More Olympic Woe

View from the House

It is over four years since I first spoke in Parliament about the London 2012 Olympics. 

Back in January 2003 during a House of Commons debate on the British bid (as it then was) I said that “We have seen the story of the London Olympics bid in recent weeks and, as ever in recent London governance, it has been a shameful mix of Mayor Livingstone’s grandstanding and central government’s dissembling over their financial obligations to the capital”. 

Well, they say that a week is a long time in politics but sometimes four years can pass by in the twinkle of an eye! 

Last week, the cabinet minister with responsibility for the Olympics, Tessa Jowell, made a statement in parliament placing an absolute ceiling on the Olympic budget of some £9.3 billion. This is a figure almost four times that revealed to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in advance of Britain ‘winning’ (if that is the right word) the bid in July 2005. 

Once more in Mrs Jowell’s speech there was more breathless talk about vision, excitement and the sporting legacy. However, building an athletics stadium (which will have to be partly dismantled under IOC rules) and an Olympic village is not really a legacy at all ? the only long term benefit will be if there is substantial regeneration of the relatively impoverished Lower Lea Valley, the East London district where the athletics elements of the Olympic Games will be built. 

In the wake of the controversy over the ever-rising financial commitment, I have little doubt that the £9.3 billion ceiling will be a final figure. Certainly having set such a high budget there is now little chance of there being a cost overrun. This will no doubt be spun as a ‘success’ of sorts. All this means a further £300 million coming from the pockets of London council taxpayers as well as £675 million being raided from the National Lottery. Again, as I warned some four years ago ‘other sporting priorities throughout the United Kingdom will inevitably suffer if we win the bid’ ? the new budget now means also that other deserving charities, heritage and sports projects will miss out on vital funding in the years ahead. 

However, amidst all the doom and gloom, of one thing we should be certain ? the London Olympics will be a great sporting spectacle. I am sure we will hear much more in the months and years ahead about delays in construction, but when all is said and done by the summer of 2012, London will be sufficiently prepared to put on a great show to the world at large. This is as it should be, but I fear we will also look back in time at the Olympics as a great wasted opportunity. Central government’s public relations machine will focus on the ‘success’ of the three week Olympiad, when the catalyst of winning the Olympic bid should have been regeneration in this area to benefit generations to come. However I fear that this aspect will be lost in a concerted attempt to keep the budget under control for the next five years. 

The parallels with the on-going national embarrassment of the Millennium Dome are all too plain to see. In spite of much hype about the legacy of redeveloping the Greenwich island site, the long term benefits in North Greenwich for the building of the Millennium Dome are far more modest than we were assured a decade or so ago. 

Similarly without the ‘catalyst of regeneration’ in the Lower Lea Valley area, there is little to recommend the Olympics. 

This should have been a golden opportunity to develop a little corner of London which time had passed by. This former industrial area became something of a dumping ground. Amidst railway lines, disused light industry, neglected canals and impromptu rubbish tips, the Lower Lea Valley should offer a fantastic and accessible area in which to live, work and play. Instead, much of the long term and lasting gain which should have been secured by Britain winning the Olympic Games will be quietly forgotten. 

In many ways I regard this as a rather fitting memorial for this Labour government which, first elected a decade ago amidst such hope, optimism and enthusiasm, has proceeded to disappoint so many of its high expectations. The shambles over the Olympic budget is partly because no one envisaged our winning the Olympic Games, so the numbers were so sketchy at the outset. Even more the procurement process after winning the Games has lacked transparency and leadership. What the Lower Lea Valley now needs is a template similar to that in Docklands in the early 1980s ? the setting up of a body above and beyond the interests of local politics (the Lower Lea Valley is divided between four London councils, for example.) Without strong leadership driving this programme of works forward the Olympic budget has now spiralled out of control to the detriment of any real lasting regeneration legacy.