`There will be more whingeing than shouts for joy, because there will be more losers than winners'
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The Independent Culture
Purists say that there are six years to go; most people insist that there are five. E ither way, this week the fin de siecle - and the end of the millennium - begins in earnest. Spectacular parties and grandiose monuments are already being planned. But for those whose job it is to organise the official celebrations, time is running out FIRST THING on Wednesday morning, staff at the Millennium Commission in Westminster will start getting to grips with a stack of envelopes that has been piling up since before Christmas. With ever more practised ease, they'll slit them open, unfold the three-page, blue-and-orange-coloured forms inside, and sit down at their computer screens to input thousands of little details into the Commission's brand-new database.

Wednesday 4 January is the first day when applications for grants to finance a whole series of special new projects to mark the millennium will officially be opened. Over the next six years, these applicants - private companies, public organisations, local authorities, determined idealists in the arts and sciences - can hope to receive some share of at least £l.6bn from the Millennium Fund. The Commission which administers it is one of the five good causes supported by the National Lottery. Its purpose?According to its own promotional material: "To assist communities in marking the close of the second millennium and in celebrating the start of the third."

This bland form of words masks a bubbling enthusiasm that has infected virtually everyone involved with the Millennium Commission over the past few weeks. After months of planning and speculation, the Commission will finally begin to give away money. As far as the people at 2 Little Smith Street are concerned, the countdown to 2000 has at last begun.

The atmosphere of fear and excitement hits you as soon as you get through the door. For eight months, the staff camped out in two rooms lent them by the Royal Horticultural Society. Now it is spread over six floors of freshly redecorated luxury, starkly at odds with the rather gloomy ecclesiastical nature of the surrounding streets, home to Westminster Cathedral, the Church House Bookshop and the Church Union. The entrance smells of freshly sawed pine. Furniture is still scarce, filing cabinets empty, the pile carpets fluffy and unworn, and there is a sign on one door that says, "Careful - Paint Drying".

On impulse, passers-by step in from the street in ones and twos, pushing through the revolving doors to ask a receptionist for bumf. They've heard that there's a new pot of honey ready to be opened. And they leave clutching the navy blue information "pack" that includes a proposal form and notes for guidance.

The Millennium Fund which the Commission administers was originally slated to finance a series of major landmark projects. However, it is now intended that only half its resources will go to large-scale projects, while the other half will be used to fundsmall local schemes and bursaries. Contributions to projects will range from £100,000 to £50m. Money will also be set aside to finance a memorable Millennium Festival, complete with exhibitions.

The Fund was a Tory idea in the beginning, but even the Opposition is no longer immune to the excitement it is generating. "I think the Millennium Fund is a brilliant idea," says Labour's National Heritage spokesman, Chris Smith. "It will help to change the face of town and country, enhance the environment in which we live, improve our sense of community. It's a tremendous opportunity."

Excitement within the Commission - over such workaday professional pleasures as new staff and new computers - has been more than matched in recent months by jumping up and down beyond 2 Little Smith Street. The reason for this is the early success of theNational Lottery, which generated £260m in its first five weeks - far more than was thought possible by those who first dreamt it up. The Millennium Commission is due to receive 20 per cent of the net proceeds of the lottery, but what that actually means in terms of round numbers is anyone's guess.

Both staff and commissioners, perhaps infected with lottery fever, are making wild estimates. "We have no idea how much money we'll get in our first year," says acting chief executive Heather Wilkinson. "It could be £160m." Heather Couper, one of the commissioners, says: "It could be £300m." Robin Dixon, another commissioner, ventures: "It could be £400m."

Michael Montague, meanwhile, displays all the fervour of a commentator at the Grand National. "We've passed through the fog. We are in the haze. The hypothetical will move towards the actual. We are proceeding towards the sunshine."

Yes, but are they really? Observers who have been keeping a close watch on the Millennium Commission are increasingly concerned that preparations may not be as advanced as the commissioners would like to make out. There is a worry that the impending deadlines - 30 April for receiving applications, July for a shortlist of projects, September for the first approval of funds - are approaching so fast that crucial questions are being ignored. "They are trying to run before they can crawl," says the chief executive of one leading British charity. Chris Smith, for all his approving noises, agrees. "The whole thing has an air of chaos."

THE MILLENNIUM COMMISSION was inaugurated in February 1994. Initially the intention was to mark the change-over to the new millennium on 31 December 2000, but it quickly became evident that the rest of the country would be celebrating on 31 December 1999. Formally appointed by the Queen, the nine commissioners had their names put forward by a gang of rival civil servants jockeying for position. "There was a lot of debate about the list," says one commissioner. "A lot of government departments wanted to get their oar in. And in the end political correctness [came to] predominate."

