The OPLC’s (Olympic Park Legacy Company) decision last week to hand the £496m Olympic Stadium over to West Ham and not Tottenham after the 2012 Games was right decision to make – at least from the two bids on the table. West Ham’s bid was by no means perfect. For one thing it relies on a £40m loan from Newham Council.
Luckily for the Hammers, Newham have never felt compelled to let their status as London’s poorest borough interfere with a rapacious appetite for public spending. Their refurbishment of their civic offices last year cost a cool £111m, almost twice the construction budget for the entire Welsh Assembly. But even by these profligate standards, municipal largesse of this scale at a time when public finances are under intense pressure is hardly ideal.
As Lord Sugar has only been too keen to point out, West Ham’s own finances are hardly in robust form either and are likely to look much worse if, as the less charitable pundits predict, they end up with the finest stadium in the Championship by the time they move in for the 2014 season. And there is the old recurring argument about athletics tracks ruining the atmosphere in football stadia due to the increased distance they impose between spectator and pitch.
The issue of football and athletics co-existing is always a deeply divisive one. Although several European clubs play at stadia with athletics tracks (Panathanikos, Spartak Moscow, Lazio etc.) when Manchester City moved into the 2002 Commonwealth Stadium they replaced the track with seating and lowered the pitch. Their athletics legacy commitments mean that this is not an option for West Ham.
Temporary retractable seating however may be, as Sports Minster Hugh Robertson has suggested. And West Ham have allocated £95m for re-designing and converting the stadium for use as a viable multi-purpose venue. However, despite West Ham vice-chairman Karen Brady’s insistence that the furthest sightlines in the converted stadium will be 10 yards closer than their equivalent at Wembley, many, including some West Ham fans, remain sceptical.
All these criticisms of West Ham’s bid are valid but they are completely overshadowed by the multiple flaws behind Tottenham’s bid. Whereas West Ham is located right next to Stratford and the Olympic Stadium in East London, Tottenham is over five miles away in North London. Moreover, as both Tottenham MP David Lammy and Haringey Council have been keen to point out, Tottenham already have planning permission to redevelop their White Hart Lane ground into a 56,000 seater stadium by MAKE Architects.
Despite the scheme only being approved last September, Tottenham now claim it is too “costly”. What they actually mean is that their previous rejected proposal, which involved flattening local historic buildings and constructing more new-build housing, would have generated more money.
The fact that the vast majority of Tottenham’s own fans appeared to be vehemently against the move to Stratford and that the club lodged its interest in the Olympic Stadium the very day after it won planning permission for White Hart Lane makes it difficult not to view their bid as a cynical and greedy stunt mired in corporate opportunism.
But none of these shortcomings is likely to have had much influence on the OPLC’s decision. What invariably did was Tottenham’s controversial intention to demolish most of the Olympic Stadium and remove its athletics track. Despite their bizarre offer to provide alternative facilities at Crystal Palace, this would have broken a key legacy commitment made to both the IOC and UK Athletics when London won the 2012 bid. West Ham’s willingness to honour it easily made them the obvious choice.
In fairness to both Tottenham and West Ham, they should never have been put in the position they have both found themselves in the first place. The fault for the whole debacle about the future of the Olympic Stadium lies with serious flaws in the ODA (Olympic Delivery Authority) decision-making process that took place years ago.
For the past six weeks OPLC chair Baroness Ford has been telling anyone who would care to listen that the decision on the preferred stadium tenant would be based solely on each bid’s ability to meet the 5 critical “tests” her board had identified. These can roughly be summarised as flexibility, finance, capability, regeneration and speed of conversion. Yet if these objectives are so important, then why on earth weren’t they made compulsory pre-requisites of the stadium’s design back in 2005?
Even worse was the inexplicable reluctance of senior Olympic officials to entertain the prospect of the stadium ever being handed over to a football club. As far back as 2006, both former Olympic Minister Tessa Jowell and then London mayor Ken Livingstone rejected earlier tenancy bids from both Tottenham and West Ham and reiterated their insistence that the stadium be preserved solely for athletics use.
The result of this pointless ideological intransigence was the ill-fated proposal to convert the 80,000 capacity Olympic Stadium to a 25,000 capacity athletics arena, a strategy that was never either culturally convincing or commercially credible and which was also rejected by the OPLC on Friday.
For a Games that has been rightly obsessed with legacy, this sorry catalogue of missed opportunities represents a monumental failure of foresight and planning. Had specific design and conversion criteria been identified right at the start of the London 2012 bid that sought a more realistic legacy partnership between athletics and another anchor tenant of any persuasion, then a huge amount of wasted time and money could have been saved.
The enthusiasm of the London 2012 hierarchy to secure an athletics legacy at the Olympic Stadium is both understandable and legitimate. But the simple fact remains that in England, even Championship football tends to be more popular and lucrative than shot-putting. London 2012’s failure to acknowledge this has cost us all millions.