Douglas Weston's job as director of projects for the Millennium Commission is a bit of a conundrum. Neither he nor the commission is the client for the 185 schemes now under way around the country - that power lies with the promoters of each individual project. But if any of the schemes go belly up it will be the commission which gets the blame and Weston's will be one of the first faces in the frame.
That won't happen Weston says, because although he has no direct control over the projects, he can influence their progress through his management of the finance. 'We are not the client, but we are the bankroller,' he says tellingly. Weston wants the projects to succeed and the way the grants are structured puts the onus on the applicants to achieve certain targets before the next tranche of funding is released.
Weston knows very well how important it is to hold the purse strings. The former civil engineer had a varied career in project management with Kvaerner and Mowlem before he took on his millennial role in 1995.
At the Millennium Commission he and his 30 strong team can call on 150 external advisors including engineers, quantity surveyors and planners to help develop the schemes and make sure they can be carried forward as businesses.
'We do all the normal project management things that a banker would require. We look at the management, the drivers for project delivery, and operation of the scheme. We want to see accurate cost estimates and sensible allowances for contingency and inflation,' he says. Project business plans need to demonstrate that they are going to run at a reasonable surplus. If a project is to run at a loss, as many public facilities do, backers have to be able to show what other financial support is available.
If Weston thinks an idea will work it goes to the nine Millennium Commissioners who make the final choice as to which projects to award grant.
There have been three bidding rounds with close to 5,000 applications requesting £14bn of funds. What was billed as the final long list of winners was announced in November, although Weston says there is a chance a few more grants will be given before the door is finally closed on new ideas. Among the projects are 14 specially chosen flagship schemes - one for every economic region of the country - which each receive up to £50M in grant. Other projects range in size from a minimum of £200,000 and include village halls, bridges, canals and country parks. So far over £1.2bn of grant has been awarded to projects worth almost £3bn, creating an estimated 20,000 construction jobs.
'Of prime importance is that a project can demonstrate public support, from the grass roots up and that it serves the community,' Weston says. 'And we want to see evidence of that support which could be in the form of letters, calls to radio phone-ins, public meetings or even singing on the commission's doorstep as the New Era community project in Accrington rather memorably did.'
Having such a close hand in the selection of projects gives Weston some security that they will be unqualified successes. 'In the main I am fairly confident about all our projects but it is very early days - some of them are still in design development.'
This brings Weston on to a key point. 'Millennium Commission projects are schemes being built for the next millennium, not facilities to be opened by 2000. If we had gone down that route we would have rejected a lot of good projects. The key question to keep in mind is will people enjoy the facility not what date will it open.'
That said, Weston is very conscious that funding for the commission dries up at the end of 2000. 'And we don't want to have a lot of projects running on past that date as they will be burning up funds as overheads which could be allocated to other schemes. So the end of 2000 is pretty much it.'
Cost overruns are the responsibility of the project promoters. 'If they go over, they have to make up the balance which is why we try to be as realistic as possible in assessing with them the project cost at the start.'
Weston and his project managers track all the schemes so can quickly spot when a project is heading off target. 'We work with the applicants to find solutions,' he says. And there are potentially a few schemes that face amendment in the coming year to get them back on budget, by losing an element or two without damaging the overall concept.
The Eden project in Cornwall is a case in point. This grand project to create three vast glass covered environments was originally costed at £106M.
The commission did not think the original expectation of 1.1M visitors was achievable. It felt happier with a mere 750,000 each paying £7 to get in and reduced the grant accordingly. Now Eden is to proceed as two environments - humid tropics and warm temperate - at a cost down to £61M, with the option to add a desert section later if visitor numbers can support it. The scheme relaunches in February.