The commissioners can finance any project they want. Limitations on their remit are largely self-imposed. They say that they prefer not to fund refurbishments - even on a major scale - nor do they want to do construction which should normally be undertaken by the government, of prisons, say, or hospitals and schools. Nor, as a rule, will they fund schemes that could be financed elsewhere, although they promise to be flexible when considering individual projects.

It is perhaps inevitable that perceptions of the Commission should still be fuzzy. Much of its work has been behind the scenes, and, not surprisingly, there is still precious little to show for the effort. But quite this fuzzy? Either way, 1995 will be the make-or-break year, when it establishes itself as a force to be reckoned with - or becomes a joke.

The Commission has a tough road ahead if it is to avoid failure. There are many reasons for this. The timetable is very tight. Yet the chief executive, Jennifer Page, does not start work until 1 March, just eight weeks before the closure of applications for this year's funds. Having originally appointed Nicholas Hinton, chief executive of the Save the Children Fund, from a short-list drawn up by head-hunters last summer, the commissioners decided in October, just three days before Hinton was officially due to start, that he wasn't the man they wanted after all.

The delay over the chief executive's appointment has snowballed into other areas. Despite repeated advertising, the Commission still hasn't appointed either a finance director or a director of projects. This, despite the fact that potential projects willstart being assessed in the coming week. (Commissioners are slowly - too slowly, some say - coming to the conclusion that the £45,000

annual salary being offered for these jobs is too low to attract qualified staff from the private sector.) In the week before Christmas, when the six staff seconded from the Department of National Heritage were preparing to return there, 20 new case officers still remained to be appointed.

"It's all taken longer than we thought," says Michael Montague, chairman of the Commission's three-man recruitment committee. In an effort to speed things up, the committee has recently asked a fourth commissioner, Robin Dixon, to join it in the hope that, as managing director of the construction materials company Redland (Northern Ireland) Ltd, he will be able to tap into his wide network of corporate contacts.

At the end of November, Heather Wilkinson put a ban on visits from potential applicants for funds - other than from those simply wanting basic information - so that she could concentrate on sifting job applications and interviewing recruits. "We had to bring the shutters down," she says. "There were just too many people. Much as applicants like to get a foot in the door, and much as we tell them it's not necessary, they still like to come."

The delay over recruitment has added to the perception that the Commission still has little clear idea of what a millennial project is. Many people believe that its criteria are still too meagre and vague to be of much use. For five months, the only guideline was a speech made by former National Heritage Secretary Peter Brooke at a private function at the Institute of Directors. This has been improved with the publication of the information pack at the end of November, but not much. It is hard to get away from the feeling that the list of criteria for projects has been drawn up on the back of an envelope. It includes the provisos that a millennium project must enjoy public support; that it must look back over this millennium or forward into the new one; and that it must be of high architectural, design and environmental quality. The Tate Gallery, under its director Nicholas Serota, who wants to build a new museum of contemporary art in the disused power station at Bankside, opposite St Paul's, will probably be one of the biggest applicants to the fund. The Tate's scheme has long been considered the archetype of the sort of project that should be eligible for Millennium funding, and Serota will be submitting an application as soon as an architect is chosen for Bankside in February. But even he is uncertain what will happen to it next. "We don't know yet how they'll handle the whole process." Adds Chris Smith: "It's certainly at the moment a user-unfriendly process."

Whether or not the Commission manages to establish itself this year as a force - a force for good and a force to be reckoned with - will depend largely on how it handles the inevitable grumbling that will follow the announcement of the projects to receive funds. Already there are complaints that the lottery is simply a tax on the poor. If the Commission is seen to be funding projects for the benefit of a wealthy elite, those complaints will become wails of outrage.

"There is an ambush of bad publicity waiting for them," warns the head of one major charity. And with nothing positive yet to show for its efforts, the Commission will have to be particularly careful about how it rejects the projects that don't come up to scratch. "We know," says Heather Wilkinson, "that there will be more whingeing and unhappiness than shouts for joy because there will be more losers than winners."

OVERALL, the commissioners' handling of past events gives little cause for optimism. They would like us to believe that the debacle over the appointment and de-appointment of Nicholas Hinton is proof of how flexible the Commission is, and how speedily itcan react in a crisis. In truth, the problem should never have arisen in the first place.

