London deserves to get lucky

Critics who complain that the capital gets too much lottery money are wrong, says Terence Conran
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The Independent Online
Against significant odds, London remains a world-class city. Unlike New York or Paris or Sydney - indeed, unlike Manchester or Edinburgh or Bristol - it has no co-ordinated governing body. Emasculated by its lack of leadership, London struggles to initiate new schemes that will keep it at the forefront of world culture. This is a battle that the UK, as well as London, has to win - a point that is lost on the carpers who complain that London has received more than its fair share of lottery grants.

As the capital city, London is the focus of attention from other countries around the world. It is the centre not just of national government, but of finance, the arts and entertainment. The capital's reputation as a centre of excellence for its sporting facilities, its built heritage and the performing and visual arts is vital for the success with which it attracts both visitors and businesses from overseas. Once here, the money spent by these tourists and invested by these businesses benefits the country as a whole: by the tourists who visit other parts of the country, and by the jobs created by overseas companies, whose employees will not restrict their spending to the capital. If London fails, I believe the whole country fails.

A significant reason, I would argue, why Frankfurt seems to have lost its bid to become the financial centre of Europe is that the city is so dreary that nobody really wants to work there. Imagine the fate of the country as a whole were London to become so bleak that major financial institutions relocated. And make no mistake, they wouldn't relocate to another part of the UK; it would be to Paris or to Berlin or to New York.

So, if London gets it wrong, there is not much hope for the rest of the country. Our capital city has to be as good as it possibly can be, for the enrichment - both literally and figuratively - of all our lives.

The National Lottery gives me cause for anxiety on a number of fronts. As a pernicious and insidious tax levied disproportionately on the poor to subsidise the leisure activities of the rich - which is how the distribution thus far has been popularly received - it is a massive con trick. Following the fiasco of the Churchill papers, one might have expected the distributors to act more sensitively than to announce a pounds 55m award to the Royal Opera House. It was, as the Daily Mirror headline screamed, just "too too much". But it's the timing I take issue with - not the award.

I am equally dismayed that the five distributing bodies overseee what the Government terms "good causes", as if our heritage, the arts and sport were not central to the quality of all our lives. Funds currently exceed the projected figures; but what happens in the future if they start falling off? The Government seems quite intent on using lottery money to release it from the necessity of adequate funding.

However, the money exists, and it is essential to see that it is spent wisely. As such, I don't believe that the awards made to London are inappropriate. As we approach the millennium, one of the most exciting and long-overdue developments seems to be under way: the regeneration of London south of the Thames.

Southwark Council does not enjoy the rosiest of relationships with the press. It presides over a borough in which unemployment runs at about 25 per cent and which includes areas of appalling dereliction and neglect. Yet the council has been fundamental in pushing for - and winning - bids for lottery funding for the Globe Theatre (pounds 12.4m), the Tate Museum of Modern Art on Bankside (pounds 50m) and a temporary home for the Royal Opera (not to mention a small chefs' training school in Butlers Wharf). Taken alone, these projects will generate employment and raise the profile of the south bank of the Thames. But there will, I hope and believe, be a ripple effect that leads to the regeneration of areas beyond the riverside. If funding is given to the Richard Rogers scheme to enclose the South Bank Centre in glass, we will finally begin to redress the current imbalance between London north and south of the Thames.

Cities such as Birmingham, Liverpool and Glasgow serve as regional centres of excellence. But they are never going to overtake London in terms of international reputation. If London does not continue to be the focus of cultural excellence, the country as a whole will suffer. That London maintained a reputation for being the home of some of the best art collections in the world is extraordinary given how long we have been without a museum of modern art. It would be wholly inappropriate for the Tate Gallery to have considered housing this part of its collection in another part of the UK. As it is, the choice of the Bankside power station and the inspired commissioning of Herzog and de Mueron as architects will, I hope, have a similar effect on a currently neglected part of the capital as the Pompidou Centre had on Beaubourg in Paris.

The scheme is an ambitious one, but it is also long overdue. The museum is not a luxury but a necessity, and the award from the Millennium Commission provides the means to its success. When the museum finally opens, it will enrich the lives of everyone who visits it, regardless of where they live. It will provide the country with a proper venue for the understanding of many of the major cultural and political events of the 20th century: a cultural, educational and democratic forum for art.

Making our art and sporting venues accessible to all is a vital consideration. To the accusations of elitism, I would point to the Royal Opera's search for sponsors of its prom seasons; to the Sadler's Wells Theatre's reputation as an exciting and populist modern dance venue; to the enthusiasm with which the Globe Theatre wants to promote live performance. London's centres of excellence also provide the training ground for many people who then go on to share their expertise in other parts of the country.

It may be the ultimate irony that public subsidy - in the form of lottery funding - finally succeeds where beloved market forces so miserably failed: the regeneration of the Docklands. If it takes lottery money to ensure that London welcomes in the next millennium as a world class city with world class facilities, then so be it. Many of the capital's museums, galleries, theatres and sporting arena are in urgent need of modernisation. If they fall into irrevocable disrepair, we will all suffer as the creative and sporting talent in this country follows the money, the tourists and the businesses to other shores.