"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are always cocksure and the intelligent are always filled with doubt." ~ Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)
Two Prime Ministers
I love the millennium dome because it was a small government project. It is always easier to understand a small project that a big one. Both major political parties were involved. Many prominent people and consultancy firms lent their names. Two Prime Ministers are implicated; other important politicians nailed their colours to its many masts. And it was a total fiasco.
The government had hoped that private companies would finance the project but they ran for cover when disaster seemed inevitable. So a wholly government-owned company The New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC) was set up to bring the project to fruition and to run its operation. I was going to use the words "manage" and "organise" but they are wholly inappropriate.
The NMEC commissioned a forecast of likely visitor numbers from Deloitte Touche who predicted between 8 and 12 million. Financial plans were based on an estimated 12 million. This number was four times as high as the results achieved by the then most popular pay-to-visit attraction in the UK. In the event 6 million paying visitors came.
Lacked senior staff with experience
This misjudgement was hardly surprising. According to the Government's own Auditor General's report " the company lacked senior staff with experience of running a large visitor attraction". It was only when the full magnitude of the problems became clear that the government sacked the incumbent (lets not forget that the Government made the original appointment) and a more experienced Chief Executive was appointed.
By then many mistakes had already been made. Spending on marketing was low compared with other attractions, with fully foreseeable consequences.
Catalogue of disasters
When the Dome opened no arrangements had been made to sell tickets on the door. Direct government interference cut potential revenue further when it was decided to give free access to up to 1 million school children. One can taste the desperation behind this decision. By the end of the first month, only 3% of the expected annual target had visited the dome. These 345,000 visitors were in stark contrast with the 120,000 attracted to the newly-opened Tate Modern in its first three days. The Dome was forced to cut ticket prices by 50%.
This catalogue of disasters was heralded by an opening ceremony which would be hard to surpass. An administrative error meant that guests failed to receive their tickets in time, so the 3000 people had to queue for hours at Stratford station where they had to stop to check in. Then they were further delayed by security checks and searches before being allowed onto special trains to take them to the Dome.
The sloppiness of the project was brought home to me when a Sikh friend of a friend of mine was startled to see a Sikh text displayed upside down in the Spirit Zone. I don't know how long it stayed that way.
The project was doomed from the start. It was being overseen by "three separate institutional bodies, three accounting officers and two ministers exercising three distinct roles". In the words of the Auditor General's report: "By any standards, that is a highly complex structure"
The government's problems were not over yet. When it became clear that the dome would be a financial catastrophe, they hoped to recoup their losses by selling the site. This proved harder than they expected and there were several false starts as potential buyers pulled out when they realised what they were taking on. So the costs of keeping it empty added to the deficit. At an estimated cost of £1 billion the Dome has been described as "probably the most expensive 'urban regeneration project' this country has ever seen".
"Not much of a government"
Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, John Prescott, Michael Heseltine and John Major were all involved in planning and/or deciding to go ahead with the project. Tony Blair described it as: "The most exciting thing to happen anywhere in the World in the Year 2000" Peter Mandelson predicted "Our problem will not be attracting people, but finding enough space and opportunity for them all to enter the dome to have the time of their lives." And John Prescott commented: "If we can't make this work, we're not much of a government" .
A huge amount of money (yours and mine) has been wasted on the Dome, yet those responsible for the mistakes either remain in important well paid jobs or receive hefty pensions – demonstrating that the political clique looks after its own.
"Not fit for purpose"
But I love the Dome. It shows that our leaders, for all their self confident poses and endless self-justification when put to the test are unable to organise the proverbial "piss up in a brewery".
It is distressing that we continue to be surprised at their incompetence. It is these people, and the infrastructure they rely on, who preside over the NHS. No wonder they cannot organise a system to allocate jobs to newly-qualified doctors. No wonder the Child support agency was so hopeless that it had to be closed down. It is frightening to imagine what might be going on in areas that are complicated and that we cannot see. What else, to use John Reid's immortal words, is "not fit for purpose"?