Thames to be dammed for millennial fun

THE HIGH tide of Labour's millennial ambitions is about to be realised. The Thames is to be dammed on millennium night to create a giant lagoon for a floating carnival in the heart of London.

As the river stops flowing on December 31, a flotilla of vessels from across the ages will take to the pond-like surface. Crowds will line the banks to watch firework displays on floating barges.

Under plans to be announced next month, the Thames barrier, whose normal function is to protect London against floods from the North Sea tide, will for the first time be closed to prevent tidal water running out of the river.

A spokesman for the New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC) said: "We are proposing that the last high tide of 1999 is held back until just after midnight."

The Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions will consider pushing through a variation to the 1972 Thames Barrier Act, which only permits the gates to be closed for flood prevention. A spokesman said it would consider the plan "soon".

Jenny Page, chief executive of NMEC, has held preliminary discussions with Nick Raynsford, the minister for London. One source said: "This at last will give the dome the missing 'wow' factor to capture the imagination of the rest of the world."

Only 10,000 people will be admitted into the dome for the opening ceremony and the river will provide the focus for millions of others. Grandstands will be built at Battersea Park, County Hall and Jubilee Gardens along the river banks.

Canute, the Danish King of England in the 11th century, once demonstrated the folly of tampering with the tide. But the Queen may choose to sail from Westminster to Greenwich to open the dome.

Steve East, an executive at the Thames barrier, confirmed that the structure, which spans the river at Woolwich Reach, can cope with the task of holding back the tide in the reverse direction for which it was designed.

Described as the "eighth wonder of the world" when it was completed in 1982 at a cost of more than 500m, the barrier was built to avert a repetition of the 1953 Thames estuary flood which left 160,000 acres of farmland contaminated by salt water.

The millennium computer bug is not expected to affect the barrier because its 10 gates, each weighing 3,700 tons, are operated by hydraulic pumps.

The creation of a temporary lagoon could damage wildlife. Alan Butterworth, an official at the Environment Agency who has assessed the likely impact of damming the Thames, said: "Water quality could suffer, with a shortage of oxygen and the build-up of sewage."