What a way to run a Millennium

Labour is backing the Greenwich festival but is left with an unlikely team in charge, writes David Walker
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The Independent Online
Tony Blair last week brushed off Cabinet opposition and decided to press ahead with the pounds 600m dome for the Millennium Festival at Greenwich, east London. Behind his decision, and the whole project, is one of quangoland's most exotic creatures - the millennium commission.

Set up before Lord Nolanbegan investigating the way quango members are picked, it is an oddity, even by the standards of the Unrelated Live Transplant Regulatory Authority and the Government Hospitality Fund Advisory Committee for the Purchase of Wine.

It is both a "royal" commission - the Queen notionally appoints some of its members - and a party political entity, including two Labour commissioners and one Tory. Its members have no expertise in project management or construction or showbiz. Nor, with one or two exceptions, have they CVs indicating they possess much imagination - although "imagination" is the key criterion for the award of lottery money by the commission to projects. So far, imagination seems to consist of promises to mount firework displays in the early hours of 1 January 2000.

No one in Whitehall seems to know why the commission's constitutional status differs markedly from that of the other bodies dispensing largess from the National Lottery such as the National Lottery charities board and the museums and galleries commission.

Involving the Queen in appointments, however, nominally makes things such as dismissals and replacement complicated. Thus the Labour government is stuck with a millennium commission with - understandably, since its members were nominated by the former government - a decidedly Tory bent.

The three political members of the commission include the Environment Secretary, Chris Smith and another Labour man, Dr David Clark, now Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (effectively minister for the Civil Service), and a nominee of the Opposition; till now the Tory nominee has been Michael Heseltine, who used to be the top government nominee, as deputy Prime Minister.

The "independent" appointees have royal warrants which run to December 2000 though at least two of them are expected to stay on into the 21st century overseeing those Millennium projects which have a long shelf life. These are Lord Glentoran, a hereditary peer and businessman, representing Ulster, his father a pillar of the old Stormont parliament; the Earl of Dalkeith, landowner, representing Scotland; Heather Couper, the television astronomer, for popular appeal; and Patricia Scotland, a black barrister. The other commissioner is Simon Jenkins, the Tory former editor of the Times and outspoken advocate of millennial spending.

They are served by a secretariat headed by Eric Sorensen, former deputy secretary in the Department of the Environment and until March chief executive of the London Docklands Development Corporation. Given his experience with huge holes in the ground (he instigated the successful Merseyside garden festival in the mid-1980s) it might be expected that Sorensen would be hands-on in Greenwich. In fact the commission has devolved management of the project to a sub-quango called Millennium Central, headed by the former chief executive of the commission, Jenny Page, and chaired by Bob Ayling, friend of Tony Blair's and chief executive of British Airways.

The commission has not had an entirely happy history. Its first chief executive, the late Nicholas Hinton, lasted only a few weeks. Commission spending is, in theory, subject to audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General. If the project founders, however, the Public Accounts Committee may have a problem holding anyone to account, as the commission will no longer exist when the final reckoning comes.

Shortly after coming to office Labour announced it was reviewing the way quango appointments were made. As a result of a recommendation by Lord Nolan, a new Commissioner for Public Appointments was created - in the person of quangocrat Sir Len Peach. His remit extends only to "executive" bodies. This category excludes thousands of advisory bodies, training and enterprise councils and the like.

Since 1995, government departments and 10 Downing Street are meant to ensure appointments are "fair and meritorious". However, Sir Len's powers are not retrospective, and the cousinhood of quangocrats, pals of ministers, ministers' wives and the great and the good are likely to maintain their grip on public appointments for some years to come.