Lord Rogers' scheme for the South Bank promised a stunning landmark, says David Lister. Chris Smith must share the blame for the project's demise

THREE years ago this month I accompanied Nicholas Snowman, the chief executive of the South Bank Centre, to Paris. He wanted to emphasise coming cultural links between the French and British capitals.

As we returned he waxed lyrical about how Europeans would step off Eurostar at Waterloo and turn the corner to see Richard Rogers's new pounds 131m glass- covered renovation of the Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Hall and Hayward Gallery. Indeed, as we stepped off Eurostar there was a beaming Rogers to meet us, showing us how the development would also mean a new Hungerford Bridge linking the two banks of the Thames. In addition to the striking wavy roof - which would be a landmark feature for London - the alienating, dingy, windswept, concrete walkways would be destroyed; there would be a new street-level entrance for the Hayward; acoustics in the concert halls would be improved as would foyer, cafe and education spaces. And visitors would at last be able to find their way around this appallingly signposted complex.

So much for cultural links between London and Paris, so much for Lord Rogers's enthusiasm, three years of planning, pounds 1m of lottery money which went into a feasibility study, a promised pounds 17m contribution from publisher Paul Hamlyn, and the opportunity to give the world's largest arts complex a desperately needed new face.

This week the scheme was ditched. The Arts Council, after months of dithering, said it cannot afford the pounds 75m of lottery money necessary. But it "approved it in principle", whatever that means. It also passed the problem to the Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, who rapidly passed it back again. Mr Smith is to meet all the leading players next week. His officials say he will "bang heads together" to see if something can be rescued from the grand plan. But Mr Smith should not be too shy to put his own head in the circle when the banging begins. For he, too, has a share of the blame. The scheme was politically too hot to handle.

The restructuring of the lottery means the Arts Council has only pounds 200m to spend over the next six years on big schemes. To spend nearly half of this in one swoop on a London venue would, the Council feared, have brought the wrath of the regions and of smaller arts organisations down on its head.

In theory, the Government could have found part of the money. But it would have been a brave Culture Secretary who tried to persuade Parliament of the need for another tranche of lottery money to go to London after the furores over the Royal Opera House's pounds 78m and, of course, the Millennium Dome's pounds 400m.

And, lest the South Bank Centre should see this as a ringing message of support, it should be stressed that its administrators, too, have contributed to the mess. Dwindling audiences, programming that has drawn criticism, the frequent and embarrassing changes of mind over how many orchestras should be resident at the halls (and even over the names of the halls themselves). And their first lottery applications did not even meet the criteria. The centre does not always inspire confidence. Nicholas Snowman, describing the merits of the Rogers scheme to me recently, remarked how difficult it was to find the front door of the Hayward Gallery. An art lover from Mars might think it odd that the head of an arts centre could tolerate such a situation for a decade.

At the Arts Council, staff will tell you in private that part of the reluctance to approve the scheme has been unease with the present administration. The South Bank chairman Sir Brian Corby stood down this week and I expect Mr Snowman to move on pretty soon. But be it personality conflicts, differences over music programming and administration policy between an arts organisation and its funding body, or political cowardice, an architectural scheme that would have been a notable addition to the London skyline has been lost.

The undulating canopy would have provided 260 per cent more space for arts and foyer activities. And it would have been a landmark to compare with the new Guggenheim in Bilbao or Rogers's own Pompidou Centre in Paris, or even the Louvre Pyramid - landmarks that draw you to a city.

The masterplan was not perfect. Margaret Richardson of the Twentieth Century Society protested: "The Rogers wave roof rises so high that it will swamp the Festival Hall. Glass is only transparent when lit internally. For most of the time this will be perceived as a solid mass interrupting important views along the river."

And the architect Terry Farrell, who originally submitted a less expensive scheme with an overall roof, has said: "I hated and wished to undo the mega architecture which wrapped the Festival Hall and the whole site in octopus tentacles of the same concrete design." He was "concerned the Rogers scheme may be perceived as doing the same, enveloping the whole site in one kind of architecture".

But no radical new design is likely to receive universal approbation. Marcus Binney, a distinguished writer on architecture, describes the wave roof as "potentially the most beautiful London landmark of the millennium, taking the tradition of the 19th century iron and glass station roof, and transforming it into a futuristic saddle shape which will look dramatically different from every angle".

And complementing the Rogers plan would have been the changes to the Royal Festival Hall by the firm Allies and Morrison. In addition to acoustic improvements, the architects would have restored the original system of circulation and reopened the roof terraces. This (along with improvements to the Hayward) might yet survive the Smith banging of heads.

London will have a new Richard Rogers building - the pounds 750m Dome. It, too, will be an interesting building, but inside it will be a theme park. Those who visit it are unlikely to go more than once. The glass roof South Bank would have been a cultural meeting point for London and beyond. Which one would have been a more fitting way to mark the millennium?

Then there is the pounds 78m of lottery money spent on the Royal Opera House. Would the Rogers scheme not have been a better use of lottery arts money? But the opera house got their bid in first and Lord Gowrie, chairman of the Arts Council, was keen to see it go through quickly, correctly anticipating that there would be a backlash against expensive London projects.

Again, one must ask if that amounts to any sort of a strategy - either for the arts, for London, or for the country? Instead of rushing through one big scheme and allowing the next to gamble on the prevailing mood, government and Arts Council should have weighed up the merits of the projects they knew were soon to come before them, and done some prioritising.

But that would have demanded a national arts strategy and an overriding concern for the architecture of London. There is little sign of either. And though research shows that 95 per cent of people say the South Bank environment is "appalling and puts them off coming", expect no change.