Eric Sorensen was responsible for deciding which projects got to share in the lottery millions. Then he became surplus to requirements
ERIC SORENSEN, the man who handed out pounds 1.25bn of lottery money to build a new Britain in time for the year 2000, is out of work. One minute he was writing cheques for millions. The next, the only big numbers in front of him are on the lottery tickets he still optimistically buys.

He has left the Millennium Commission exactly a year after he took on the job. Now that nearly all the money for the Millennium projects has been allocated, his chairman, the Secretary of State for Culture, Chris Smith, says it doesn't need the services of a pounds 120,000 chief executive any more. Sorensen agrees. It's been an amicable divorce. In truth, he found the job less hands-on and more rubber-stamping than he'd have liked.

With his love of building bridges, of London, motorways, and modern architecture (so long as it isn't a windswept concrete block), he had a vision about improving the environment. Urban regeneration is one of his enthusiasms - not just big projects such as turning inner-city squares into piazzas, or Millennium Commission Landmark projects such as transforming clay pits into the Eden Project landscape gardens and collieries into the solar glazed Earth Centre, but little things which make a difference.

When it comes to lottery-funded architecture, Sorensen likes "amiable cheeriness". Bandstands, village halls, forest discovery centres, rural churches, drinking fountains, all pitching for lottery money, got funding if the applicants could prove they had the site, planning committee skills, sponsors,maintenance plans, and an excellent management team. "One of my favourites is a little wooden shelter for schoolchildren to learn about birds on reclaimed poisoned land at Dagenham," he says.

Buildings weren't judged in a beauty contest. Sorensen defends the fact that there were no architects or designers on the review board. "It's not as if we ignored it, but we didn't systematically go for design competitions." Feasibility became far more important.

At his farewell party last night, his colleagues gave him of a Psion organiser with the countdown to January 2000 installed. It was tactful. Although most of the money has been already given out to 185 projects across the country (otherwise there would not have been a hope of completion in time for the millennium) most of the lottery-funded libraries and gyms, health spas and science centres won't be ready. The Millennium Commission's 50:50 matched funding role - half the costs of the project must be met by sponsors, EU or council funding - was a bureaucratic process which delayed construction.

"Still a couple of million to go," says Richard Busby, raising sponsorship money for the National Space and Science Centre in Leicester. The total project will cost 46.5m, towards which they received pounds 23.5m from the lottery. To date he has a fully confirmed pounds 40m. "Believe me, it's going to happen. We're nearly there." But even if they do break ground on Nick Grimshaw's building this autumn, it won't open until February 2001.

A weakness that this emphasis on designer labels, big-name architects, good contents and planning expertise highlights is that it deterred the less experienced. Deprived communities didn't even bother to pitch, and the lottery funders aren't allowed to solicit for business.

One of Sorensen's legacies to the Millennium Commission is a pounds 70m pot of money which will be used to encourage some of Britain's ethnic communities to apply for funds to for their own projects. "Not enough," he admits.

"The lottery is a real opportunity to improve the quality of life. We should think constantly about making substantial differences to the quality of life. Of course, homelessness, health and education are important, but the lottery money was never meant to replace taxation and government spending." As for the other criticism, that lottery funding is pushing up big buildings like mushrooms all over the country which will be difficult to fill and maintain, Sorensen says: "I don't agree. We don't spend enough on buildings."

Nonie Niesewand

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