Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220-239)



  220. Do you believe if a bipartisan approach had continued it would have helped you encourage more visitors to go to the Dome and more sponsors to commit?
  (Mr James) I believe it was always very necessary that there should be a strong political commitment to it and demonstration of support for it. You may have an interesting point but I cannot comment. It is not a field I am an expert in.

  221. The original Cabinet committee which was established in February 1996 to coordinate the millennium festival approved the decision to build a Dome, to site it at Greenwich, create a corporate structure, to appoint the Chief Executive, to provide lottery money and to split the job between two Ministers. If you had been a consultant to the Government at the time, what would have been your key recommendation? Would you have made any change at that stage?
  (Mr James) To the whole decision to build in Greenwich at that time?

  222. Yes.
  (Mr James) Perhaps I should add that I was born only one mile from the Dome so perhaps I would have had a great incentive to see my own home supported in this way. I would have welcomed it.

  223. In terms of the structure is there anything you want to expand on?
  (Mr James) I have already made some critical comments on the structure of the company and I stand by those earlier comments.

  224. We were presented a couple of hours ago with the opinions of Speaker's Counsel and the Comptroller and Auditor General. Your Department apparently failed in its duty according to them to notify Parliament that the indemnity for directors in NMEC had to be referred to Parliament and confirmed by Parliament. Was your Secretary of State aware of this?
  (Mr Young) As I said to the Chairman, if we have failed in our duty it is entirely my responsibility and it was not intended. My understanding was and remains that the existing indemnity which covers all members of non-departmental bodies, boards, automatically applies to the directors of NMEC. So there was not a new indemnity being given and that was why we did not inform Parliament.

  225. Can you confirm that the majority of NMEC directors were in fact appointed under the previous administration, those who were still here at the beginning of this year: Messrs Ayling, Quarmby, Ash, The Hon Mrs Morrison, Sir Brian Jenkins, Councillor Duvall, Miss Page?
  (Mr Young) Yes. This is set out in Appendix 3 on page 58. Unless I have missed one, I think you are right. The dates of appointments are set out on page 58 and the ones you have mentioned are indeed February 1997.

  226. The same for the Millennium Commissioners, that the majority were in fact appointed under the previous administration, The Earl of Dalkeith, Lord Glentoran, Dr Couper, Messrs Heseltine and Jenkins?
  (Mr Young) Yes, that is correct.

Mr Steinberg

  227. Really the situation regarding the Dome is no surprise to people who come from the North East of England because we always thought it was going to be a failure, we always thought it was an absolutely non-starter from the beginning. How could you expect a family of four to come down to London, pay £100 to £200 for the fare down and then go in the Dome? Basically the visitor numbers were always going to be based on who could visit it from within the region and not from the North East. So it has not been a surprise that it has been a failure. Frankly, it is very unfortunate because as far as I can see it is some sort of naivety, arrogance, or incompetence that the thing went ahead in the first place. Despite the fact that you have had a huge number of visitors, despite the fact that people actually like it, it is a failure, is it not?
  (Mr James) Not in the eyes of those who go there.

  228. But only four million have gone.
  (Mr James) We have actually had 4.5 million who have gone and paid and we have had another million who have been there under free arrangements, so we are edging up towards the six million altogether. I find the greatest tragedy of all of this is that so many people have gone who have enjoyed it but the message has not gone to those who have not gone to it. The real sadness for this Dome is that there is such a great delight in the Dome for those who have experienced it and yet such derision about the Dome from those who have not. It is probably our great collective failure that we have somehow managed not to get that cross-fertilisation of enthusiasm from the people who have gone.

  229. At the end of the day, if you have a family from the North East of England who have to find £200 to £400 for a visit to the Dome, which it may well cost for the weekend, they are not going to go. It does not matter how brilliant it is inside, the fact of the matter is that they cannot afford to come. It is hidden away in Greenwich and the majority of people do not know where it is. Frankly it was doomed to fail from the start. Right at the very beginning we had the private sector who refused to get involved. Surely bells should have started to ring then. If the private sector were not interested it was quite clear it was going to be a failure as far as profit was concerned, because if there had been a profit they would have been in like a shot.
  (Mr James) I do not think anybody ever expected to make a profit; as we have heard from Mr O'Connor break-even was the target in their assessment. There are very few fringe benefits with this job for me, but there is one very particularly and that is perhaps on a Sunday afternoon to go and just wander around the tables, say in the McDonald's or any one of the restaurants around in the Dome. I have been doing this. You go round, you walk up to them and they look a bit startled. You say, "Hi, I'm your friendly neighbourhood chairman. I should love you to tell me what you think about it". I talk to these people and I can get round perhaps 25 families in the course of a couple of hours and I actually ask them. What I get is a picture very different from what you describe. They come from Glasgow, they come from Newcastle.

  230. You are missing the point. I am not saying it is not a very good experience. I am not saying it is not entertaining. I am saying that right from the very start it was never going to be a success. There were never going to be enough people to go to it. You were expecting three times more people to go to the Dome than actually went to Alton Towers. It was an impossible dream. Frankly the answers Mr O'Connor has given regarding the actual figures and project figures is totally different from what I perceive in the report. What I read in the report is that the consultants and your own staff were saying it was absolutely pie in the sky to expect to get 12 million visitors. They were saying go for eight million and that is a base figure to begin with. You just ignored it.
  (Mr O'Connor) The consultants' report set out very clearly, and it was agreed with Deloitte & Touche and the NAO report, that eight million was the worst case, 12 million was achievable[21].

  231. The Accounting Officer actually advised against the numbers.
  (Mr O'Connor) Yes, that is right. He said you plan on the basis of eight million.

  232. The staff advised against the numbers.
  (Mr O'Connor) Yes.

  233. But you went ahead.
  (Mr O'Connor) The commissioners went ahead because they believed they were advised by the Accounting Officer that 12 million was achievable, eight million was the worst case, plan on the basis of the worst case.

  234. You were wrong though, were you not and they were right?
  (Mr O'Connor) I am the Accounting Officer.

  235. They were wrong, were they not? They were wrong, were they not?
  (Mr O'Connor) I believe 12 million was achievable; the advice we gave on 12 million was achievable.

  236. Why do you not have 12 million then?
  (Mr O'Connor) That is a separate answer about which you may make judgements.

  237. I make judgements because it was never, ever feasible in the first place.
  (Mr O'Connor) The best advice we had from Deloitte & Touche was that 12 million was achievable. I do not think they are backing away from that.

  238. I get a different sort of feel from the report than you are giving me. I get a feeling that the report is clearly saying the 12 million was never achievable and the eight million, which was a very, very generous projection, was also not achievable anyway. You failed, did you not?
  (Mr O'Connor) Twelve million was not achieved but the best advice that the commissioners had at the time was that 12 million was achievable.

  239. The people who made the decision had never run a theme park before had they?
  (Mr O'Connor) No, that is why they took advice from Deloitte & Touche.

21   Note: See evidence, Appendix 4, page 40, (Pac 00-01/13). Back

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