What’s the Big Idea? Looking at the Legacy of the Millennium Commission

If you visit the Millennium Commission website you might be forgiven for thinking that every visitor attraction project they were involved in was an unqualified success.

Just to remind you, in their words “The Millennium Commission assisted communities in marking the close of the second millennium and celebrating the start of the third. The Commission used money raised by the National Lottery to encourage projects throughout the nation which enjoyed public support and would be lasting monuments to the achievements and aspirations of the people of the United Kingdom.”

Related:   Should National Museums allow Free Entry? / What is more important, recruitment or training? 

By Martin Barratt

The website has a searchable database that gives access to all the projects they supported… but hang on a bit, some of them are missing! The Millennium Commission website exhorts us to “…Search the Millennium Project database to find out about all the different types of project the Commission has funded.”, but try typing in ‘Earth Centre’ or ‘Big Idea’ and there are no results.

The website was abandoned in 2007 so it’s no surprise that it still lists Wildwalk and the Imax theatre as part of At-Bristol, although these closed four years ago. Do you remember the rather touching innocent surprise of management, when the sponsorship and public funding that bridged the gap between its costs of £6m a year and its revenues of £4.5m dried up? One of the buildings so expensively restored as part of the Millennium project is now an aquarium run by a commercial operator who I suppose are the ultimate beneficiaries of the lottery funding.

Every year that passes the abandoned website will get more out of date; already it’s a rather poignant corner of the internet, a bit like the unchanging face of Dorian Grey it will never age while the attractions it represents fade and die.

And that of course is the tragedy, not the abandoned website. Last month we learned about the demise of Ceramica in Stoke on Trent. The £3.5 million pottery museum was closed by trustees in March after Stoke-on-Trent City Council pulled the Burslem venue’s £150, 000-a-year funding. Now it has been placed into receivership and the locals are all in favour of its conversion into a Wetherspoons, but the old town hall that housed the exhibition is owned by the Town Council and the rather horrid extension by the Big Lottery Fund, so who knows what they will allow to happen. What is certain is that the money used to develop it will be largely wasted and whatever benefit still remains from the investment will likely be enjoyed by a commercial company.

Similar to the Earth Centre (see images) then, which cost nearly £64m and received a Millennium Commission Grant of £36m. After it closed Doncaster Council got fed up with paying £200, 000 a year to maintain it and they sold it for an undisclosed sum to a company planning to develop a commercially focussed activity centre for school children expected to open in 2012.

Are we seeing the start of a trend here? How bad does our economy have to get before more local councils pull the plug on their Millennium white elephants?

The Commission was quick to shout about any of its attractions which beat their visitor targets, but do any of the Millennium projects even approach their visitor targets now? How many are truly commercially viable and wouldn’t have to close if their public funding was pulled?

I suspect that the answer would be very few, if any, and that should be no surprise. After all The Millennium Commission itself admitted that it had “…taken some calculated risks. It would have been easy to invest in the  traditional tourist honeypots, but the aim was to get a UK-wide spread of projects and schemes. The Commission invested in some deprived areas because we believe this attracts new investment and raises the level of the local economy.”  In other words they invested in attractions built in places where no commercial attraction would work.

So I wouldn’t be surprised if more Millennium projects followed Ceramica into oblivion, leaving their expensively developed sites to be exploited by commercial operators.  Am I alone in thinking that the whole Millennium fiasco was a scandalous misuse of money raised from what is ultimately a tax on the poor? According to a Theos study in 2009, their research adds to a growing body of evidence which shows that Lottery players come from poorer backgrounds. They also spend significantly more, as a proportion of their household income, than more affluent players. The poor tax they gambled on the Lottery was used to create visitor attractions that could never pay their way and which would have to be supported from their council tax, until the point when they can be supported no more and they are sold off cheap.

Maybe it’s time for someone, anyone, to revisit the Millennium Commission website and try to express just a little humility for the mistakes they made.