The big gamble

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 September, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 September, 2006, 12:00am

The Millennium Dome in Greenwich was perhaps the one sour note of Tony Blair's honeymoon term. Then, rows over the future of the controversial project kept returning to haunt his second stint in office. Now, the dome is back again, spooking his third - and definitely last - term.

Recent polls have indicated that the capital could turn Conservative blue at the next election, and events at the Dome are not reassuring London's sceptical Labour voters. They are increasingly alarmed at the seemingly never-ending series of mini-scandals and intrigues at the site, originally built to celebrate the beginning of the third millennium.

Site owner Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) wants to turn the place into a Las Vegas-style gambling centre on the River Thames, but is going about it with an assertiveness that's drawing some hostile attention. AEG had to apologise last week after incorrectly saying local religious leaders backed the casino plan. Then it was revealed that building work had already started on the 67-hectare site, even though the project has yet to be approved by the Casino Advisory Panel.

The merits of the gambling plan hinge largely on whether the site will regenerate the rundown riverside area known as the Greenwich Peninsula. A key aspect of any regeneration is the employment of local people. Imagine the surprise of locals when, for the third time since April, the Home Office caught 19 illegal immigrants working there last week. Many more fled.

Being a gambling concern, AEG is perhaps betting the site will gain approval. Otherwise, why did it recently advertise jobs, including croupiers, cashiers and so forth ? That sounded a little cocky, especially considering that AEG has already chosen a firm to operate the casino - even though that decision is the responsibility of Greenwich Council. It's also the council's job to grant permission to allow building work.

It seems AEG is taking a dangerous gamble, being too sure of itself. But then again, perhaps it isn't. After all, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has met AEG's owner, Philip Anschutz, seven times and stayed at his ranch.

But why, ask commentators, is the Dome favoured for wealthy London, over poor Blackpool, a now-ailing seaside Mecca in the far-more disadvantaged northwest. It more aptly fits the original motive for such 'super' casinos: to produce a mini-Las Vegas, a leisure destination where gamblers take the whole family.

The dome site is awkward to reach, with few transport links. And visitors can find much more to see just a little further down the Thames. Many fear what punters there are will simply melt away after gambling to the brighter lights of central London, a few kilometres away. As one pundit put it: 'Tourists just won't come to London to gamble.'