Thursday, 28 March 2013

West Ham, the Olympic Stadium, Don Valley and Legacy



Much has been made of the "Olympic Legacy" in recent weeks. First there was the announcement of the closure of the Don Valley Stadium in Sheffield - training home of Jessica Ennis and one time temporary home of Rotherham United - and then the announcement that the Olympic Stadium was to be leased to West Ham United and the cost of the stadium conversion was to be more extravagantly funded from the public purse than initially expected. Both decisions, however upsetting, highlight the difficulty in creating any sort of lasting legacy from major sporting events.
When Sheffield announced it was bidding for the 1991 World Student Games, the council saw it as a means of regenerating the run-down East End, which formerly housed the city's steelworks and factories. What was claimed to be the largest multi-sports event outside of the Olympics was meant to bring investment, growth and world class sports events and facilities to the city.
When Edinburgh dropped out of the race and Sheffield forged ahead as the UK candidate, it found there was little competition for this apparently prestigious event. Not one city wanted to follow in the footsteps of Duisburg, Zagreb and Kobe. Well, apart from Sheffield. Unfortunately, the city's civic leaders cocked a deaf 'un to the alarm bells everyone else was hearing.
With little of the anticipated government support, a result of Tory antipathy towards the red flag waving Labour firebrands running the council, a lack of corporate sponsorship and little media interest; Sheffield was faced with a hefty bill for hosting the games. There were originally three financial projections for staging the event; ranging from £17m to £27m, with each costing being matched to an equivalent income from sponsorship, ticket sales and grants to produce a 'nil cost'. By July 1991, when the games were held, it was obvious there would be a massive shortfall.
The original facilities, including a swimming pool, sports centres and Don Valley cost £147m. Following four attempts at re-profiling the overall debt totals £658m. Sheffield Council will continue to repay £25m a year until the debt is paid off in 2024. An amount included to the council tax bill of every Sheffield household.
Athletics events were held at the stadium in the following years, with several high profile meets attracting large crowds - although these tailed off from capacity over time. With major athletics meets a once a year events and other local/regional events sporadic, other sports and uses were considered to bring in much needed income; amongst them Rugby, Cricket, Concerts and Football.
They then hit the major issue, who wants to watch a sport where the action is taking place some 15-20 metres in the distance across an athletics track? Sheffield Eagles moved there, but struggled to attract the crowds, high profile concerts were arranged but were sporadic and you had other one-off events such as Darren Gough's Benefit Match with astroturf placed over the track as part of the outfield. Sheffield FC played there briefly and then it became the temporary home of Rotherham United in their hiatus between Millmoor and New York. Ask any Rotherham fan if they enjoyed their experience.
Over time the facilities become decrepit and worn. A visit to any of the arenas and buildings developed for the Universiade 22 years ago, highlights a degree of wear and tear and faded paintwork that is quite saddening. What was once new and exciting is now faded and aged. As funding falls, event numbers reduce and so does the maintenance. One sports hall has already been demolished as part of the refurbishment of the adjoining school.
At Don Valley the maintenance levels have slipped to the extent that there is considerable money needed to be spent bringing facilities up to standard, in order to then bid further money to win events. If you are going to attract an athletics meet, you need a working scoreboard. It has become a vicious circle of self-fulfilling failure. No funds, no maintenance, no bids, no events, no money……
There have been times when the possibility of both senior Sheffield football clubs moving there has been mooted. It was suggested that the stadium capacity could be built up to 45,000, with additional tiers of seating and a roof added to the three open sides. A municipal version of the San Siro for red and blue to share. Neither set of fans would want it. Bramall Lane is the right size, fit for purpose and the oldest professional football ground still in use and whilst a Blade is in ownership, the prime land adjacent to the city centre ought to be safe for football. Across the city a majority of Wednesday fans would not entertain leaving Hillsborough.
So Sheffield finds itself paying the price for winning the prize in a one horse race that no-one wanted to win and putting so much focus on delivering the event, they forgot about what happens to them after. Roll forward to the London Olympic bid, plenty of talk about Legacy, but little in the plans for the Olympic Stadium that would ensure it would be financially viable after the event.
What becomes of former Olympic sites and venues has caused much consternation. Many continue to find sporting use, although the extent to which they are utilised varies greatly. Some are retrofitted and used in ways benefiting the wider community in ways far removed from their original use; turned into prisons, housing, shopping malls, gyms, churches. Others sit unused and unwanted, decaying reminders of heroic achievement and sporting excitement. Others, like the fate awaiting Don Valley, are simply demolished. Prime examples of misguided planning and broken promises of the benefits that the Games would bring.
