The Millennium Doh!

It was unfortunate timing for the government, but the British taxpayer may well have got a wry smile from the fact a parliamentary committee report saying The Dome‘s finances have been badly handled coincided with the news that the venue’s former head of lighting design had cheated it out of £4 million.

According to Edward Leigh, Tory chairman of the House Of Commons public accounts committee, only an “incurably optimistic” person could believe that Lord Falconer, the lord chancellor, got a good deal for the taxpayer when he sold the Dome to developers Meridian Delta and the U.S.-based Anschutz Entertainment Group.

Most of the U.K.’s newspapers agree that Meridian and AEG managed to get themselves a brilliant deal from a desperate British government. But when the same opinion comes from the watchdog that reports on how that government spends the public purse, it does sort of make it official.

The latest reports are still likely to wash over a nation that’s long been resigned to the fact that “Blair’s Folly” was an expensive irrelevance. The visitor figures to this huge white elephant showed that the country didn’t share the prime minister’s messianic zeal for the project in the first place.

Although The Dome is widely viewed as a catastrophic failure, the government can at least pretend it’s an historic national success by ensuring the main arena remains some sort of cultural centre for years to come. But that was clearly an obstacle when it came to getting the best possible price for the site area.

Ultimately, the pretence that it’s important to preserve The Dome as an integral part of Britain’s national heritage became such a bar to selling the site commercially, the government handed it over for free rather than suffer the huge indignity of having to see it pulled down.

After most of the would-be purchasers had dropped out of the reckoning – including the “preferred bidder,” Japanese bank Nomura – it emerged that Meridian and AEG would get the whole package without having to pay any money up front. The government also tossed in an extra hundred acres of land to keep the deal alive, although that wasn’t done until after the other bidders had fallen by the wayside.

The main thrust of the House Of Commons public accounts committee report is that MPs are far from happy that the government didn’t tell all the potential bidders how much land could be on offer.

At the time, rather than be seen to have left the negotiating table empty-handed, the government stressed that the deal keeps The Dome in place until at least 2018, Meridian and AEG will have to carry the entire risk of the project, and the taxpayer – or, more likely, the government – will get a financial jackpot when it comes to sharing the profits.

The size of the profits will largely depend on whether the developers are able to get planning permission (against fierce international competition) to be the first of the two or three “experimental” super-casinos to be initially allowed by the government.

In 2001, the last full year before the June 2002 deal was struck, the national audit office calculated that it took £28.4 million for The Dome’s upkeep plus running costs of £300,000 per month. The British taxpayer will meet those costs until the 20,000-seat arena is completed. They will then pass to Meridian and AEG as they continue to develop the 168-acre site on the north Greenwich peninsula. .

The AEG plan is to turn the building into a sport and entertainment centre similar to the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Company president Tim Leiweke has promised it will include “the finest 20,000-seat arena in Europe that will immediately become the home of the most prestigious world events.”

Meridian Delta is expected to turn the remaining 150 acres of the site into a “Dome Village” with offices, housing and shopping arcades.

Much of the initial criticism of the deal centred on the fact that selling the site to the highest bidder with no strings attached would have brought a multi-million lump sum into the country’s coffers, even if it meant turning Blair’s precious Dome into rubble, while the partnership with Meridian and AEG means waiting 20 years until the project is completed before finding out how much money it’s brought in.

Taking a quicker profit from The Dome, albeit an illegal one, was the venue’s former head of lighting design, who has been jailed for four-and-a-half years for masterminding a £4 million fraud.

Apparently, Simon Brophy took advantage of the “chaos” leading up to The Dome’s millennium celebrations in 1999 to secretly set up a company to which he awarded a lucrative contract for lighting up the Greenwich landmark. He funneled his profits – estimated at £1 million – through a complex web of overseas bank accounts.

He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the New Millennium Experience Company, four counts of corruption, four of furnishing false information and one of removing the proceeds of crime from the U.K.

Also in the dock was David Gordon, the Australian-born director of Brophy’s secret front company, Pro-Design Ltd. Gordon admitted conspiracy to defraud and fraudulent trading and was jailed for nine months.

John Gammon