Last week, ODA chairman Jack Lemley finally fired the starting gun for the London 2012 construction programme by releasing the tenders for key contracts. George Hay spoke to him about why the ODA held back for so long, the reasons why he needs to review all the Olympic projects and how he'll help deliver it all in record time.

At last, something's happening. After a prolonged phoney war, the campaign to deliver the 2012 Olympics is beginning in earnest. Last week, the new Olympic Delivery Authority sent out tenders for five key roles, most pertinently director of construction and director of infrastructure and utilities.

Sitting in the ODA's swish 21st-century offices at the top of the Barclays Bank skyscraper at Canary Wharf, Jack Lemley is unapologetic that this process has taken so long: "We're trying to do in six-and-a-half years what should take 15-20. You need to make sure that everything is correct at the beginning."

Lemley is the ODA's chairman, and cuts a very different figure to its urbane, smooth-talking chief executive, David Higgins. Aged 70, he is substantially older with a long career that has taken in the stewardship of the Channel Tunnel project and expertise in "dispute resolution", bequeathing him a gruff, been-there-done-that style that would not be out of place on a Wild West ranch. Sure enough, he's from the plains state of Idaho, where dispute resolution has traditionally been entrusted to the sheriff and a .44 Magnum.

Lemley is not afraid of ruffling feathers - in the ODA interview John Prescott asked, in his bull-in-a-china-shop mode, how he accounted for the time and budget issues over the Channel Tunnel. Lemley's response - that the scheme was on time and budget - led to "a discussion", in the American's words. It's not known what happened next, but Lemley got the job - and over the course of Building's interview he details how he wants the project to be procured, what the programme manager will do and discusses a review of every project due out in the summer.

Jack Lemley

Credit: Nick David


The candidates who land the aforementioned construction and infrastructure directors' jobs face a double challenge. First, they will have to ensure every last bolt and screw is secured, tested and approved in time for 2012. Second, this will have to be done in accordance with new procurement rules set out by Lemley and Higgins.

Firms bidding for Olympic contracts will not be competing for easily defined individual tenders, nor will one be selected as a preferred bidder and then begin a long contract negotiation process. Instead, the ODA will work with a shortlist of three or four bidders to develop an agreed specification for the job before making a final selection on value for money and cost criteria.

This "competitive dialogue" route is a welcome move away from deciding everything by means of lowest cost, but it remains to be seen how happy fiercely competitive bidders will be to share their ideas - especially if they don't win the job.

The ODA's decision was prompted by new European Union procurement rules that came into force this month. Because these will be so different, the ODA needs to convince the industry quickly that it is a competent client, which was in question just four weeks ago when Lemley and Higgins abruptly scrapped the programme management contract, despite the fact that six bidders had been working on it since July.

Fortunately, the pair seem worthy of confidence. In his first big gig at the Olympic conference on 21 January, Higgins turned in a bravura performance. Fluent, confident and on top of his brief, the former English Partnerships boss distracted attention from his U-turn over the project manager by hinting at what was to come with the "smart client" procedures used at the Ministry of Defence and at Heathrow Terminal 5.

We’re trying to do in six-and-a-half years what should take 15-20. You need to make sure everything is correct at the start

Lemley is more blunt but just as convincing: "There wasn't an adequate description of what they had to do in terms of supporting the ODA and the whole process," he says. "There needed to be a more careful description of what we required."

Now, the programme manager will be known as the "delivery partner". Companies bidding for it will need to be big, with a turnover of at least £100m. They will also need to have a wide range of skills: as well as the construction programme, the partner is now responsible for design, commissioning and the conversion of the facilities into legacy.

The point of all this, says Lemley, is to save the ODA from becoming an unwieldy organisation, because it can outsource key skills that it would otherwise have had to recruit.

Political masters

On the appointment of a contractor for the main stadium, Lemley wants shortlisted contractors to be involved early. "We want the involvement of the contractors at all stages of the construction process to add to the design process," he says. "I'd be very surprised if it was determined by a lump sum, fixed price. As long as the design is in a state of flux, it's difficult to set targets."

Zaha Hadid would no doubt agree. The star architect was boxed in to a corner last November when Olympics minister Tessa Jowell decreed that designs for the aquatics centre had gone over their £75m budget and said she had ordered a redesign. In fact, as Lord Rogers pointed out, the price tag was always going to be inadequate and did not even include consultant fees.

Lemley is reluctant to comment on his political masters. "I'm not going to argue with Tessa Jowell or Richard Rogers," he says. "But we are re-examining the candidate file. Our examination is comprised of various components, the aquatics centre is part of that." Understandably, given that he has to sit with them on the Olympic board, he refuses to be drawn on a potential power struggle between Olympics minister Tessa Jowell and London mayor Ken Livingstone. But a recent Building roundtable debate identified that Jowell's main agenda is a two-week extravaganza in 2012, whereas Livingstone's priority is to regenerate East London. Lemley's challenge is to reconcile the two.

According to Lemley, the ODA review will be completed within six months. "There will be a planning document in the summer and a review of all the processes for the rest of the year. We hope to finalise the masterplan by early next year, with the land acquisition in parallel with that."

This all adds up to a measured, unhurried process. The delivery partner will not be appointed till October, and the ODA says this is an indicative timetable that may change. Given that Lemley made the point that they are delivering the whole project in under half the time it should take, you'd expect speed to be of the essence.

The point, from Lemley's perspective, is to not start off on the wrong tack. Nailing down the right costs and processes at the start, instead of running around gibbering in 2010, is paramount.

Either way, the Olympics is now in the hands of two industry heavyweights who have so far proved a convincing team. Six years, five months and three days to go …

What you didn’t know about Jack Lemley

Lemley found out that London had won the 2012 Olympics via a celebrity source – his son, Hollywood producer Jim Lemley, who is married to French actress Sophie Marceau.

His nickname is “The Terminator”.

He is currently renting in Mayfair, having missed out on the chance to buy a property in Chelsea when he was working on the Channel Tunnel. “My wife Pam told me to do it in the early 1990s and I didn’t. Then of course the value rocketed. She hasn’t let me forget it.”