LEADING ARTICLE: Eyes firmly on the familiar

Click to follow
Spot the connection between the following activities: reclaiming several areas of wasteland, landscaping a country park, creating a national cycleway, building an environmental resource centre and a new canal lock. Answer: these are all projects given grants by the Millennium Commission in the first tranche of its mission to mark the passing of another thousand years.

The original remit given to the commission was a bold one; to fund projects that were "exceptionally distinctive [and] that are of the millennium". "Lift your eyes from the familiar, the mediocre and the mundane", said Peter Brooke, then Heritage Secretary.

And the result of all this riotous imagining, all that elevation of vision? Three hundred thousand quid to the village of Insch in Aberdeenshire to build a community centre and two all-weather soccer pitches. Twenty two million to grass over derelict land and fill in old mineshafts.

All this is worthy enough - local councils and businesses are undertaking similar projects all around the country. Small areas of Britain will be improved as a consequence. But what on earth has it all got to do with the millennium?

A great deal, say the commission's defenders. What these grants reflect is the new highly devolved, local, small-scale and environmentally conscious spirit of the age. We've had the Industrial Revolution, we've had the Age of Empire, we've had the era of world wars. All have left their gigantic marks on the landscape of the country. But our hopes for the next millennium are different. So we eschew grand buildings and vast monuments, and instead look to the community, the village and the town.

There is something at the same time seductive and unsatisfactory about this argument. The seductiveness of it is obvious: landscaping ugly things, planting lots of trees and reclaiming contaminated land are popular at a time of heightened concern for the environment. They suggest an optimism about cleaning up after mankind's excesses. Their millennial theme is that we intend to spend the next thousand years tidying up after the last thousand.

Which is very neat and nostalgic. But it omits so much that there is to celebrate. In these projects there is nothing of the passion, the ingenuity and the diversity that has marked much of the past thousand years and that looks set to mark much of the next millennium. Someone born in the same year as Christ would have recognised almost every material and artefact in use one thousand years later. Ethelred or Thruthelthrolth, returning to Britain today would recognise virtually nothing. But where is the celebration of that invention?

In five years' time peoples of all colours and tongues will enter together a new millennium, one in which knowledge and information will be available on a scale never before dreamt of. The next millennium will witness another dramatic transformation of the world. Do we really want to mark this with a "seafront amenity" in Stranraer?