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The UK Millennium Construction Boom

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Updated January 2014The Millennium Dome.
Speaking of wisdom, it was my honourable friend who mentioned the recent great Millennium fiasco. That was, in a different guise, another of the lottery-funded good causes in which boards, bureaucrats and well-meaning people decided what to do with large lottery sums. The result was the Dome and a wobbly bridge. That does not give me much confidence that the great, the good and the well-meaning and well-intentioned will always make the wise choices about how to use the money that those of us who assiduously buy lottery tickets - to say nothing of increasingly put-upon taxpayers - expect of them.
- House of Commons debate, 23 March, 2001.

We've only ourselves to blame. As a race, we have this obsession with the number of fingers we were born with1. We use ten different symbols to represent numerals, and place-value to represent larger numbers. Boy, do we love those numbers which end in a zero! We celebrate milestones and anniversaries which can be counted in multiples of ten. When we consider numbers which are multiples of one hundred, ten squared, then we get even more excited. Multiples of one thousand are very special indeed.

Equally to blame is the bright spark who first had the idea of a calendar in which consecutive numbers are assigned to years, taking as an arbitrary origin the supposed birth date of some barn-born prophet from Bethlehem. When this sequence approached a value which was the number two multiplied by the number of fingers, cubed, then we decided that it was a good excuse for a party. Such a party, that we felt we had to erect lasting memorials to it. In the UK, the Millennium Commission was born.

Using the profits from the new UK National Lottery, huge sums of money were set aside for ambitious construction projects to coincide with this date. Across the UK, as the Millennium approached, work started in eager anticipation. Little did they know what hangover was in store in terms of overruns, overspends and white elephants littering the skyline.

It wasn't just Millennium projects, of course. There were countless other 'good causes' which were liberally funded by the Lottery Commission as well as by other organisations more closely aligned to the Treasury. Even the most dedicated supporter of the Lottery must wince at the hard-earned 'taxes'2 sunk into the more expensive of these failed projects.

Ten That Didn't Go To Plan

Fiasco n. (pl fiascos) a ludicrous or humiliating failure.
— ORIGIN Italian, 'bottle, flask', used in the phrase far fiasco, literally 'make a bottle', figuratively 'fail in a performance'.

This article celebrates, if that's the right word, ten of the recent high-profile publicly-funded construction projects, which have been been, in one way or another, considered fiascos. These ten have been selected according to criteria such as delay, additional cost to the taxpayer, commercial failure and 'black comedy' value.

The B of the Bang, Manchester

The whole rusting edifice should be shipped back to Sheffield, melted down, and the £2million of public money squandered on this folly refunded and put to better use.
- A local councillor, writing to the Manchester Evening News, 11 May, 2006.

Named after a remark by Olympic sprint gold medallist, Linford Christie, in that he sprinted out of the blocks on the 'B of the bang', this striking sculpture by Thomas Heatherwick was, at the time of construction, the tallest in the UK at 55m. Looking not unlike an oversized spiny sea-urchin, it was commissioned to commemorate the 2002 Commonwealth Games, and spikily sat outside the City of Manchester Stadium.

Despite attracting almost universal acclaim for its impact, problems started on 6 January, 2005, one week before its official opening by Christie, when a tip of one of the 180 metal spikes fell 22m to the ground, thankfully not impaling any rough-sleeping Mancunians in the process. Over the next few years further parts fell off the sculpture, which appeared to have been susceptible to vibration in windy conditions. The structure was eventually dismantled in 2009.

The local councillor eventually got his way in July, 2012, when the sculpture's core was melted down for a scrap value of just £17,000. The spikes have been put into storage, pending a possible reconstruction in the future.

The 'Wobbly' Bridge, London

Or to give it its proper name, the Millennium Bridge, this footbridge across the River Thames links The Tate Modern art gallery at Bankside with St Paul's Cathedral. It is maybe a little unfair to consider it a failed project today; the bridge is sleek and attractive - a permanent fixture used daily by thousands of people.

