It sounds a parochial issue, but now that the seemingly interminable Brazilian Olympics has finally, but finally, come to a whimpering close, who gets the most out of the 2012 London Olympics stadium legacy has national connotations.
Lets start with a few details. The 2005 bid win for the London Olympic proposals set out a stall that promised a fully dedicated athletic track as the centrepiece for the legacy. After the Olympics there would be a “conversion to a 25,000 seat multipurpose venue with athletics at its core. It will become a house of sport with training facilities, offices and sports science and sports medicine facilities.”
Even before the Games kicked off this was already a non-starter as an idea, but the main athletics centre before the Olympics, Crystal Palace, had already had the money turned off to fund this new athletic stadium. Athletics, and South London, were already worse off even before a deal had been done.
Then, following the Games, there was a desperate bid to get someone into the potential white elephant. Pretty much every London Premier League or professional football team was, at one stage or another, approached to ditch their current facilities in favour of the Olympic venue. None would touch it until, getting terrified and desperate, sops were showered by local, regional and national governments onto potential hosts, until eventually, West Ham United, said yes to moving from their Upton Park ground and their home for 112 years. Even then, neighbouring teams cried foul and worried their fan base would be decimated.
Part of the deal was that it would have to include pretty much an entire rebuild, including at an estimated cost to the taxpayer of £150m, constructing the largest cantilevered roof in the world. West Ham bunged £15m in the pot for help tearing the seats out and replacing them in club colours and doing other bits and bobs. Meanwhile, Newham Council, one of the poorest Boroughs in Britain, spent another £40m on the redevelopment especially for the Claret and Blue army.
After years of delays, overspend and redevelopment, West Ham’s new London Stadium opened for business at the start of the footballing season. Papers and contracts uncovered by the press found that pretty much everything, from policing costs, to electricity and even goalposts would be funded by the taxpayer. All this despite West Ham now being in the richest and most elite football league on the planet and at a time when public sector spending was being squeezed to within an inch of its’ miserable little life.
Yet, all is not well even for West Ham. They have lost their Upton Park psychological advantage and, where once teams feared the atmosphere where fans were almost on the pitch chanting at them, they now could barely see them as the ticket holders are seated almost a full athletics track away from the action. This has meant that, since the start of the season, West Ham have suffered defeat after defeat and languish in the relegation zone of the Premier League.
Meanwhile, where the police had worked out how to manage the notoriously violent and badly behaved West Ham crowd, the new stadium has been beset by violence. And the police won’t touch it with a barge pole as the stadium cannot operate Airwave – the emergency services radio system. So now poorly trained and poorly equipped security staff have to deal with the trouble that they are ill prepared for. Pop for a jaunty day of Saturday shopping at The Stratford Westfield Centre when there is a home game and you will feel you have entered a designated riot zone with the only thing walking the gangways being fear, apprehension and angry looking men.
You would think that the locals who used to have West Ham on their doorstep would be delighted to see the back of them, but it has also meant a massive reduction in turnover for hard pressed businesses in a desperately, desperately poor area of East London. Pubs, burger bars, chip shops, kebab houses, bookies – maybe not the nicest of establishments – are now all going to the wall as their once reliable turnover and footfall on a Saturday afternoon now heads two miles up the road to the Olympic Park.
So who lost out and who has benefited? The taxpayer hasn’t – either locally or nationally. The Olympic park now is beset with regular violence, as is the main shopping centre for the area – so they haven’t. Locals near the new stadium, shoppers in Stratford, businesses in the old area have also all lost out. West Ham, while short term financially, may be benefiting, they are losing out through the violence within the stadium and the crap performances on the pitch. Rival football teams didn’t get any joy and the West Ham fans seem rather disgruntled about moving from their old home into their new stadium – so none of them have. The Olympic legacy promise in the bid document hasn’t been achieved – in fact it has been completely scrapped with athletics losing one of their few iconic arenas.
For the life of me I can’t think of anyone who has benefited from this deal aside from David Gold, the soft pornographer owner of West Ham United who already has a net worth of around £350m. And this sums up many a long term vanity project that has politicians promising modernity, trickle down benefits to the local community and the ushering in of exciting new developments being uttered by bigwigs. The Great Exhibition, The Dome, the Emirates cable car airline, Stratford ‘International’ railway station, Canary Wharf – just to name a few over the years in London, let alone across Britain. Huge, expensive gargantuan white elephants that have promises of the moon and deliver nothing but bigger egos for the politicians who dream up the wheeze and bigger profits for those already replete with millions of pounds of wealth.
The saddest thing is that people don’t even grumble. The media loves a large project. If it goes badly they can beat politicians over the head with a great big stick until they find a way to bury the bad news. If it goes well they can wave the Union Jack in patriotic pride about how great it is and then quietly forget about it until the next fools errand approaches. And we all sit their and think the next one will be better. But it won’t. It never has been. And it never will be. And each time it is us that lose out.