Leading Article: A time for magnificence

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Grand projects always generate initial hostility. When Hyde Park was chosen as the site for Joseph Paxton's magnificent Crystal Palace to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Times threw up its hands in horror. It would turn the royal park into "a bivouac of vagrants", make Kensington and Chelsea uninhabitable, and ruin the season. Fortunately, Queen Victoria was taken with the idea, not least because her beloved Prince Albert was its patron, and polite London was overruled.

The millennium exhibition planned for Greenwich has aroused similar opposition, chiefly on the grounds of cost and the evident paucity of British achievements of which we can be proud to display there. But the last government compounded this lack of public enthusiasm with one of its hallmarks - a failure to manage competently.

Increasingly, Michael Heseltine, whom Tony Blair shrewdly brings back on side today, became the sole advocate for an idea that should have bound government and the people together. Instead of embracing the wider public, the action took place in cabinet sub-committees where Mr Heseltine pushed the project energetically. A clique took decisions, one that failed to communicate its thoughts and which was taken aback when it was asked to justify the large quantities of cash it wanted to spend.

Although destined to be funded by lottery cash, government never took ownership either. Instead it followed the predictable Tory route of setting up a "private" company, Millennium Central, on the basis that businessmen know best.

What the millennium project needs now is nothing short of a relaunch to make it into an effort to which the public can sign up too. It needs to be large-scale, ambitious and exciting. It needs to be the focus of a celebration that goes well beyond a normal New Year's Eve. And it needs to take advantage of the fact that, for a moment at least, the world will be looking towards Greenwich, locus of the meridian.

The world certainly looked to Hyde Park in 1851. Six million people - probably one in four of the population - visited Paxton's glass and iron palace in less than six months, a phenomenal figure. They travelled on the new railways rapidly connecting London with the rest of the kingdom and marvelled at the wonders of the Victorian world: huge steam engines, machinery that would make Britain the workshop of the world, the Koh-i- noor diamond, a magnificent glass fountain. On show they found the utilitarian and the exotic - carriages, textiles, china, cutlery, a penknife with 300 blades and an "alarum bed" which tipped out the sleeper at the right time. Fortunately, this idea did not catch on. But the exhibition as a whole caught the spirit of the age. And it made enough money to build the Albert Hall and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Greenwich 2000 opens up a similar prospect. The direction the Government now proposes is promising. First, Mr Blair and Peter Mandelson, the minister responsible for developments at Greenwich, have vetoed the idea that the dome will be torn down straight after the millennium show. The structure will remain or, if it does come down, other permanent uses will be found for the site. That will be a big help in justifying the vast cost of the scheme. And now that the Millennium Dome is a truly all-party affair, could not the Prince of Wales be persuaded to bring a much-needed "green" dimension to the project? After all, Queen Victoria was so enamoured with the Great Exhibition that she visited the Crystal Palace virtually every other day for the first three months.

What happens underneath the dome is crucial. Here the ideas are beginning to take shape. The theme will be time, how we live now and how we will be living in the next century. It will be informative and futuristic, a blend, perhaps, of the best of the Festival of Britain and the Science Museum. Using state-of-the-art technology, the new government wants a number of regional centres to have on-line access to the best of the exhibition. With just a fraction of the presentational skills that Labour brought to their election campaign this is a project which the public can be persuaded to love rather than loath. We have a historic opportunity to revive the best of Britain. It needs a proper showplace, and the enthusiasm to match.