Its well-publicised problems arose shortly after it opened in June, 2000, when a design fault caused the £18million structure to sway disconcertingly under the weight of pedestrians. There were some new and untried engineering concepts underpinning the whole project, and the designers didn't foresee that it would oscillate with a resonant frequency related to that of the pedestrians' footsteps. The bridge was hurriedly closed and remained that way for 20 long months until the architect, one Norman Foster, came up with an engineering solution - damping the oscillations using additional supports - and it only cost an additional £5million. The bad publicity surrounding this failure was huge; the press, already with their knives out for the Millennium Dome, heaped ridicule on both the architect and the Government.

The National Museum of Popular Music, Sheffield

Content is king.
- Bill Gates

It's difficult to decide which of Jarvis Cocker, Def Leppard, the Human League, or ABC were the reason for Sheffield's selection as the new Mecca for pop tourists, but selected it was, ahead of London and Liverpool, and in 1999 the National Museum of Popular Music opened to the tune of £15million. On its grand opening, two Elvis impersonators abseiled from the roof, pulling back the tarpaulin to reveal Nigel Coates' strikingly futuristic building. Nicknamed 'the Kettles' by locals, the four rolled-steel-clad drums, each topped with an unusual spout-like cowl, housed a number of interactive exhibits.

The Arts Council's estimate of 400,000 visitors per year flocking to interact with such memorabilia as ABC's gold lamé jackets was woefully inaccurate, however; just one fifth of this number had passed through the turnstiles nine months later, when the plug was pulled by the creditors.

In 2005, the building became the new Student Union for Sheffield Hallam University.

The Spinnaker Tower, Portsmouth

...So good they named it twice...
- Lyrics from 'New York, New York'

Portsmouth has been the undisputed home of the Royal Navy since Tudor times, yet recent defence cuts have seen large areas of the dockyard lying derelict and much in need of redevelopment. There's no doubt that the £100million 'renaissance' of the harbour has been a huge overall success, and has attracted new visitors and investment to this unlikely place. The problem was the centrepiece - an enormous tower built 'to rival the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower'.

The 170m Millennium Tower, one of the tallest UK buildings outside London, was planned to be completed in time for the Millennium, but a catalogue of construction problems, and alleged mismanagement led to it being delayed by over five years. As memories of the previous century were now fading fast, the decision was taken to rename it the Spinnaker Tower, after its sail-like design, in the hope that nobody would notice.

So, on 18 October, 2005 it finally opened, at a cost of £36million, leaving the local taxpayer footing an unexpected bill of £11million, but there was some poetic justice on the day. While local dignitaries looked on, the project director and two others took a trip in the external glass elevator, making final checks, only for it to come to a shuddering halt, stranding them at what many ratepayers would consider a gratifyingly dizzy height.

Throughout the project, all manner of excuses had been aired to explain away five years of delays and overruns, but the best of these was saved until last. In an admission which would shame even British Rail, the lift failed because 'the wind was blowing from two directions at the same time'.

Earth Centre, Doncaster

When the coal started to run out, the pits were closed and the mining communities, which for centuries had provided the backbone of Britain's Industrial Revolution, lay abandoned in their spoil-scarred landscapes. Such a scene surrounded the South Yorkshire town of Doncaster in 1990, when an idea was proposed for a landmark Millennium project, an open-air museum which would become the national focal point for sustainable development.

£36 million of lottery money was put into a £55 million project to reclaim 300 acres of wasteland into a landscaped park with state-of-the-art architecture and exhibits on recycling, sustainability and ecology. It opened in 1999, but sadly, the visitors didn't, well, visit. Only one fifth of the expected 500,000 came in the first year, and the centre eventually closed in 2004. It had something to say to us, but we weren't ready to hear it.

Diana Memorial Fountain, London

This is supposed to be a memorial for an icon of the twentieth century. Instead, it is a half-hearted, damp squib that is, quite frankly, dissing Diana even in death.
- Vivienne Parry, a friend of Diana.

When Diana, Princess of Wales died in a Paris car crash in 1997, there followed an unprecedented and very un-British outpouring of grief. Around a million floral bouquets were heaped outside the gates of Kensington Palace and three million mourners lined the route of her funeral procession. You might assume, therefore, that a memorial to Diana would become an attraction that people would flock to. Well, flock they did, but the team who designed the £3million Diana Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park didn't foresee the 5,000 visitors per hour, who dumped their used nappies in it, let their dogs defecate in it, and trampled the surrounding grass into a vast muddy lake.

