Friday, 12 October 2007

The Olympic fiasco unfolds

I remember precisely the moment when London was awarded the 2012 Olympics. I was watching the announcement on French telly. As London's name was read out, the French commentary team went absolutely silent. After about five seconds a solitary voice broke the funereal hush. The comment was eloquently simple.

'Oh la la! Oh la la!'

That was it. Nothing more.

The point of course was that Paris provided London's main competition and, having been turned down for both the 2004 and 2008 games, the city was everybody's favourite to capture the 2012 games. Its campaign, backed by the full apparatus of the state, had a momentum that rapidly came to seem unstoppable. There was a powerful sense that this time, surely, the French could not fail. London's bid, by contrast, was not only late but clearly underpowered. As much as anything else, the city's eventual success was a remarkable testimony to Blair's powers of salesmanship. He and Sebastian Coe, head of the London bid, formed a remarkable duo.

But well before London's bid got properly underway, it was obvious that a London Olympics would be a disaster. The only consolation was that the prospect of London's winning was so remote. I can assure you that it wasn't only the French commentary team who were dismayed when London won.

First of all, I defy anyone to justify how and why spending billions on a two-week sports festival, however prestigious, can conceivably be justified. Even according to the original budget of £2.375bn (which astoundingly included a 50% contingency fund), the cost would have been £169m a day. Get that, a day. But of course that original budget was just a guess, a number apparently plucked from the air. By November last year, only 16 months after the original announcement, the budget had been increased to £8bn, or £571m a day. In March this year it was upped again, to £9.3bn, £664m a day.

To give a further flavour of this Alice in Wonderland budget forecasting, this month it was announced that the cost of the main stadium – for which there was only one bidder to build it, note – had been increased from £280m to £496m. Meanwhile the cost of the acquatic centre, otherwise known as a swimming pool to you and me – for which there was also only one bidder – had increased from £75m to £150m.

There is good news, however. In announcing the 'new' new budget in March, Tessa Jowell proudly asserted that 'winning the Olympics had brought an extra £7bn of investment to one of the most deprived areas of Europe'. So, there you have it. It's official. After 10 years of Labour government London is 'one of the most deprived areas of Europe'. What would Tessa make of Romania, you wonder?

However, all this is rather beside the point. As is the fact that if the budget can increase by almost 400% in less than two years, there is clearly considerable scope for it to go up by much, much more in the remaining five years between now and the games themselves. What will the final figure be? £20bn? £30bn? £50bn? All that can be said with certainty is the government's guess is literally as good as mine.

No, the key is that all this vast expenditure will be wholly, utterly and entirely wasted because – and here I am very happy to stick my neck out – none of the projects, despite having ever larger sums lavished ever more frantically on them as the deadline approaches, will be finished.

How do I know? First, because the games are effectively being run by the government, another way of saying that cock-ups are not likely, they are guaranteed. Second, because there has been no major building project over, what, say the last 50 years that has not been late and ludicrously over budget. Given that these include not just state-run but private-sector projects the prospects for the games can hardly be considered rosy.

Wembley Stadium: original budget £458m; actual cost £827m (80% over budget)
Millennium Dome: original budget £400m; actual cost £790m (95% over budget)
Channel Tunnel: original budget £4.9bn; actual cost £12bn (145% over budget)
Jubilee Line extension: original budget £2.1bn; actual cost £3.5bn (55% over budget)

There is also the matter of Pickett's Lock. This for those not in the know was to be the site of a purpose-built 43,000-seater athletics stadium in north London which would host the 2005 World Athletics Championship. When the plans were first approved, in July 1999, Chris Smith, then secretary of state for Culture, Media and Sport, ringingly declared that: 'The stadium is the best thing to happen to athletics in the UK for a generation.' In September 2001, the original budget was upped from £87m to £110m. The following month the project was scrapped entirely.

It is heartening to realise that the projected cost overrun of Picketts Lock –£23m – would pay for less than one hour of the London Olympics even if the present budget of £9.3bn is adhered to (which it won't be, of course).

If only the same could happen to the Olympics. It would save such agony. Even now it's not too late. Let the French have the games and write off what has already been spent. However expensive, it will be a bargain compared to ploughing ahead with what, I promise you, will the shambles of the century, not merely ruinously expensive but simultaneously reducing us to a laughing stock.

Still, if it's laughs you're after, have a look at this. But if it's laughs and sense you have a taste for, then read this.

(By way of comparison, the budget for the Athens games in 2004 was 3bn euros, the actual cost 12bn euros, a healthy 400% overrun. We have more in common with the Greeks that you might think.)


Jim said...

your figures on wembley are inaccurate and undermine your point.

£757m fixed cost originally plus Multiplex settlement (reported at c.£42m).

The Creator said...

I'm grateful for your comment but can you explain this? These are the figures that are widely quoted. Plus, no one can dispute the delays.

But when you say that my Wembley numbers are wrong, does this mean that you otherwise agree with my point about the inevitable and vast cost overruns of the Olympics?

I am not just trying to be silly in saying that, in my view, the London Olympics will be a disaster. All the evidence points to this.



Furrowed Brow said...

I never understand this.

I make websites for a living. If I tell someone it will cost them 2k then unless the project changes significantly during the build process then the invoice is going to be 2k.

I invoice them for 10k they're going to laugh in my face and tear up the invoice and rightly so.

WTF is wrong with these people? Of course it's not just buildings it's govt IT projects, arms contracts - everything in fact.