Is it time for the Olympic Stadium to be declared unfit for purpose and demolished? That was the suggestion from Conservative London Assembly member Andrew Boff this week as he and his colleagues quizzed London Legacy Development Corporation chiefs on progress taking forward the regeneration of the 2012 Olympics site.
With operating losses at the stadium of £18 million last year and total losses of £28 million raising the prospect of “97 years of being a drain on the public purse”, money could be better spent “encouraging sport at local level across London,” Boff said.
Immediately described as “surreal” by Labour AMs, his call was also dismissed by LLDC chief executive Lyn Garner. With a 99-year lease in place with West Ham United alongside a 50-year arrangement with UK Athletics, demolition was not on the agenda, she said.
The exchange nevertheless underlined the challenges facing the corporation, established in April 2012 and bankrolled by City Hall to oversee the Stratford site after the Games and “develop a dynamic new heart for East London”.
There was much to celebrate, LLDC chair Sir Peter Hendy said: “This is, by any standards, the most successful world city urban regeneration project and the most successful Olympic legacy project.”
Highlights included 10,200 new homes due for completion this year, with a further 22,000 in the pipeline, and construction of the showcase East Bank culture and education complex now underway (pictured), including a new Sadlers Wells theatre, Victoria & Albert museum, BBC music studios and new campuses for the London College of Fashion and University College London.
The £1.1 billion project, billed at its July ground-breaking as the “most significant single investment in London’s culture since the legacy of the 1851 Great Exhibition”, is forecast to attract 1.5 million visitors a year plus 10,000 students, and create 2,500 jobs and a £1.5 billion boost to the economy.
With a £470 million budget for its significant share of construction costs, Conservative AM Gareth Bacon asked was the LLDC confident it would stay on track.
“It’s really difficult to say that I’m confident,” said Garner. “I can’t tell you how it feels to be procuring things like this in a market that is so uncertain. We are probably facing one of the most uncertain economic situations in 40 or 50 years.” Leaving the European Union could also have an impact on costs, she added.
The financial position of the stadium itself was nevertheless improving, Garner reported. Legal disputes with West Ham had been brought to a close, stadium operation had been brought in-house and capacity had been increased to 60,000. This was producing more revenue, though the requirement to move seating to accommodate non-football events was costing some £6 million a year.
A plan was in place to reduce operating costs by £7 million over five years, and relationships with West Ham were “much improved”, with discussions underway on naming rights for the stadium and further discussion about Major League Baseball returning after 2020.
Quizzed on bio-diversity, Garner reported an increase in bird species in the park, with up to 42 species recorded including three highly protected ones – kingfishers, black redstarts and Cetti’s warblers.
Plans to improve transport links were being discussed with the boroughs, she told Liberal Democrat AM Caroline Pidgeon, who warned that Stratford station, with 40 million passengers a year compared to 12 million in 2009, was “dangerously overcrowded”.
Meanwhile Sir Peter confirmed that the agency was beginning to plan its own demise, with Mayor Khan setting a 2024/25 target for the LLDC to go out of business, return its extensive planning powers to the local boroughs and put plans in place for long-term management and ownership of the site. “The long-term future of the park and the powers we are discharging ought to rest with the residents of the boroughs,” he said.
“When we talk about transition, it’s the whole thing. Looking at the park and venues as a whole,” said Garner, adding that a five-year strategy would be published by early next year, including plans for managing the site’s venues, where City Hall would remain the freeholder.
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