Kathryn Gustafson's 80m by 50m oval watercourse, lovingly hewn from Cornish granite, invites visitors to interact with the bubbling crystal-clear water while contemplating the life of the princess.

The project didn't get off to an auspicious start; internal wranglings over the design delayed its opening by nearly a year. Already £0.6million over budget, it then failed twice within days of opening due to pump failures, one incident caused by a particularly pernicious 'rogue leaf'. Worse was to come two weeks later when three bathers were hospitalised with head injuries after slipping on a slimy surface of algae. A seven-feet-high fence was swiftly erected to keep numbers down, while staff trained in first aid and crowd control were brought in. The cost had risen to £5.2million, with a £250,000 annual running cost. Rogue leaves are shot on sight.

The Public, West Bromwich

Clear a large area of Black Country urban wasteland. Take one IKEA-sized warehouse, painted black. Cut a number of irregularly-shaped holes in it and paint the borders bright pink. Presto, you have the new arts centre for West Bromwich, The Public3. Likened by many to a tank of tropical fish, Will Alsop's attention-grabbing design was bankrolled largely by the Arts Council of England to the tune of £38 million, and construction started in 2003. In March, 2006, just three weeks before its planned completion date, it had swallowed up £54million, when it was placed into financial administration. Somebody said the project had 'breached its funding envelope', whatever that means.

Like others listed here, The Public had a crisis of content - nobody really knew what it was for. Well, there were ideas; there would be space for exhibitions and start-up businesses, a restaurant, top-floor views of the gorgeous Black Country landscape, but nothing which was likely to attract the proposed 500,000 annual visitors to this terminally run-down part of the world. In November 2013, Sandwell Borough Council cut their funding and the centre closed as a public facility. It will be converted into a sixth-form college.

Clissold Leisure Centre, Stoke Newington, London

In 2006, a Channel 4 survey branded Hackney, East London as the worst place to live in the UK. Not surprisingly, this attracted a backlash from annoyed residents; after all, it wouldn't have done much for house prices in the borough. In 2012, the London Olympics regenerated the region somewhat, but there was one other Lottery-funded project which attracted all the wrong kind of publicity.

A few stats: the original 1993 budget for the swimming pool on Clissold Road was £2 million. It was to open in 2000. Architect Stephen Hodder was then awarded the contract for his stunning modernist design in aluminium and glass, and the bill had risen to £12 million. It actually opened in 2002, but was closed a year later after 39 serious design and construction faults had been identified, and by this time £31 million had been sunk into it.

It was the nature of the defects which left most residents of the borough aghast. The roof leaked, the walls were cracked, the electrics were waterlogged, the ceiling was falling in. The borough had wanted to run special sessions for Muslim ladies, who, not known for their rampant exhibitionism, were expected to use glass-walled changing rooms. The list went on and on. The centre eventually reopened on 15 December, 2007, at a final cost of £45 million.

The Millennium Dome, London

This will be a celebration for the whole country. I want today's children to take from it an experience so powerful and memories so strong that it gives them that abiding sense of purpose and unity that stays with them through the rest of their lives.
- Tony Blair, 24 February, 1998.

'One Amazing Day' said the publicity. 'One amazing bill' said the press. Expensive though it most certainly was, the Millennium Dome was just one small part of a £4billion redevelopment of the Greenwich peninsula - a derelict, industrially-contaminated area of South East London, aerially familiar to viewers of the BBC's Eastenders title sequence. It is unlikely, however, that the New Millennium Experience is an experience the Government will want to repeat.

Sheffield's 'Kettles' may have suffered from a content problem, but the Millennium Dome was a positive triumph of style over substance. Time-boxed to complete by 1 January, 2000, the only positive thing to say about it is that it did actually open on time - it kind of had to. The government of the day4 rode roughshod over all opposition, branding sceptics as party-poopers, and even appointing a minister5 to oversee the project, whom the press swiftly labelled the 'Dome Secretary'. Money was no object, apparently - £750million is a conservative estimate - but what did we get for our hard-earned?