Take Beijing's iconic Birds Nest Stadium; it lays idle, too big and cavernous for any sensible sporting use for much of the year. The same could legitimately be said of World Cup stadia. Many of the Korean World Cup stadia sit half/quarter empty week after week. Some of the South African World Cup stadia sit alongside existing multi-sport stadia in the same city or suburb. The Peter Mokaba Stadium, with a capacity of 40,000, sits in Polokwane, a rural city without a professional football team. On that basis, should we be that upset about the fate of Don Valley?
In other major cities, sporting clubs are taken away from their traditional homes so that multi-team cities such as Sydney see multiple cricket, rugby and AFL teams housed at the former Olympic Stadium. In Melbourne the Etihad Stadium hosts multiple AFL sides, that previously had their own identity and ovals, alongside T20 cricket, Rugby Union and some A League football. Yet you cannot see that happening here. There is a preference for a clear differential of identities between clubs and homes. Yes some Rugby Union clubs have and do share with football, but that only lasts for a spell before rules Premier Rugby rules on primary tenancy take hold and difficult decisions/negotiations take place.
We have known for some time that a hefty wedge of public money would be needed to pay for the costs of retro-fitting an Olympic Stadium that really should have been made for football from the start. What is unexpected, is that all but £15m of the money is coming from the taxpayer - directly or indirectly - prompting criticism that West Ham have got their new home on the cheap with prime development land in east Ham to sell. Those defending the terms of the deal claim that there is further protection for the public purse from a one-off windfall back to LLDC in the event the club is sold in the next 10 years, but this is surely small fry compared with the long term boost this move will give the football club.
The total bill for the stadium has now risen to £600million, although that figure is irrelevant as there will always be an element of sunk cost in major projects such as this i.e. the cost which you have to incur to ensure a stadium is built and fit to serve its primary purpose. It is the cost of extending the roof and adding retractable seats (which could be as much as £190m) that is the real problem.
You then have the issue of what this move does to other clubs in the area. Why should one club move in on the doorstep of another, destroying any chance of further growth and forcing an owner to consider a move to a new location outside of their municipal boundaries? I have seen Hammers fans deriding Leyton Orient as a "Small club with 3,500 fans" like they are irrelevant in the World of multi-million pound tv deals and Scudamore's golden cash cow. Others choose online forums and comments sections to goad the London and wider British public about how we are funding their new stadium.
It isn't the municipal subsidisation of football clubs that rankles, I have nothing against clubs who choose to do that and plenty of clubs play in municipal stadiums, no doubt at subsidised rents, in Serie A and Ligue 1 in particular. Manchester City benefited from Manchester Councils' decision to offer them the City of Manchester stadium, with a retro-fit design built in to original plans. Many clubs in Spain are loaned monies by local authorities, although the backlash may now start with EU focus on a region that is facing great economic hardship, but is happy to subsidise football clubs. For me that is the decision for the local authorities and in a one club town I am sure it is easier to justify. What cannot be justified is central government taxes funding a Premier League club's move to a Municipal Stadium, in a last, desperate attempt to deliver on a  misguided promise.
The failure to recognise when massive mistakes are being made is symptomatic across central and local government, local development agencies, sporting organisations and civic leaders. Their inability to put it right, without great financial expense and with a vulnerability that can easily be exploited should be a matter of great shame.
The people of Sheffield will be paying for a non-existent asset, an empty space where the largest modern day athletics stadium in the UK once stood. The annual running costs for which are less than 0.3% of the conversion costs of the Olympic Stadium.
Along with the rest of the UK taxpayers, they will also be funding the move of a football club with owners worth £800m into a stadium the annual rental charge for which will be recovered in the gate receipts of a single Premier League game.
Meanwhile the football club on the edge of the Olympic site will potentially lose out on the next generation of fans to a club who will no doubt pump out ticket offers, get into the local schools and offer the added attraction of Premier League football.
The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. The South gets taxpayer investment, the North is largely forgotten about. The big club receives a subsidy towards future potential growth and success, the little club is left in the cold. A good quality sports facility faces the bulldozers, another is gifted to a club in the richest league in the World. Welcome to modern Britain, where words are promised and not delivered on. Where the legacy benefits the rich, at the expense of the many whose facilities deteriorate before their eyes, then vanish forever. What a legacy that is.

2 comments:

  1. Bloody disgrace!!!

    As soon as the crap hits the fan its us in the North who are the first to get screwed and if/when things improve we're the last be told.

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