Trouble at the Big Top

Tuesday, December 26, 2000 by

That the Millennium Dome turned out to be arguably the most controversial construction project in the nation’s history is hardly surprising. The warning signs were there in the pre-construction phase and, from inception onwards, this has been one of the longest running and compellingly watchable tragi-comedy shows of the ’90s. Given the potential for one of the great exposés in the history of investigative television journalism, how would the story be told by the Trouble at the Top team?

Fittingly, the show opened by reiterating the fact that Blair seized upon the Tory idea of the Millennium Dome as a quick and easy method of placing his metaphorical fingerprint on the national psyche by way of further re-branding the international image of “New Britain” under the guise of New Labour. How revealing that a man who ostensibly rose to power on a (albeit watered-down and heavily diluted) socialist ticket should use the phrase, when talking to the fawning media on site, “bigger and better than anybody else”. For Tony, just like the Bee Gees and capitalists everywhere, size does matter. But there was no attempt made to evaluate or analyse this bold assertion by the clearly euphoric post-election Blair.

My next grumble occurred with the filmmakers failing to explore the pre-construction phase. There was no mention of the salient fact that the overwhelming majority of quality construction contractors (Bovis, Skanska, Bilfinger & Berger etc – the major players on the global stage) made no attempt to bid for this job. Bear in mind that the typical driven down fee for a contractor would be around 2% on a project valued at £758 million, then questions surely should be asked when the most successful construction firms in the world avoided the Dome. Especially when there were clearly significant amounts of money to be made. In this single point are the origins of the disaster that inevitably followed.

The management from day one was clearly a shambles and represented all that is bad in project management. There was absolutely no leadership despite a plethora of senior management. Equally clearly, there was no master plan or master construction programme, but there were mission statements and sound bites galore. To watch Chief Executive Jenny Page try to get costs from one of the architects involved was hilarious. Both parties were clearly out of their depth and this was the blind leading the blind. This single moment encapsulated all the problems that bedeviled the project in a nutshell – dreadful management, lack of budgetary control, lack of knowledge, lack of direction, poor working relationships, lack of knowledge, lack of relevant experience, unrestricted egos. Fundamentally, you knew that from this moment on the project was doomed.

Mandelson’s comments were, in themselves, extremely revealing and he proved himself to be a master of spin. Every eventuality was clearly being accounted for. It was almost poignant to watch him ask a group of schoolchildren (a focus group in Dome-speak) if they could “help save his career.” More illuminating was the moment that two kids on the bus travelling to meet Mandy stated that “the money would be better spent on other things” – out of the mouths of babes indeed. As they sat around a table and the Minister Without Portfolio canvassed their opinion for ideas for inside the Dome, one girl proposed a time machine that took the visitor back to a specific point in history. Immediately Mandelson countered back with “I’m a moderniser, what about the next millennium? Let’s look forwards, not backwards.” Cue a roomful of confused children.

Furthermore, Mandelson’s comments about fellow MPs who were against the Dome being “jokers and piss artists” was particularly revealing. Party apparatchiks nodded obsequiously as he offered up these thoughts on his peers. It was strange that he allowed Austin Mitchell’s name to be clearly linked to this statement, but the festering rancour was visible for all to see. In fact, if you didn’t believe in the Dome, you had forgotten what it was like to feel great about Britain said Mandy after the topping out ceremony.

As committee after committee sat and talked yet more hot air about the Dome, it was obvious that there was never a proper financial control on this project. Fiscal matters were given only cursory consideration until the bottom line was discussed. Yet architects were being asked to design zones with only the flimsiest of briefs. This was exemplified by the problems surrounding the Spirit Zone. The architect may have been typically arrogant, self indulgent and ludicrously self opinionated when defending her design and understanding of the concept but she was also the victim of hapless bureaucracy that hindered progress at every level. This was a matter that Page could have easily sorted out but, for whatever reason, chose not to. This was an entirely unprofessional attitude and no doubt will be further demonstrated in the subsequent programmes.

This opening episode was derivative of the genre – centering on Mandelson and Page with occasional observations from a construction worker. Yes, you’ve guessed it – here was a character, a former rodeo star, no less. Yet the main character of the show, the Dome itself, despite being talked of constantly, was almost a second-stringer as the various individuals involved attempted to define it and use it for their own ends. The shots of the Dome were dully predictable and clearly the film crew chose to shoot on site at specific moments in the construction sequence. This was irritating as, despite the propaganda being delivered from all concerned, this was not a particularly complex job in engineering or construction terms, yet, once again, no attempt was made to verify these claims.

The abiding folly is not the Dome itself. The real folly is that it could, and should, within the constraints set, have worked. The will, the financial backing and the expertise were all there. But from Blair’s decision to seize upon the Tory dream, everything went horribly wrong. From inception to completion, this has been the single biggest cock-up in construction history. The initial programme failed to convey how the mistakes and errors that were made could have been redeemed but, let’s be brutally honest here, why focus on the reasons when the characters are so headstrong, arrogant and idealistic? Potentially, this has the makings of a classic. Let’s hope the first part was the weakest link. Mandy and Tone for the walk of shame, anyone?


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