Leading article: Making an exhibition

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What an Exhibition. The plan for a national exhibition to mark Britain's passage into the twenty-first century is in danger of falling apart. The clock ticks, but sponsors quibble - a nation of shopkeepers indeed. The Millennium Commission meets and decides ... nothing. It waits for a white knight to come along. It might be a long wait. Time is already running short for a project with any ambition to stand the test of time, but sods go unbroken. Indeed, on the Greenwich peninsula its not such a simple task; first the polluted land needs to be reclaimed.

This is not just a lost opportunity in the making; it starts to feel like the kind of debAcle you tell your grandchildren about. It is a story of how once there was inspiring talk of giant Ferris wheels and award- winning architecture and a great event to challenge Hyde Park 1851 or at least the Festival of Britain 1951. Yet in the event, the British system could only deliver - even this is still in the balance - a tuppenny-ha'ppeny theme park.

It has not been a good week for the signs and symbols of our national competence. The technical failings in the Forensic Science Service have cast an embarrassing shadow over our criminal justice system. The British Library is years late and hugely over budget. The mismanagement that has afflicted that project may be slightly different from the unfolding debacle over Greenwich. Yet it is impossible not to feel a sense of malaise: that we have lost the will and the way to mount large national projects of which we can be proud. It is a puzzle that a society which is so ready to celebrate its history so often seems mired in the expedient and short term, unable to plan and execute projects over a number of years that might stand the test of time.

It is also, partly, sheer lack of managerial nous, particularly in bridging the gap between the public and private sectors in the name of communal purpose. For at the end of the day, if Greenwich fails it will reflect a failure of our business and political leaders to muster and deliver a sense of common purpose. That is why the exhibition matters.

The Greenwich affair poses an even more basic question: is anyone in charge? You can start to answer that question by counting the secretaries of state for national heritage there have been since commemorating the millennium became a declared object of public policy. There have been three; that alone starts to explain how the project got into such a parlous state. Is British government so beset by short-term political calculations that it is now incapable of seeing through long and complex projects?

Short-termism in Whitehall is one reason why ministers hand over problems to quangos. They generally have a longer shelf life, but just to make sure their politics are sound ministers appoint their friends. It is this cosy, unaccountable and incestuous club to which, without being asked, we have delegated the responsibility for marking the nation's passage into the next millennium, with a scheme that might crystallise a sense of national aspiration. Government by friends can work, but only if the pals are professional, dedicated and efficient. The Millennium Commission is behaving like a bunch of amateurs.

Virginia Bottomley, its Heritage Secretary and Millennium Commission chair, makes policy in soundbites. Michael Heseltine, formerly the great doer of urban redevelopment, is beached. His political mentor, Lord Walker, cuts deals as chair of English Partnerships - another quango - and board member of British Gas, owner of the Greenwich site. Meanwhile an architect of flair and vision, Sir Richard Rogers, is commissioned to provide a grand plan for the Greenwich peninsula but is hamstrung because the exhibition has to be his centrepiece. These are just some of the complex relationships which are vying over the Greenwich project. Remember this is a government which prides itself on a claim to have effected a revolution in public management. Then try to draw a neat organisational chart to tell you who is in charge, who carries the can, who takes responsibility.

It is too late to go back to square one. Greenwich, startlingly close to the centre of London, waits to be revivified. A government less bound by dogma than this one would take strong and immediate action. Decisions have to be made now if we are to have any kind of worthwhile exhibition let alone one housed in fine buildings showing off the architectural talent Britain has in abundance.

Before they can be made, the management structure has to be got right. One way forward is to hand the peninsula over to an instrument of urban policy with a proven track record - the single-purpose development corporation with a limited life, empowered to buy land, develop it then sell two or three decades later at a profit. Put Sir Richard Rogers in charge, or at least re-attach him. And open the public purse. For once, funds are not a problem. The National Lottery is a golden shower. And then let's start breaking ground, pouring concrete, looking forward.