LEADING ARTICLE : Dump this tawdry millennium `monument'

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The Independent Online
This millennium business is getting ridiculous. Seven months ago we asked: "Is anyone in charge?" And lo, it turned out to be Jack Cunningham, Labour's national heritage spokesman. The Greenwich monument for the year 2000 is to be built with business sponsorship, and business sponsors think we will have a Labour government by then, so they want the project underwritten by future ministers before they stump up the cash. Thus Dr Cunningham finds himself in control of the purse-strings.

"We must be prudent with the Lottery proceeds," he wrote in his most Victorian voice to Virginia Bottomley, who is now more the shadow minister than he is. "It is the people's money."

How right he is, if we can put aside for a moment his obvious delight in the situation.

The wrangle over funding for the Greenwich exhibition exposes the lack of public enthusiasm for the project. Do people stop each other in the checkout queue to say, "Oh good, there's going to be a giant plastic hedgehog on a bit of derelict land in Greenwich"? They do not.

In fact, the plans are for a glass dome, but it will look like plastic. And it is a tacky monument anyway. Domes are a symbol of civic pride in the United States, where any city that wants to be taken seriously has to have its own American football team and its own dome. The bigger the better, preferably air-conditioned, with "real" artificial turf (this for a working-class game intended to be played in mud and snow).

We are supposed to be proud and inspired that the Greenwich tent-dome, suspended on 12 masts each 100 metres high, will be bigger than the Georgia Dome in Atlanta or the Astrodome in Houston, and twice as big as Wembley Stadium.

Perhaps we British are just naturally sullen and ungrateful, but we are not impressed. This newspaper's architecture correspondent described the concept as a "giant trade fair", a "tawdry and embarrassing" theme park built around corporate advertising.

Astronomers are worried about light pollution from the monstrous illuminated bubble. They have a point: there is a striking symbolism in the fact that it is so difficult to see the stars in so much of suburbanised Britain.

And Prince Charles is worried about the lack of spirituality in the millennium commemorations generally (he has a point, although if he pushes it too far people will point out that 2000 is a Christian date, the significance of which might be lost on atheists and Muslims, and that anyway Jesus was probably born 2,000 years ago this year).

It is conceivable that neither the commercialised crassness of the Greenwich scheme nor the almost total lack of public interest matters. The Crystal Palace put up in Hyde Park for the 1851 Great Exhibition was conceived as a temporary folly. But it turned out to be so popular that it was moved piece by piece to south London and preserved for posterity (until it burned down in 1936).

When Gustave Eiffel proposed his iron tower, many Parisians thought it would be a hideous eyesore. It doesn't matter, he said, we can dismantle it after 10 years, when the 1889 centenary of the French Revolution has passed.

Now they say the same about the Millennium Ferris wheel proposed for the south bank of the Thames opposite Big Ben. At least that could be fun, and it is crazy enough to express a sense of confidence in the future which should be at the heart of the celebrations.

But the plastic hedgehog is all wrong and Dr Cunningham would be quite justified if he pulled the plug on it. It is now costed at pounds 700m, of which pounds 200m would come from the National Lottery. But Dr Cunningham fears the bill could escalate to pounds 1bn, and it is hard to contradict him. The project has been mishandled from the start and it reflects all the faults of both the Government's fraudulent conception of our "national heritage" and the undemocratic oligopoly which is handing out the astonishing piles of public money raised by the Lottery.

All over the country a class of project-brokers has sprung up to foist ambitious and unnecessary schemes on localities whose residents do not want them. The Greenwich scheme is simply the largest and most unwanted of them. Local consultation has been minimal. The local council has been shut out of the meetings. National consultation for this supposedly national and unifying event has been non-existent.

It is a bit late now for these faults to be put right. Michael Heseltine and Virginia Bottomley would have had a much better chance of success if they had decided on the Greenwich site at least a year earlier. Greenwich Council first proposed it in 1993, and the Meridian is indeed the obvious symbolic location.

But there is still time for the rest of us to come up with better ideas, and for Dr Cunningham - in power if not in office - to come up with more democratic ways of spending Lottery money to back them up.

We like the idea of a Millennium Forest, planting new deciduous trees to link up some of the tattered shreds of woodland left strewn across the suburb of England. But there must be many more bright and forward- looking ideas out there. Let's hear them.