joining the national maritime museum site and Greenwich hospital?
My hon. Friend makes an exciting and interesting proposal. That site, on which was built a palace that became a hospital and is now a college, needs to find a new and practical purpose. I believe strongly that heritage should not be fossilised but used, visited and treasured. It is perhaps the most remarkable site in the country. If the plans for the festival involving the use of water transport make progress, very many more people will have the opportunity to see the site from the water as well as visiting it on foot. I shall pass on my hon. Friend's other suggestions to those who are more involved in the detail of the festival.
If Greenwich and London were such natural and obvious choices, why was a competition held in the first place? Is the right hon. Lady aware that the fact that she could hardly keep her face straight when she read the statement will be taken as conclusive evidence that the competition was a farce from beginning to end?
Of course, the hon. Gentleman is entitled to his opinion. I can say only that the Millennium Commission was extremely diligent about having a competition for the site and a separate debate about the operator. Fifty-seven potential sites were offered to host the festival, and four potential operators came forward. It was a very difficult decision. The hon. Gentleman sees an expression of delight on my face because very many hours of deliberation and debate have for the time being reached a conclusion. It is the right decision, and it will lead to a great deal of fulfilment and opportunity for the people of this country.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that her announcement will be greeted with great disappointment in Birmingham and the west midlands? Birmingham is the nation's second city and a great deal more than simply an industrial or scientific centre. It has a growing reputation for culture. My right hon. Friend's announcement will do nothing to encourage Birmingham. Other hon. Members have said that people travel through Birmingham on the way to London. That is one reason why the exhibition should have been given to Birmingham. It would have established an alternative centre. My right hon. Friend should understand that there is life outside London.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. I have here a list of 50 different lottery awards that have gone to the Birmingham area. Two are very substantial—one to the Ikon gallery and one to the City of Birmingham symphony orchestra. It is a very exciting and vibrant city, with a very good university. There is a great deal of activity. Although I regret that it has not on this occasion won the opportunity to stage the millennium festival, I am aware that it has submitted another very substantial millennium bid, for which it hopes it will receive tens of millions of pounds, for one of the flagship regeneration projects.
In welcoming the commission's decision on what I see as the obvious site on the prime meridian in Greenwich, I also welcome the announcement that, although Greenwich will be the focus of celebrations, there will be regional and local celebrations also. Does the right hon. Lady share my view that not only should it be an opportunity for fun and enjoyment, but there should be a lasting legacy, and the Greenwich site provides that opportunity in terms of sustainable development and economic regeneration? Will she impress upon the Deputy Prime Minister, who is to chair the committee, the importance of sustainable development, of the tramlink, of the use of the river for public transport and of the regeneration of the arsenal site and its heritage proposals?
I will. It was precisely the elements that the hon. Gentleman identified that persuaded the commission—difficult though the decision was—that the Greenwich site was the right place to have the festival. It will be a shared national experience, bringing together the successes of the past and our aspirations for the future, to provide hope and inspiration for us all as we enter the next millennium.