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Dan Anderson: Bring back the Millennium Commission

Gateshead, millennium bridge © graeme peacock

Despite talk of a curse, most of the Millennium Commission’s projects thrived and it could have prevented the Garden Bridge fiasco, argues Dan Anderson

This article is either 10 years late or 983 years ahead of its time. My nostalgia for the Millennium Commission has been stirred by a few recent events. First, the demise of the Garden Bridge, whose fate was sealed by Margaret Hodge’s damning review of the project. 

I was one of those who gave evidence to Hodge and, in my meeting with her, she made a provocative point: ‘The mayor is allowed to have ideas,’ she said.

That sentiment was powerfully expressed in the preamble to her review, which read: ‘One of the most important responsibilities that the mayor of London enjoys is to take action to continually enhance London and make it a better and more attractive place for people to live in, work in and visit. Renewing the infrastructure through innovative “grandes oeuvres” is vital to ensuring that London maintains its leading edge as one of the most appealing capital cities in the world.’

This statement then became the focus of a Garden Bridge post-mortem by Peter Murray, chairman of New London Architecture. Murray points to the good ideas that originated on the drawing boards of Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, Marks Barfield and Terry Farrell and argues that: ‘Throughout the capital, architects and planners work with local communities to develop ideas for improving neighbourhoods … Any new procurement guidance generated as a result of the Hodge report should make it easier for such initiatives to come forward.’

Supporters of the bridge understandably fear that bold, creative ideas will now be strangled at birth by an overly zealous procurement process. 

There is some justification for this. Ian Ritchie has already declared that ‘the era of follies is over’, while fellow architect Walter Menteth has called for a full investigation ‘so that trust in public service may be restored’.

As critical as I have been about the Garden Bridge, I share the unease that its legacy will be a prolonged period of extreme risk aversion

The AJ’s Paul Finch meanwhile decries the Garden Bridge’s critics for ‘condemning creativity and private initiatives’, and Thomas Heatherwick himself complains that ‘it is always easier to stop an unusual new idea than to make it happen’. 

All this rancour over a garden bridge is best explained by LSE professor Tony Travers in a previous article in the AJ:

‘The scale of interest in this project makes no sense unless you think of all the stories buried within it, which are unravelling,’ he wrote. ‘It’s like a story from ancient history which tells several universal truths.’

It’s a good point. When its momentum seemed unstoppable, opponents of the Garden Bridge saw in it the symptoms of every disease infecting the city: economic division, privatisation of public space, the hubris of an entitled, cosy elite. Now that it’s been cancelled, its supporters have infused it with symbolism of their own: post-Brexit despair, nimby obstructionism, even in Boris Johnson’s words a grimly utilitarian ‘hatred of beauty’. 

As critical as I have been about the bridge, I share the unease that its legacy will be a prolonged period of extreme risk aversion. That genuinely would be a shame. There should be a place in a city like London for projects that matter as much for their symbolism and the signals they send, as they do for the workaday needs they serve. 

I never really had a problem with the concept. I only took issue with the blizzard of bullshit that was used to ram it through procurement, planning and funding hurdles – or what Rowan Moore memorably described as a long series of ‘half-truths, deceptions and evasions’. There were just too many lies.

I do, however, sympathise with Hodge’s argument about the desirability of the ‘grand oeuvre’ and with Murray’s position that ‘we need visions for a better city’.That is partly about procurement. But it is also about funding.  

The ‘curse’ of the Millennium projects

Around the time Hodge was compiling her report, a Merseyside garden was having problems of its own. The Hodder and Partners-designed National Wildflower Centre, a £4.3 million Millennium project, declared bankruptcy. Richard Waite conducted a detailed autopsy in the AJ, which prompted Will Hurst to write a follow-up on ‘the curse of the Millennium project’. He pointed to the almost immediate closure of The Public in West Bromwich and Sheffield’s National Centre for Popular Music as further evidence of the curse.

Nationalwildflowercentre hodder+partners 02©martinehamiltonknight

Source: Martine Hamilton Knight

National Wildflower Centre by Hodder + Partners

Interestingly though, The Public and the Centre for Popular Music were not strictly speaking Millennium projects. They were both funded by the Arts Council. 

Hurst is certainly not alone in presuming that any turn-of-the-century destination disaster was a Millennium project. Because of a dome that haemorrhaged money and a bridge that wobbled, the commission never quite managed to shake a popularly held – but mostly inaccurate – belief that it promoted a bunch of flops and failures. It didn’t.

There were three parts to the commission.

  • The New Millennium Experience Company, which was responsible for the Millennium Dome.
  • A host of smaller projects, ranging from festivals and school games to community hall refurbishments.
  • The ‘landmark’ Millennium projects – those larger capital projects with which we are most familiar.

The less said about the Millennium Dome, the better. Nor is there much more to say about the smaller projects. That part of the commission went about its business with little fanfare and much success and the whole remit was transferred to the Big Lottery Fund, which still operates today.

The funding gap that opened in the absence of a Millennium Commission is for that third group of projects – a loosely defined programme of capital grants for ‘initiatives that reflect either the UK’s achievements or its aspirations for the future’. The funding criteria were long on principle and vague on detail, and the commission was open-minded about what could and should be funded.

