At the height of the terrorist outrages, financial collapses and health scares that characterised the holiday season, a brief flash of troubled honesty stood out from the pages of the International Herald Tribune. After a depressing tour d'horizon of the billions written off share prices, everywhere from Moscow to Mexico City, a London banker was quoted as saying: 'What we are looking at is a progressive loss of confidence everywhere. The reason there is an avalanche of money into triple-A-rated government bonds is because no one knows where true value lies any more.'
How true, and how his words must have resonated in the troubled Spirit Zone of the great dome at Greenwich. For while it is a truth universally acknowledged that only in the tranquillity of reflection can true value be found, at the Spirit Zone of the Millennium Experience true value appears to have turned up empty-handed. As a result, the Spirit Level (as it used to be called) is starved of sponsorship. The bond salesmen have taken it all.
Fortunately the story is different up West, in the offices of the Millennium Commission. There the question of what comprises true value was put out to public consultation years ago. As a result, this disbursing body has built up a reputation for knowing the answer that would be the envy of any weather forecaster. In response to public worries about the environment; about education standards; about not understanding science; about not being able to halt the decline of rural communities; and about not being able to re-inject life into lacklustre cities, the Millennium Commission has handed out a cool £1.25 billion to 189 surefire winners.
With all the sangfroid of a veteran roulette player, it has put £5 million on The Big Idea, a Scottish museum of explosions, and £15 million on Dynamic Earth, an exhibition of earthquakes. It has stumped up £23 million for a National Space Centre in Leicester (that hub of extraterrestrial travel), and discerned £4.5 million of true value in the financing of a rum museum at Whitehaven. Other far-sighted disbursements include
£5 million to complete a sixteenth-century cathedral; £2 million for a national faith centre;
£2 million to light up buildings in the centre of Croydon; and £500,000 for 'a centre for visions'. Out of all the projects funded so far, virtually all involve construction work of some kind, and most involve the work of architects.
More importantly, perhaps, virtually all of them also make direct contributions to the expansion of the tourist industry. They are direct contributors to increased traffic pollution and waste, and public and private travel by road, rail and air. The Millennium Commission had already ascertained that environmental concerns came uppermost in the public mind when it started funding its true-value projects. Perhaps a smaller proportion of the £1.25 billion should have been spent on such cultural category killers as art galleries, museums, visitor centres and activity centres, and a larger portion spent on meditations on true value. This might have been more - as they say - appropriate.