Cworld Editorial – Lord Basil of Domegate

October 2000 from Chameleonworld’s UK editorial

We know that we are good at political farce in this country, but even then, this was something really special. It was as if one of the nation’s most important ventures had been handed over to Fawlty Towers. In the title role, a friend and ex flat mate of the [then] Prime Minister [Tony Blair] , an unelected government minister who has evidently mislaid an awesome chunk of the public purse and now spends much of his life squirming in front of the media. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the countries most cap in hand, Dickensian “I’m sorry Sir, but can we have some more money” character, Lord ‘Basil’ Falconer.

What is really sad about this chap is the sight of a man spearing himself, slowly, utterly painfully, and with almost exquisite embarrassment on one of the worst barbs of them all. The prong in question is our old friend “Pride”, a sharp and unforgiving implement on which many a politician has shafted themselves. If Lord ‘Basil’ had simply taken up the Dome job and said at the outset, well I shall do the best I can, then his present discomfit would not have looked half as bad as it does now. But no, he had to open his gullet in the way only politicians know how, and immediately issue forth with a lecture on things of which he knows little or nothing. Yes, this remnant of government accountability is the self same pompous ass who assured us at the close of the twentieth century that the Dome would rival the seven great wonders of the world as an attraction, worthy of comparison with the great Pyramids of Egypt. The unelected in utterance of the unbelievable.

In this he was of course only following a certain government form in offering hostages to fortune with an alacrity and regularity bordering on the folly of a band of simpletons. Witness Peter Mandelson, who proclaimed of the Dome in 1997, “It will not be a one-year white elephant.” Or the deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who declared of running the Dome “If we can’t make this work, we’re not much of a government”. Oh dear.

For a long time the government continued with the Tory inspired lie that this was a project whose values were worthy of world attention. And until Clare Short broke ranks any government minister talking about it in contrary terms was likely to get a dose of what was until recently the hardest object in the UK: the Labour off-message boot. But now reality is slowly beginning to return, and the hapless Lord ‘Basil’ is reduced to trying to argue the undefendable proposition that the Dome has been worth it because it has been an efficient form of inner city regeneration. But of course it doesn’t take long to realise that four hospitals might have done a bit more for some serious long term inner city regeneration, and that the Dome’s current £400,000 per regenerated job is anyway a duff deal in any urban planners language. Raise your eyes Lord ‘Basil’, and you will see that this is yet another load of old rubbish currently being stored above by hindsight to be dumped upon you at some inapposite time in the future. Enter Sybil Blair stage left screaming, Basiiiiiiiiiiil !

Actually ‘Basil’, who is by no means the worst of political types, may even now survive because although he regularly goes to hell and back in front of the cameras – really it is not a pleasant experience, especially before the 9pm watershed when children may be present – his chief tormentor, the Shadow Arts Minister, simply isn’t able to apply the knock out blow of properly examining some of the hidden costs of the Dome project. So allow me to get serious for a moment and rehearse some of these.

When the figures for the cost of Domegate are mentioned, do they include the open cheque book for the costs of the consultants brought in with great desperation from the US to make sure that the Jubilee line would be finished in time, or the huge extra capital costs of that hurried completion? (Remember the striking electricians?) Do they include the cost of the present National Audit Office inquiry or any other projected future ones, or the losses suffered by local residents such as Danny Scott, a landlord operating near the Dome who has seen a decrease of 45% in trade since the Dome opened, pushing him towards insolvency? Do they include the reported £150,000 bonus paid to Jennie Page, sacked earlier this year, or indeed the rest of the 30% bonuses projected for directors at the year end? Do they include the financial implications of the statement by David James, the latest executive chairman of the Dome, that he was worried that he had only budgeted an extra £5 million contingency in the latest £47 million handout to cover unexpected asset and contractual problems? (If that’s not a way of keeping the begging bowl open for the future I don’t know what is). Do they include the fees to the millennium commission’s accountants Deloitte Touche, or the Dome’s accountants Ernst and Young, who, despite both being amongst the elite (i.e. highest paid) of the country’s accounting companies, failed to ensure that even a basic accounting record of the 2,800 separate Dome contracts was ever compiled? Do they include the cost of the detailed report by Pricewaterhouse Coopers? And incidentally what are the total fees that have so far been paid to these accounting companies for their handling of the financial aspects of this Trojan horse bequeathed by the last Tory government?

And, whilst we are about it, can we please have a look at the actual detailed figures and data used in recent reports to decide whether it was financially better to keep this monster open or put the nation out of its misery now? No, apparently. These figures are so sensitive that they are not even open to scrutiny by Parliament, as Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews discovered. So, to recap: an unwanted public project haemorrhaging money and lacking audience, managed by unelected groups and individuals and formed as a commercial company with evidence of its insolvency kept secret form the country’s elected representatives. Shall I go on, or is it not now blindingly obvious that the strategy is to drip feed the handouts (5 in 8 months and rising) until we reach the year end so that the government can avoid the ultimate humiliation – early closure.

Given this time scale we are now on the way to the endgame of this shameful episode, and what we need to begin focusing on is not just the errors that have been committed, important though they are, but the travesty that is about to be perpetrated. I refer to the impending sale of the entire area within which the Dome sits, all 63 acres of it. The government has endured months of humiliation over the Dome but if it can’t sell the site at the year end then the real problems will be begin. And the recent disaster with the Japanese bank, Nomura International, is already a clue to how things will go.

In the last few years Nomura have established themselves as canny bargain basement hunters in the profitable waters of a number of government linked property sales. They are reputed to have purchased a staggering 57,000 Ministry of Defence properties, numbers of ex British Rail sites, and are known to have shown interest in BAe systems, the UK’s second largest defence contractor. We know of course that they have formally pulled out of the deal to buy the Dome. But David James is no fool, and he knows that he was catapulted into the middle of a very big, very public negotiation. Nomura think the price is too high? Well they would say that wouldn’t they? But the word in property circles is different. £105 million for 63 acres of prime Thames side property in an area currently appreciating by 10-15% per annum and adjacent to the elite business zone of Canary Wharf (which may well be at full capacity within 3 years) in an area now served by an efficient and modern transport system which is currently working at only 10% of capacity is seen by the professionals as bargain basement stuff.

If this were the usual battle between two multinationals, we, Her Majesty’s unwashed public, would simply sit back and watch the titans battle it out and wonder at the demeaning spectre of modern commerce in action. But it isn’t. This is public money which is involved. And so what we should now be doing is banging the table to make sure that our politicians don’t end this disaster by yet again selling off public assets at peanut prices. Fat chance. Basiiil! Where are you?

© Marshall Marcus for Chameleonworld UK. October 2000.

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