Well, as if we hadn't paid enough, we each paid a further £20 to enter this plastic-tented cathedral of the absurd, for the privilege of queueing for hours6 to view a number of hastily-conceived pseudo-educational exhibits, arranged within thematic 'zones'. To be fair, some visitors declared it to be an enjoyable and worthwhile experience, although this could well have been some form of denial at the three-figure sum they had spent to transport their family there from some remote part of the country. At any rate, visitor numbers were barely half of the 12 million anticipated.

At the end of 2000, the exhibition was closed and the exhibits auctioned off. The big top then lay dormant for several years - a monument to financial folly writ large across the landscape. After this period of reflection, change eventually came. Rebranded the O2 Arena, it reopened as an entertainment and sporting venue on 24 July, 2007 with a concert by Bon Jovi. Further major events have followed, including Led Zeppelin's long-awaited reunion on 10 December, 2007.

Bath Spa

This is the daddy of all overspends, a £200 charge per head, compared with £17 for the Millennium Dome.
- Dan Norris, local MP.

Bath is famous worldwide for its hot springs. In the 1st Century AD, the Romans built a bath complex, the excavations of which are one of the city's major tourist attractions today. The city's Georgian architecture reflects an age when people would travel to enjoy the healing properties on offer at this spa resort; indeed, a medical treatment centre had been on the site as recently as 1978. Since it closed, the city had always intended to refurbish and reopen the thermal springs, and it saw a Millennium grant as a way to achieve this.

It was a tricky contract, for sure, involving alterations to five listed buildings, as well as the construction of a steam room and rooftop swimming pool. Starting work in 1996, the grand rebuilding of the spa facilities should have been finished at Easter, 2000, and cost £13.5million, but things didn't quite go to plan.

Things were fairly quiet in the early years, although a lengthy delay caused by a pair of nesting mallards was a sign of things to come. The deadlines came and went with a whooshing sound; each year's new tourist season opened without its star attraction. The Three Tenors7 sang at a grand concert at its 'official opening' in August, 2003, but the spa didn't open then, and wouldn't for another three years.

One recurring theme was a problem with paint. It melted on the walls of the steam room, and it peeled from the spa pools. The council became embroiled in an ugly and very public legal battle with the builders, Mowlem. They sought injunctions to bring in other contractors to fix the paint problem, and Mowlem wouldn't allow them on site. As well as this, there were cracked foundations, leaking floors, inadequate boreholes and vandalism to deal with. All the windows needed replacing, as did the filtration system.

The contractors were sacked in May, 2005, but it was another year before the facility finally opened in August, 2006. Ten years to build a posh swimming pool - at a final cost of £45million. Bath residents paid more than five per cent additional council tax in 2006/7 and will do so for the forseeable future.

Some Dishonourable Mentions

There were other failures, of course, a few of which are listed below:

  • The Life Force Centre, Bradford sunk £2.2million of Millennium Commission grants into a £5 million interactive exhibition explaining different faiths - another worthy idea which failed to capture the public's imagination. Expecting 40,000 visitors a year, only 62 paid to enter in its first week. It closed in February, 2001, after just seven months, leaving Bradford Cathedral with debts of £4million.

  • The Centre for Visual Arts, Cardiff lasted twice as long, yet attracted only a quarter of the visitors it forecasted on its grant application. The art gallery, including an interactive exhibition on the theme of the visual world, transformed a listed former library in Cardiff city centre at a cost of £9million, including £3million of lottery money, before closing in November, 2000.

  • The National Botanic Garden of Wales, Carmarthenshire has teetered on the brink of insolvency since it opened in May, 2000, at a cost of £44million, but has been regularly rescued financially by the Welsh Assembly. It features the largest single-span glasshouse in the world, designed by our old friend, Norman 'Wobbly Bridge' Foster.

  • The Stirling Prize-winning Scottish Parliament Building, Edinburgh was completed in 2004 for a staggering £431 million, ten times its estimated cost.

  • The New Wembley Stadium, London swallowed up £120million of lottery money from Sport England, as well as further large sums from other funding bodies, but the plans to open England's national football stadium for the FA Cup Final in 2003 were soon in tatters. Successive deadlines were missed as the Australian builders, Multiplex hit all kinds of construction problems. It eventually opened for the 2007 Final8. George Michael gave the first New Wembley concert on 9 June, 2007, and the venue has since hosted a variety of events, including the Concert for Diana on 1 July, 2007, and even an NFL American Football game9.