Nearly three out of four Millennium projects either met or exceeded expectations. We should all be so cursed

Through the landmark projects we planted woodlands and laid cycle trails; we built art galleries and science centres; we improved our inland waterways and regenerated urban areas. In total, we invested more than £1.3 billion of lottery funding in around £3.5 billion worth of capital development. We even built a few bridges. One of them won the Stirling Prize and two of them span the Thames.

Other than those projects that were intentionally time-limited, only four out of the 225 ‘landmark’ projects are no longer with us: the Earth Centre (Doncaster), the Big Idea (Irvine Bay), the National Faith Centre (Bradford) and, now, the National Wildflower Centre.

Not failing, however, is a poor measure of success. So Fourth Street, the consultancy I work for, researched all 225 projects to find out how they have performed relative to their original objectives.

Judging the relative success of such a varied group of projects is a subjective exercise, but it is possible to bring some objective criteria to bear. Did it open on time and on budget? Has it since expanded or contracted? Has it won awards for architectural merit or incurred additional costs to fix design and development defects? Has it found a sustainable business model or has it bounced in and out of administration? Is it critically acclaimed or a magnet for controversy? Tripadvisor ratings also give an, albeit imperfect, measure of customer satisfaction.

Comparable data was found on 76 projects that collectively account for more than 80 per cent of funding to the landmark projects. We then baked it all into a single ‘success’ index. The results are illustrated in the chart below.

Millenium projects graph

Just over half (53 per cent) of the funding delivered projects that more or less met expectations. Some 23 per cent of grant funding arguably underperformed, but an almost equal amount over-performed.

The National Cycle Network is a good example of the latter. The first 5,000 miles were delivered through a £44 million Millennium Commission grant. Since then the network has tripled in size. Other successful projects include Tate Modern, the Lowry Centre, Falkirk Wheel, the Great Court and Gateshead Millennium Bridge – all the grandes oeuvres of their day. 

Nearly three out of four Millennium projects either met or exceeded expectations. Not a bad batting average for a programme that was explicitly designed to take on high-risk projects. We should all be so cursed. 

A gap in the funding ecology

In hindsight, the timing of the Garden Bridge seems significant.

For a decade since the mid-1990s we were accustomed to funding our ‘luxury’ projects – ie those that we possibly ‘want’ more than we strictly ‘need’ – through the lottery. When the Millennium Commission was wound-up in 2006, the Regional Development Agencies partially filled the gap. They had substantial budgets and broad remits that could fold arguments about tourism, creativity and placemaking into an economic agenda. The London Development Agency was wound up just before the Olympics, giving way to a local enterprise partnership that has less money and a narrower focus.

Lowry©richard bryant crop

Source: Richard Bryant

The Lowry Centre, Salford, by Michael Wilford & Partners

The Olympic cauldron was still smoking when Joanna Lumley’s infamous letter proposing the Garden Bridge reached Johnson. It was, in other words, the first major project through the pipeline in this post-Millennium, post-LDA, post-Olympic funding environment. It thus exposed a gap in the funding ecology for projects not easily categorised as ‘arts’, ‘heritage’ or ‘sport’ (or, indeed, ‘transport’). Johnson may have loved the idea, but he had no obvious way to fund it.

Through mayoral directions and ministerial orders, Johnson and then-chancellor George Osborne tried to turn Transport for London into a development agency for their pet project. But TfL is not a fit-for-purpose grant-funder of novelty infrastructure. Mistakes were made. The procurement process was botched. Public consultation was derisory. The business plan was risible. They left far too many loose threads for a determined opposition to pick at and unravel. 

It is hard to believe that the Millennium Commission would have allowed any of that to happen. It certainly would not have allowed so much money to be spent, at risk, on a project that will remain a CGI fantasy. 

I’m not suggesting the commission was perfect. For starters, investing so much, so quickly, led to herding behaviour, which created an excess supply of product that was ‘of a type’ and ‘of its time’. Simultaneously building more than a dozen science centres was, in retrospect, not a great idea.

I’m not even suggesting that we bring the Millennium Commission back in its entirety – just a fraction of its funding and a few of its principles. We are a divided country careering into a period of uncertainty. Now seems like a good time to restore a source of finance for those spirit-lifting initiatives that ‘reflect either the UK’s achievements or its aspirations for the future’. A £200 million fund seems like a fitting tribute to the Garden Bridge, and it could be administered by an independent, cross-party commission, to pump-prime a few grandes oeuvres around the country. 

We did just elect six brand-new metropolitan mayors, all of whom are ‘allowed to have ideas’. It would help if they actually had some money to implement them.

Dan Anderson is a tourist-attraction expert who works at consultancy Fourth Street

You can read this feature and more in this edition of the AJ.
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Readers' comments (2)

  • An interesting piece Dan. We're planning to have a breakfast debate on just this topic at NLA on October 6 with Will Hurst. Hope you can be there.

    I was never quite sure where Hodge got the idea of 'grands oeuvres' from - did she mean 'grands projets' which is what Mitterand called his interventions? "Grand travaux' is an alternative. Why not use English and just call them 'big ideas'?

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  • We are allowed to use French to categorise projects when out of the ordinaire. Mark, are you nit picking or just showing off? Remind us again, what is the NLA? National Landmark Association? New Language Appropriation? Goodnight Vienna

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