Under Hinton, Save the Children's income grew from £42.5m to £86.9m in 10 years. "He's a hard-driving public sector CEO," says one source who has worked closely with him. "That's what his skills and strengths are." Presumably that is why he was head-hunted to what will be one of the most high-profile public sector posts of the decade. "I thought he was rather a good appointment," Serota recalls.

There had been disagreement with the commissioners over Hinton's pension plan, but the first inkling that anything serious might be wrong came on the first Sunday in September. Hinton had been due to start work only in mid-October, but at the Commission's entreaty had been working there one or two days a week since early July. A staffing plan was agreed by the commissioners, and later by the Department of National Heritage and the Treasury. Hinton planned to advertise for three directors - of finance, projects and corporate affairs. On 4 September, however, the advertisement for the corporate affairs job was mysteriously "pulled" or cancelled without Hinton's knowledge. Not one to brook interference easily, Hinton began a series of discussions with theCommission's recruitment committee - Michael Montague, Simon Jenkins, former editor of the Times, and Sir John Hall, chairman of Newcastle United - that ended only when he was told bluntly that his services would no longer be required.

Eager to brush aside the problem, Montague says today: "It was simply that we weren't getting on." But no good has come of it. Privately, commissioners lay the blame squarely on Hinton's shoulders. "I could see there was going to be row after row after row. That's Hinton for you," says one. Such comments smack of complacency. The commissioners agreed to pay Hinton £19,000, a quarter of his expected salary. But much higher than the financial cost has been the cost in terms of the Commission's prestige. By signalling that it had found the chief executive it was looking for, only to change its mind just days before he was due to start work, the Commission gave a strong impression that it doesn't know what it wants or what it is doing.

The whole episode continues to leave outsiders quite perplexed. Hinton, says one who knows him well, "is a man who knows how to handle powerful people. They deliver for him because he delivers for them."

"I remain baffled by why the personal chemistry did not appear to work," says another who knows both sides. Chris Smith adds: "It made me question their judgement. God help us when they come to distributing £150m."

The Hinton episode also provides an insight into the culture of the Commission and the exceptional power of the Commissioners. "From the very start," admits Heather Wilkinson, "this was a funny set-up." Although a quango in all but name, "the Commission was determined to be seen as independent," she says. Its independence has been reinforced by the way it has developed. Stephen Dorrell, the National Heritage Secretary, is hardly a hands-on chairman when compared with, say, Lord Rothschild, wh o allocates two or three days a week to his chairmanship of the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

For more than a year the commissioners will have been operating without a chief executive. As a result, they are unusually powerful, and as a group have come to be dominated by the stronger personalities on the board, in particular Michael Montague, the Opposition's nominee, and Simon Jenkins, who plans to make his mark (and perhaps win a peerage) by steering the Millennium Festival celebrations. Guidelines for the festival will be issued by the Commission in the spring.

Although powerful and independent, commissioners are having a hard time proving that they are also inspired. A number of them have concluded that having the National Heritage Secretary as chairman is a mistake.

"Stephen Dorrell would agree that there are conflicts of interest," says one commissioner, while another describes how Dorrell, as government minister and chairman of the commissioners, occasionally writes letters to himself.

The group is also distinguished by its lack of towering visionaries. There is no architect, no environmentalist, no great scientist or thinker. "You'd expect," says the director of a major project, "that there would be a sort of C P Snow figure. But there isn't."

The three-page initial application - which includes questions such as: "Is this project part of a continuing public expenditure programme?" and "Have you made a previous proposal to the Millennium Commission?" - is designed to weed out all schemes that do not fit the commissioners' initial criteria. Wilkinson wants this done by computer. "We could have thousands and thousands of applications. The thought of having a manual way of dealing with them is horrendous," she says with a slight shudder. "The system we'll have will be very IT-based. I hope it's going to be sleek, efficient and modern."

At full strength, the Commission will have five project teams, each with a leader, two analysts and a secretary. "We hope," says Robin Dixon, "to have a response out in three days." The commissioners plan to hold a series of road-shows around the countryin early spring. Every applicant likely to receive funds will automatically be invited. Just who will be getting the green light, though, is not clear. The wilder schemes - like the proposal Heather Couper received to fund a rocket to launch the prime minister of the day into space - are easy to eliminate. What will be more difficult will be distinguishing what Couper calls the "very thin line between vision and madness".

Ask the Commissioners what is a millennial project, and they still grope for rather than reach out with a response. "I don't set huge store on the millennium as an anniversary," says Dixon. "It is a romantic thing really. A historical date. But it makes you realise the vastness of time and how small we all are in it. You look back with admiration on the achievements of those who have gone before. And with horror. We've been entrusted to spend a great deal of money. It is very exciting and at the same time rather frightening."

