The Olympics will ruin London, hike taxes and rob the national lottery. Is it too late to give them back?
Wednesday November 8, 2006
We should seriously be thinking about giving the 2012 Olympic games back, before it is too late. It's all very well to say that it will be all right on the night, but that's now looking increasingly unlikely. Tessa Jowell's performance in the Commons on Monday confirmed that there already exists a state of mild chaos.
It is almost unbelievable that the VAT liability for the games was not clarified before the costs were drawn up. The background is rather murky, but it seems that someone at the Treasury gave someone else an assurance that VAT would not be levied on the construction and other costs of staging the games. It now appears that the Treasury, perhaps even the chancellor himself, is saying that VAT will have to be paid after all because - here it comes again, the usual excuse when no one knows what's really going on - European Union rules insist on it.
It has been estimated that this may add £1bn to the costs- or possibly only £250m, depending on whom you ask to pluck a figure out of the air. But no one seems to know how much the total bill is to be. It is a major issue that "we are working through" said Jowell; "Work is still continuing to finalise the budget," a spokesman for her department explained. What we know for certain is that the cost estimates are already a lot more than the figures that were bandied about only last year. And that they will be a lot, lot higher as we approach 2012. We can safely assume - following many precedents, of which I need name only two, the Scottish parliament and Wembley stadium - that costs will rise quickly, inexorably, and by a large multiplicand of the original estimate.
To pay for this folly, London will be nearly bankrupted, the national lottery will have to be robbed (thus taking funds away from many good causes), and taxes will have to be raised (or services diminished).
But let us assume for a moment that we are willing to pay the exorbitant price for the glory of being allowed to stage the games - and to continue paying for decades after, as every other city that has taken on the games has been forced to do. What makes us believe that we can get everything ready in time? Years of delay didn't matter with Wembley or the Scottish parliament. They didn't have deadlines. But 2012 is a real date. You can't postpone the Olympics, or move it to Cardiff, like the cup final.
Wembley was just one stadium. The games require several new sports complexes to be built from scratch, new transport links to be laid, and many infrastructural improvements to be made. Why is it thought - against all recent precedent - that big sophisticated British constructions can be finished on time? Whenever I mention Wembley in support of my pessimism, I'm told, "That's different, and anyway, we've learned a lesson." The details may be different, but the potentially explosive ingredients - including contractual disputes and workforce attitudes - are still around. I'm often confronted with another, somewhat patronising argument: "If Greeks can do it for Athens, surely we can do it just as well, if not better?" Wrong. London is bigger and far more complicated than Athens, needs more new buildings and more protection.
In one sense, the biggest blow to the games came the day after it was awarded to London, with the July 7 bombings. Had the outrage taken place a couple of days earlier, London would not have won. Fears over security would have taken votes away. Paris would have had the games, and I can't imagine that the city's plans and ideas, 16 months on, would have been in as much uncertainty as London's are now.
The security issue will affect the future of the games in two ways - cost (of security measures and people) and enjoyment. I wasn't too worried at first: 2012 was many years away and surely, by then, we would be living in a relatively safe capital. Not so, apparently. We are constantly being told by police, government and an assortment of experts that London is a prime target for terrorism and will remain so for a long time. Imagine then, getting around a London filled, not only with more visitors than it has ever held before, but with a network of security devices and personnel never before assembled in any capital city. That hellish vision assumes that we will get as far as actually holding the games.
The games organisers did a good thing in bringing in Jack Lemley, renowned for delivering large projects under budget and on time; but he has now resigned, because (being American, he didn't quite put it this way) everyone was faffing around, talking and not getting down to the business of building. Jowell did nothing to dispel the feeling of slightly complacent muddle-throughism. That's not good enough.
Of course there is not the slightest chance that London will relinquish its spot. The loss of face would be too great, multiplied several times by the knowledge that Paris is smirkingly ready to take over. That would be one humiliation too far. Instead, I fear that London - Britain - will be the subject of other humiliations - of unfinished structures, strikes, transport delays, crashing computers, quarrels with security guards and anger at rip-off prices; above all, of the London Olympic games, if they do take place, being less than a glittering success.
BLOGGER'S NOTE- ANY BETS? 100 million overspend? 200million? Roll up, roll up.