Miles Kington: When common sense goes out the window

There are many times when people went along with an already-deflating Big Idea. The South Sea Bubble. Gallipoli. The Millennium Dome
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The Independent Online

If, like me, you watched Stephen Poliakoff's Friends and Crocodiles on Sunday night, there will be many moments that stick in your mind.

For me, one of them came when the main female character, Lizzie, finds herself in the middle of a corporate meltdown, after the company in which she is a top executive has adopted a disastrous business plan and started to fall to pieces round her like Barings Bank.

She is asked afterwards if she did not see it coming. Yes, she says, but when a policy malfunctions, it is too strong for you. You are caught up with the momentum. Everyone is sliding to disaster together.

Nobody can change course or even bale out. She did at one moment suggest to the CEO that perhaps they should rethink their policy, but he said that it was too late for that. We all agreed to this. We have to see it through. It's too late to change the plan ...

You can think of parallels in history, times when people went along with A Big Idea, even though it was rapidly deflating. The South Sea Bubble. The Dardanelles expedition and Gallipoli. Napoleon's invasion of Russia, and Hitler's successful repetition of that disaster. And it has happened in our own lifetime that people have been oblivious to the fact that the mission they are embarked on is just a little bit doomed. The Ground Nut scheme in Africa. The planning and opening of the Millennium Dome. The Marvin Hamlisch musical Jean, about the actress Jean Seberg, at the National Theatre ...

(Sadly, I never saw this fabulous flop of 1983, but I do remember Bernard Levin writing a piece in The Times after its opening, asking why nobody on board the musical, from Peter Hall downwards, had ever thought secretly that they were flying on a doomed space flight. Had collective wishful thinking really totally conquered common sense and professional shrewdness?)

And much the same comes to mind, to drop a thousand miles, when considering the proposal I mentioned yesterday to build a new Park And Ride scheme in Bath.

A reader writes: Oh, not that Park and Ride scheme! Why are you bringing this up again?

Miles Kington writes: You never know. Mr Poliakoff might be looking for a new plot.

A reader writes: Hmm, possibly.

So, as I was saying, Bath and North East Somerset council - B&NES - wants to turn a rugby field into a car park, even though it is in quite the wrong place, and even though it is so subject to flooding that the total cost will be £6m. But the plan to do this has been around for so long that the council are now fully committed to "the plan", and will not budge, even though there is a much better proposal to hand.

A reader writes: Oh, yeah? Like what?

Well, on top of a nearby hill there is a deserted airfield called Charmy Down, which is flat, non-flooding, nowhere near a residential area and not far from Bath. A recent survey showed that it could provide twice the car parking space for half the cost. But B&NES are refusing to take the idea seriously.

A reader writes: Why?

Because they have got their sacred Lambridge plan and they are sticking to it, and there can be no arguing about the "plan", and they have an agreement with the rugby club which cannot be changed, and there is no arguing about the "plan", and B&NES never admit they are wrong about anything, even when it is the ill-fated Spa, and there seems to be nobody at B&NES prepared to say "Hold on! This is uncannily reminiscent of that musical Jean! Let's stop now before it's too late!" because they have all got their ear plugs in and ...

A reader writes: OK, OK, we get the point. That's enough local politics. Can we get on to something else tomorrow, please?

Miles Kington writes: I promise.

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