Michael Montague says, "I'm very mindful of my father: of all the things that didn't exist for my parents but are taken for granted today. I would hope some of the things we can achieve are things that exist today, but will one day be taken for granted."

Both those planning the Millennium celebrations, and those keeping an eye on the planners, will look back to the Festival of Britain in 1951 and to the Great Exhibition a century before that as landmarks against which to gauge their success. But we live in other times. Nothing today comes close to the exuberant confidence of the mid-Victorian era or the deep need for an optimistic future in the years immediately after the Second World War. At the end of the 20th century, we have grown spoilt, cynical and uncertain. And the task for today's commissioners is that much harder.

In Africa, they have a saying: when the antelope wakes up, it must out-run the fastest lion to stay alive; and when the lion awakes, it must out-run the slowest gazelle to avoid starving to death. The jungle of millennial funding is no less brutal. On 1 May, the day after applications finally close, the Commission must be up and running, ready to draw up its short-list and then to defend the projects it believes in. But first it must be ready with a vision. Late last summer, Nicholas Hinton was preparing a two-page paper for the millennium commissioners. At the top was just one question: "How do you wish to be remembered as a commissioner in the year 2001?" Hinton was sacked before he could send it out. But the question still stands. Without a vision, the Commission may just fade away into oblivion; worse still, it risks being mauled to death.

PARTY PLANNERS The Albert Hall has already been booked. So too have the Orient Express, the Pyramids, Madame Tussaud's, the Eiffel Tower, Sydney Opera House, the Hippodrome, every flight on Concorde and all the rooms in the Savoy Hotel, the Berkeley, Claridge's and th e Connaught. But Londoners left out in the cold at midnight on 31 December 1999 (Home Office plans to delay celebrations until 31 December 2000 have long since been abandoned in the face of popular impatience) will not miss out on the fun.Plans are alre ady being laid - despite opposition from traditionalists such as Lord St John of Fawsley - to erect a huge ferris wheel, 500 ft in diameter, over the water on the South Bank of the Thames.

The light, silvery structure, which will be lit up at night, will be turned mostly by the flow of the Thames. It is the brainchild of a husband-and-wife architects' team, David Marks and Julia Barfield, who want to keep the wheel in place for five years spanning the millennium. The £9.5m project will be financed not by the Millennium Commission but by corporate investors, and perhaps even by an old-fashioned private bond issue.

Echoing Crystal Palace and Walter Basset's Great Wheel of 1895, the Millennium Wheel is in the best tradition of British celebratory structures. The wheel will carry 960 people at a time on a lazy arc lasting 20 minutes. On a good day, it will be possible to see for a distance of 30 miles - from Windsor Castle to Gravesend A SUITABLE PROJECT?

WHAT, oh what, is a Millennium project? The commissioners, when asked this question, insist that the public should choose; ultimately, though, the decisions will be theirs. In addition to financial and technical criteria, all manner of other factors - political correctness, environmental friendliness, anti-elitism, the feel-good factor - will help to determine whether a scheme is judged worthy or not. One scheme that is almost certain to get the go-ahead is the proposal by Sustrans, the Bris tol-based civil engineering charity, to build a 5,000 mile national network of footpaths and cycleways (right). Sustrans hopes to build 2,000 miles of the network by 2000, at a cost of £100m. Three-quarters of this cost will be met by local authorities a nd donations; the rest is being sought from the Millennium Fund. The Tate Gallery's proposed new Museum of Modern Art may not have such an easy ride. The £80m scheme, to be built in the disused power station at Bankside opposite St Paul's Cathedral, will provide London with a world-class museum of contemporary art, and put it for the first time on a par with Paris and New York. But Tate Gallery director Nicholas Serota is preparing for a disappointment. "It is very possible," he says, "that we may not g et it." The fear is that, if it funds the scheme (some plans for which are shown above), the Commission will be criticised for funding leisure pursuits for a wealthy elite. Bankside may have to rely on Arts Council funding instead.

It's got to be.Carol Freeman, coordinator of the Friends of Sustrans, a Bristol-based civil engineering charity is adamant that the most effective sustainable form of transport we know is the bicycle.

In the past year, Sustrans has put together a complex plan for the Construction of an initial 2,000 miles of paths and cycleways throughout Britain by 2000, and 5,000 miles in all, The backbone of the route will be a 1,000-mile path from Inverness to Dover.