  • The 2012 London Olympics was well-received and well-organised as a spectacle, yet the cost of the Olympic Park left a lot of ill-feeling in times of economic downturn. This was apparent many years before the event, when its projected cost was uplifted from £2.4 billion to a staggering £9.35 billion. The mayor at the time, Ken Livingstone promised that for 12 years, Londoners would pay no more than 38 pence per week towards the event, or as he put it, the price of a Walnut Whip.

And Finally - Ten That Went Well

Of course there were some huge successes, too. It seems that every UK city of a certain size can now boast a children's hands-on science exploratory, and within some of these, not all of the exhibits have yet been irreparably vandalised. In the interest of balance, and in no particular order, here are 10 which are widely regarded as successes.

The Angel of the North, Gateshead

Gateshead's answer to Rio's Christ the Redeemer, Antony Gormley's striking sculpture is the gateway to Tyneside, and invites us to think about coal mining, a transition to the information age, and our own hopes and fears. Despite early opposition, it was finally accepted into the hearts of the locals10 the day when some enterprising football fans dressed the Angel in the shirt of that other local angel, Alan Shearer.

National Space Centre, Leicester

Built in a disused Severn Trent Water storm tank, this is the UK's first attraction on the theme of space, and attracted 300,000 visitors in its first year. It also served as the Lander Operations Control Centre for the Beagle 2 mission to Mars, but the less said about that, the better.

The London Eye

The world's tallest observation wheel, the London Eye has rapidly become a popular landmark and symbol of the capital, and is visited by 3.5million people each year.

Bury St Edmunds Cathedral Tower

A Millennium grant of £5.1million funded the long-awaited completion of the 16th Century St Edmundsbury Cathedral, with a magnificent 150-feet-high Gothic lantern tower.

Tate Modern, London

Occupying the former Bankside Power Station on the South side of the Thames, Tate Modern's stark exterior houses a breathtaking collection of international modern art from 1900 to the present day.

The Lowry, Salford

Funded by the Arts Council and the Millennium Commission, this £96million arts complex in LS Lowry's home town of Salford houses theatres as well as a gallery of the artist's works.

The Eden Project, Cornwall

Situated in a massive disused china clay pit near St Austell is the Eden Project, where the world's largest greenhouses display a collection of plant life from environments around the world. To date, over 7million of us have taken the opportunity to explore and connect with our leafy friends. The Millennium Commission provided £37million of the initial £106 million to get the project rolling.

The Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

The £114million, 75,000-seat, retractably-roofed replacement for Cardiff Arms Park has been a huge success, even hosting English cup finals between 2001 and 2006 while Wembley Stadium was being redeveloped (see above).

The British Museum, London

Norman Foster's £100million revamp of this famous old institution, the British Museum, includes the Great Court, a central courtyard around the circular Reading Room, covered by a magnificent computer-designed glass and steel roof - and not a wobble in sight!

The Millennium Seed Bank Project, Sussex

£55million, including £30million from the Millennium Commission has funded a massive conservation project to store the seeds and hence safeguard the existence of over 24,000 plant species against extinction - 10% of the world's flora. A specially designed storage facility and visitor centre has been built at the Royal Botanic Gardens site at Wakehurst Place, in East Sussex.

1That's ten, to save you counting, unless you're polydactyl (That's someone with additional fingers or toes, not some variety of dinosaur).2The UK National Lottery has been variously described as 'a tax on people who are bad at maths'.3Or, as they initially preferred to write it, The pUBLIC - a genius of an idea from a marketing man with a sticky Caps Lock.4The project was first proposed by John Major's Conservative government, but its handling is largely associated with Tony Blair's New Labour government which followed.5Peter Mandelson, later replaced by Lord Falconer.6Except at the Faith Zone, which was oddly queue-free most of the time.7Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras.8For the record, Chelsea beat Manchester United 1-0, with a Didier Drogba goal in extra time.9In which the New York Giants beat the Miami Dolphins 13-10, on 28 October, 2007.10They nicknamed it 'The Gateshead Flasher'.

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