Comment: Jack Brown on why we shouldn’t worry too much about the London Stadium

by Jack Brown

At the beginning of this month, the Mayor’s office released a critical report on the management of the London Stadium, formerly the Olympic Stadium and now the home of West Ham United. The report, by accountants Moore Stephens, accompanied the news that Sadiq Khan is fully taking over the public sector’s ongoing responsibility for the stadium, which includes a range of running costs agreed in the original 2013 deal.

The report claimed that awareness of the post-Games failures of previous Olympic stadia around the world, and their “tendency to become underused ‘white elephants’”, had been a factor in how events panned out in Stratford. This fear of producing a high profile, publicly-funded facility that stands empty most of the time is understandable. But did those who planned the 2012 Olympics really need to be so concerned?

We must begin with a brief summary of the report’s findings. In 2010, the Olympic Park Legacy Company concluded that only a Premier League football team could provide the footfall and usage necessary to avoid the stadium failing after the Games and hindering the regeneration of the wider Olympic Park area. However, time constraints had led to the construction of an athletics stadium that could not be easily converted for alternative uses, and therefore required substantial expenditure to transform it for football. It was agreed that it would be best for the football club concerned to own and rebuild or adapt the stadium themselves.

West Ham United launched an initial bid for the stadium, as did Tottenham Hotspur. West Ham’s bid offered to retain the athletics track, whereas Spurs proposed to knock the stadium down and start again, relocating its athletics function to Crystal Palace. This proposal was costed at £323m, whereas West Ham’s bid was expected to require a significantly smaller £190m and deemed to be more publicly acceptable than knocking down the existing stadium. It became the preferred solution. A number of legal challenges then derailed the process and it was decided that, to avoid controversy, it would be wise to take a new “public sector stadium” approach, with the taxpayer taking on the risks, maintenance and operational costs and a Premier League club leasing, rather than owning, the building.

Amid major changeovers in personnel at the organisation in charge of the stadium in 2012 – which became a mayoral development corporation and was renamed the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) – Spurs elected not to bid on the new terms, leaving West Ham in the enviable position of being the only option. Unsurprisingly, and arguably quite naturally, their second bid was made on terms significantly more to their advantage.

A fear of there being no deal and a “white elephant” ensuing led to the LLDC accepting the only offer on the table. Significant works to the retractable seating and the construction of the largest cantilevered roof in the world were to be undertaken by the public sector, with West Ham reaping the benefits of the stadium without many of the associated risks. The LLDC retained naming rights and income from beverages and catering but, again, took on the associated risks. A good deal for West Ham, but perhaps less so for the public purse.

Perhaps the LLDC should not have viewed the “white elephant” tag with such trepidation. In a city as prosperous and inventive as contemporary London, the recent past shows that they rarely last.

It was the fear of attracting that unwanted moniker that led to the scaled-back construction of the original Docklands Light Railway (DLR) in 1987. The Thatcher Government was initially sceptical about building a “railway to nowhere” in the derelict Docklands and it could only be persuaded to part with the limited sum of £77m to fund construction of a limited railway. It was justified as an investment in the area’s regeneration rather than as a piece of public transport infrastructure. This underfunded early DLR was subsequently beset by technical problems after its delayed opening in 1987, and the announcement of the planned Canary Wharf development the same year rendered it effectively redundant before it had even opened.

It was briefly denounced as a “Mickey Mouse” or “toy town” project and patronisingly branded the “Dear Little Railway”. But it went on to be repeatedly upgraded and extended at further expense as Docklands was rapidly resurrected around it. The DLR has gone on to be one of London’s most reliable and popular forms of public transportation and play a significant role in making Canary Wharf viable as a business district. In hindsight, its small scale beginnings now seem a huge failure of ambition.

Another example from just across the river (and, like the revival of Docklands, a Michael Heseltine initiative) is even more relevant to the case of the London Stadium. The Millennium Dome was widely criticised during its construction and mocked as a disaster when it closed after just one year’s operation, with visitor numbers falling significantly below those predicted. Rebranded as the O2, it is now one of Europe’s most successful entertainment venues. Sitting in the middle of the Greenwich peninsula, it has catapulted a huge patch of previously unviable and hopelessly polluted land into a developer’s dream. The dome will soon disappear among tall towers, with over 15,000 new homes planned for its immediate surroundings.

Neither of these projects have succeeded in the way first envisaged. But their construction has had a knock-on effect on the areas in which they sit and the criticism is now a distant memory.

It seems clear in retrospect that the public bodies tasked with orchestrating the 2012 Olympics could have got a better deal for the public purse for what is now known as the London Stadium. It also seems that a fear of public criticism – over the risk of “no deal” for the stadium, or an alternative bid from Spurs that would have involved knocking it down and rebuilding it – played a major part in this process.

Two main lessons from recent history can be applied here. The first is that although the international experience of other Olympic Games suggest that a “white elephant” stadium is something to be feared, London’s own recent history shows that they shouldn’t have been quite so worried and perhaps could have held out for a better deal. The old Wembley Stadium provides a direct comparison: originally constructed for the British Empire Exhibition of 1924 it was initially named Empire Stadium. Like the British Empire, it proved financially unsustainable and collapsed. Unlike the Empire, it was resurrected, recovered fully, and the new Wembley thrives today. Ambition rather than caution is the London mood.

The second historical lesson is that it can only be a matter of time before all the current concern about the London Stadium is forgotten. The Mayor is right to try and ensure the best possible management of the existing public sector commitments. But the stadium, now built, will have a momentum of its own. Its role in Stratford’s regeneration is clear. Wembley Stadium also played a significant role in the development of its local area and went on to become a great success. The London Stadium will surely go on to do the same.

Jack Brown works for the Strand Group at King’s College and is researcher in residence at 10 Downing Street. He has a particular interest in the contemporary history of Docklands as well as in London in general. More from Jack for On London here.

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