Sustrans has already built 300 miles of cycleways and footpaths. The national network will take 10 years to build and cost somewhere in the region of £250 million. The initial proposal, which is as much as Sustrans reckons can be built by 2000, will cost£IOO million. The charity will ask the Millennium Commission for a quarter of that when it submits its proposal at the end of January.

After years of being ignored if not actively blocked by the government, Freeman believes the tide has turned in favour of cycling. Only since April have local councils been permitted to apply for transport funds for cycling, before that they had to rely on leisure and tourism funds or derelict land grants to develop cycle paths. Friends of Sustrans, which was launched in march 1992 with 178 members, now numbers more than 9,000. Moreover, Stephen Norris, XXX, came out in support of cycling as an alternative, and serious, mode of transport after meeting Sustrans officials last November. And Freeman hopes he will give his backing to Sustran's application to the Millennium Fund by writing to local authorities suggesting they support Sustran's millennial scheme.

Critics complain that the scheme will do little to revolvtionise Britain's acute public transport problems. Britain lags far behind Europe on cycling development. Bristol, Sustrans home town, for example has only 10 miles of cycleways, whereas Hanover, with which it is twinned already has more than 1,500. There are 20 million bicycles in Britain, and 4 million new ones are sold each year, Most are unused, Cyclists, who fear the dangerous and hostile cycling environment. With good reason. A Briti$h cyclist is ten times more likely to killed on his bike than, say, a Danish one.

Sustrans will be applying to local authorities and other funders for individual sections. But they need the Millennium money, to pay for the central costs, including design and negotiations for land purchase and rights of way.

"We can create something that's permanent," Freeman says. "we will reach into the community all over the country. It'll be a national scale project that's got all the local components.

FACES OF THE COMMISSION STEPHEN DORRELL Chairman Aged 44. MP for Loughborough since 1979, Secretary of State for National Heritage since July. Educated at Uppingham and Oxford. Darling of the Tory left. Would probably be the Opposition's nominee if therewere a change of government, unless he became party leader JENNIFER PAGE CBE Chief Executive Aged 50. Able CEO of English Heritage. Appointed to Millennium post after commissioners got cold feet about their initial choice, Nicholas Hinton. Starts work on 1 March. Educated at Bart's Hill Grammar School, Coventry, and Royal Holloway College (London University). Helpful and courteous. A safe pair of hands THE HON ROBIN DIXON Aged 59. Heir to Lord Glentoran, and managing director of Redland (Northern Ireland) Ltd, which manufactures building materials. Educated at the University of Grenoble. Won the bobsleigh gold medal in the 1964 Olympics.

Lives in County Antrim.

Well-connected in the corporate world. Recently co-opted onto recruitment committee THE RT HON MICHAEL HESELTINE Aged 61. Educated at Shrewsbury School and Oxford, MP for Henley since 1974, currently President of the Board of Trade. Still hoping to go higher PATRICIA SCOTLAND QC Aged 39. The first black woman QC, took silk in 1991. Educated at a state school in Walthamstow, and took external London University degree at Mid-Essex Technical College, Chelmsford. Former member of the Race Relations Committee of the Bar Council SIMON JENKINS Aged 51. Former editor of the Times and the Evening Standard. Educated at Mill Hill School and Oxford. Author of several books on London architecture and former deputy chairman of English Heritage. Instrumental in replacing Nicholas Hinton with Jennifer Page. Member of the recruitment committee and chairman of the festival committee. Knows absolutely everybody THE EARL OF DALKEITH Aged 4O. Richard Walter John Montagu-Douglas-Scott, director of the Buccleuch Estates andheir to the Duke of Buccleuch, one of Scotland's biggest landowners. Educated at Eton and Oxford MICHAEL MONTAGUE CBE Aged 62. Educated at High Wycombe Royal Grammar School and Oxford. Chairman of the English Tourist Board from 1979-84, and the NationalConsumer Council from 1984-87. Chairman of the recruitment committee and member of the finance committee. The nominee of the Opposition PROFESSOR HEATHER COUPER Aged 45. Professor of Astronomy at Gresham's College, Holborn, London. Educated at St Mary'sGrammar School, Northwood, and Leicester University. Co-author of The Halley's Comet Pop-Up Book. Runs her own television production company, Pioneer Production. Speaks up for science on the Commission, but prefers to be known as a television producer SIR JOHN HALL Aged 62. Top man in two of the North-east's most prestigious projects: the giant MetroCentre shopping and leisure complex in Gateshead (developer) and the high-flying Magpies, Newcastle United Football Club (chairman).

A former North East Businessman of the Year. Chairman of the finance committee and member of the recruitment committee