The world is suffering from a shortage of visions. I'm not talking about those dispiriting occasions when a suburban householder imagines they have discovered a picture of Christ weeping inside a halved tomato.

I refer instead to the visions of visionaries. The big ideas, the far-seeing, courageous plans that make a positive difference to our lives. Where have they gone?

Neither Al Gore nor George Bush expressed a remotely radical thought about the future of the free world during their battle to lead it. And Tony Blair has all the vision of a flatfish.

Such myopia infects every level of life. So it is that York councillors were today discussing Coppergate Riverside, a project so bereft of imagination it could be adapted as a Robson Green mini-series.

City councillors are supposed to be the guardians of the heritage with which they are temporarily entrusted. So when it was proposed to subsume York's historic core into Meadowhall Lite, you might have expected them to rise up in protest.

Not at all. They want the damn thing. Because they have fallen for the dominant philosophy of millennial Britain: shopping Is Good.

Slavish to this creed, planners brought us three soulless retail parks boasting multi-national chains selling artless tat on the outskirts of town. As a result people deserted York's traditional shops.

The planners' response? To build yet more, this time over our history.

No one from the council has expressed the alternative view, namely Shopping Ain't So Good. This is the faintly eccentric notion that abandoning York's unique character to join every other town in pursuit of the shopper's pound might be a bad thing.

It's certainly bad for the world at large. Consumers, by definition, consume - a process that threatens the planet. But if world leaders cannot be bothered to take this issue seriously why should local planners?

In fairness to the council, it has a stated commitment to move "towards the goal of sustainable development".

Exactly how Coppergate Riverside fits in with this ambition is hard to fathom. After all, it will desecrate a conservation area to encourage thousands of people to make thousands of car journeys to buy thousands of pounds' worth of stuff most of which will soon be thrown out to clog up acres of landfill.

It is all about money of course. City of York Council might as well have placed an ad in the Property Press: "Landowner has prime real estate to sell in city centre. Would suit faceless national developer. Some old buildings attached. Seeks cash buyer for quick sale: planning permission a formality."

If only we had a real leader. If only we had a visionary. Someone like the late Coun Albert Cowen, the former Lord Mayor who, against fierce opposition, championed the footstreets that are now so crucial to York's success and character.

A visionary would have seen the Coppergate Riverside in context. They would have realised that the future of a centuries-old site should not be based on a survey of people's projected shopping habits for the next six years.

That person would have understood how the current spending mania cannot last. And that creating a beautiful, peaceful and sustainable environment was ultimately more important to people than another branch of the Lewis partnership.

That person would have encouraged the hugely-creative local community to put forward their ideas for the site's redevelopment. They would know it was unacceptable to allow one large developer to dominate the planning process.

They might even have organised an architectural competition to inspire visual majesty and genuine debate.

That person would have ensured that tourists flocked to York to have their spirits uplifted, rather than to buy their next pair of shoes. That visionary, tragically for this city, does not exist.