Leading Article: Unready, steady, go to the new millennium

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The Independent Online
NICHOLAS HINTON, director-general of the Save the Children Fund, is going to have a hard time making sense of the Millennium Commission, whose chief executive he becomes shortly. He and his nine commissioners, a classic cross-section of the great and good chaired by a Cabinet minister, will have a free hand in allocating around pounds 1.6bn from the National Lottery over the next five years.

Their mandate is vague. As laid out by Peter Brooke, the former Heritage Secretary, it is to approve projects capturing 'the spirit of our age in enduring landmarks that symbolise our hopes for the future' and 'of the millennium'. About half the money will go to a dozen major schemes around the country, costing tens of millions each. These are supposed to attract 'partnership contributions' from other sources. The other half will go to smaller capital projects of local significance; to a millennium bursary scheme of some sort; and possibly to a millennium festival.

Mr Brooke also said: 'If the projects we support are to stand the test of time, they must be for the man or woman in the street - it is after all their playing the lottery that will provide the income.'

The wisdom of those words has no doubt not been lost on Stephen Dorrell, who has succeeded Mr Brooke as Heritage Secretary and as the commission's chairman. To tap the public mood and spread the message, commissioners are visiting 12 venues around the country, giving press conferences and addressing local leaders from potentially relevant walks of life.

There is something very British in the hybrid nature of the body that will be entrusted with huge sums of money, yet whose decisions could yield projects only marginally more enduring than the doomed glass cathedral in Peter Carey's novel Oscar and Lucinda.

The Government is not confident enough either to run the show itself, or to hand it over to a body that would tap public opinion in a methodical manner - perhaps through questions on the back of lottery tickets, local referendums or even using television, the medium through which winners are expected to learn of their good fortune.

Mr Hinton needs to bring some life and a good deal more transparency to the process of deciding how Britain should spend its millennial nest egg. Otherwise he and his committee will be remembered in terms evocative of Britain's ruler at the turn of the first millennium: Ethelred the Unready.