For 2000, let's repair our lovely land

Artworks, monuments, grand designs ... Our gift to the next millennium sh ould be something greater and yet more modest than these, argues Jonathan Glanc ey Perhaps, unlike the French or Italians, we simply lack a sense of the monumenta l We might begin by clearing our rivers and restocking them with fish
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Toying with history in thousand-year blocks tends to bring out the very worst in politicians, visionaries, architects and religious fanatics. If the British Empire had lasted a thousand years, the world would not have been a better place for it, w hile in 2940 only the very few will recall the heroism displayed by young pilots dogfighting over the Kentish Weald in 1940, as Winston Churchill fondly hoped they might.

Hitler's Thousand Year Reich was shortlived by 988 years, an economy that saved millions of lives while coincidentally sparing Berlin from the heavy hand of Albert Speer, the Fuhrer's pet architect. Speer's designs included a domed meeting hall 1,000ft high and so voluminous that clouds would have formed inside. It was intended to last 1,000 years.

British politicians and worthies are now warbling messianically about ways of marking the fast-approachingmillennium. How should the billions of pounds raised through the National Lottery and channelled through the imposingly named Millennium Commission be spent? What monuments will best represent our vision of the future? We were given our first glimpse this week with the publication of the London Millennium Study, a list of 90 projects seeking financial backing from the Millennium Commission. To date the commission has received 160 applications from around Great Britain, although the full list will remain confidential until the closing date for applications (31 March).

John Major has already said that what Britain needs to celebrate the millennium is the equivalent of an Eiffel Tower or Sydney Opera House. The Prime Minister should be reminded that both the Eiffel Tower (1889) and Sydney Opera House (1976) were immensely unpopular when planned and built; no British politician from either side of the House of Commons would dare risk such monumental unpopularity.

It would be far more politic to rebuild the Crystal Palace (1851), as a number of lobbyists have suggested. Not exactly forward-looking, this would be a vote-winner and a suitably transparent symbol of our national obsession with heritage. In fact all the major projects put forward for millennium funding in London turn on the revamping of existing arts buildings and cultural complexes: improving the South Bank arts centre, converting Bankside power station into the Tate Gallery of Modern Art, dolling upthe Royal Opera House.

At least spending money on old buildings would guarantee some continued return on the investment. By contrast, vainglorious millennial monuments of the Eiffel Tower school, no matter how futuristic these might appear at the time, will seem outmoded within 30, let alone 100 or 1,000 years. And those strong enough to withstand the test of time will, inevitably, become increasingly expensive to maintain. Can we trust ourselves to look after them? History suggests not. We find it hard enough to look after existing monuments or even, as in the case of the British Library, to complete them. Perhaps, unlike the French or Italians, we simply lack a sense of the monumental.

No; millennial monumentsare really little more than Ozymandian conceits designed to inflate the egos of those who propose them. A fortnight ago Private Eye published a spoof list of "imaginative ways in which Britain can mark the year 2000"; these included "the making of the world's biggest ball of string, to be erected in the Pennines and visible from space", "covering Snowdonia with a huge pizza designed by Damien Hirst" and "a free Hob Nob biscuit to be issued to every old age pensioner on 1 January 2000". These suggestions are no more silly than some of those said to have been put forward for millennium funding, such as the giant Ferris wheel for London's South Bank .

Better that we should forget heroic cultural monuments.Our finest monuments have rarely been forced out of the ground to meet a specific date or occasion (those that were - like Blenheim Palace - ended up being too big, too expensive and very late). Rather, they have grown organically over a number of decades, or even centuries: think of the great age of British churchbuilding, the Georgian country house and its landscaped garden, Victorian railway bridges, Frank Pick's London Transport (in the 1930s this was the finest public transport system in the world) or the Hertfordshire primary schools of the 1950s. None of these was built by command of a sentimental, superstitious and spurious turning over of the calendar.

Equally, the arts in all their forms from dance to painting, prosper (and pall) in fits and starts: no amount of highly targetted millennium funding could have given us Hawksmoor, Turner, the Spitfire or punk. Sponsorship does not necessarily encourage great art; only patronage can do that. Nor do we need millennium money to fund giant parties on the night of 31 December 1999: they will happen anyway.

So how might we celebrate the millennium without aggrandising old monuments (the Royal Opera House, "Albertopolis"), without squandering money on new monuments (John Major's "Eiffel Tower") without playing overmuch into the hands of the increasingingly powerful arts lobby (at worst, one long cocktail party for the rich and fashionable) and without playing the fool (rebuilding Crystal Palace, erecting giant Ferris wheels or planting two million trees, as Private Eye joked, "in a straight line from John O'Groat's to Land's End"). Is there a way of building for the millennium that is both democratic and enduring, popular and forward-looking?

Perhaps there is. What we might best do is to put our home - the British Isles - into some sort of civilised order. We might begin by clearing the silt from our rivers and restocking them with fish. We might buy up tracts of coastland still in danger from unsympathetic development (the National Trust's greatest and most popular success has been the saving of miles of beautiful coastline). We could invest intelligently in Snowdonia and the Lake District to ensure that these National Parks can continue towithstand the millions of feet trampling over them and tyres churning them up.

We could dig our worst motorway intersections underground, bury the preposterous road that recently wrecked Twyford Down to shave a few minutes off the journey by car between London and Southampton. We might lay lasting tracks for a properly integrated national railway network, build tramways in towns and create a national network of cycleways and footpaths. We could, where needed, build bridges beautifully and inventively in areas of great beauty (the bridge that will replace bonny boats over the sea to Skye is a horrid thing; with a bit more money and imagination, think what a great engineer might do to enhance the Highland landscape). We could agree to rebuild the worst urban housing estates and pay the edge-of-town superstore chains to go away (or come back to town) and reclaim the countryside they have despoiled for a shrink-wrapped fricassee of potage.

We might rip up the "heritage" rubbish littering our town centres (neo-Victorian lavatories, benches, streetlamps, dinky paving stones), replacing them with with graceful designs in enduring materials. We might want to pay for the reintegration of our deregulated bus network. Or, what about a national land fund that would buy forgotten beauty spots before they were raped by crude building?

In other words we could repair and reinvigorate the infrastructure of these islands, because this is the one time that the money needed to do some of these things will be available. Monuments, art-world "happenings" and installations, balls of string canall follow. These are decorations on the national cake, three-dimensional tittle-tattle, great fun, but of no lasting consequence.

Nearly everyone, however, would delight in the rehabilitation of our landscapes, townscapes and waterways. Over the past decade our concern for the environment has grown. The old as well as the young are willing to lay down their lives to stop further despoliation of our countryside. They represent an ever-growing part of the population for whom the consumer society has got out of hand; they want markets not superstores, railways not roads, animals not annihilation, common sense not political dogma, misty mornings over green fields rather than monuments to shopping and cultural fads.

Politicians and millennium commissioners ignore them at their peril. Investment in a beautiful and sustainable infrastructure is a way to lay popular and beautiful foundation stones for the Britain of the third millennium. The Ferris wheels, opera housesand pet projects of the arts glitterati might be more obviously glamorous, but they can afford to wait just a little longer, while we put right what we have taken apart for no real gain either now or in the very long- term future.