Toby Harris on the mixed bag that is the Olympic and Paralympic Games legacy
For the past six months I have been chairing the Lords’ Select Committee on the Olympic and Paralympic Legacy. And today, after 33 evidence sessions, hearing from 53 witnesses and taking written submissions from 67 organisations and individuals, we have published our report – with 41 recommendations.
So what are our main conclusions?
The Games themselves were an outstanding success, absolutely vindicating the decision by Tony Blair and Ken Livingstone to back London’s bid, as well as exceeding expectations and confounded the sceptics. That success was only delivered through incredible cooperation between the numerous organisations involved, the host Boroughs and virtually every Whitehall department. Since the Games however, the same political impetus and the imperative of a deadline no longer exist. As a result many aspects of the legacy are in danger of faltering and some have fallen by the wayside. There is a lack of ownership and leadership.
That is why we recommend giving a single Cabinet-level Minister overall responsibility for all strands of the legacy. Only someone with senior clout will be able to bang heads together across different departments, including Education with its role in school sport and funding, Health which is supposed to be getting us all more active and healthier, DCMS with its responsibility for the sports governing bodies – plus all the departments that should be working to deliver the economic benefits not only in London but across the UK.
In London itself, the Office of Mayor should be given unambiguous responsibility for holding and taking forward the vision for East London and the developments in the Olympic Park and the surrounding area.
East London has for over a hundred years contained some of the most deprived communities in our country. Too many still live in poor and grossly overcrowded properties or in temporary accommodation. Unemployment rates are among the UK’s worst and the skills gap means that local businesses cannot find the staff they need. Delivering the Olympics brought forward much-needed infrastructure improvements but making sure that all the potential new jobs and new housing are delivered will require laser-like focus and determination from the Mayor.
There is suitable land for housing in East London but it is not being used. One Borough says that the biggest problem is land-banking. In another, Barking and Dagenham, one site, part-owned by the Greater London Authority, has permission for 11,000 dwellings but only 300 have been built. There is much that the Mayor should be doing.
Stratford International has had £1bn of public investment to equip it for high-speed international rail services, but none stop there. It is time that the Transport Department persuaded the operators that at least some of their services should use the facilities, bringing in both travellers and business.
As for the promised “cultural legacy”, the term only appeared twice in more than 500 pages of written evidence and the only tangible thing mentioned by DCMS Secretary Maria Miller was the world tour of the inflatable Stonehenge that she described as “a fantastic way of bringing Britain to life overseas.”
As far as sports participation is concerned, the step-change improvement hoped for did not occur. If anything, the slow steady improvement seen since 2005 has faltered. Facilities at grassroots level need to be improved and we received much evidence telling us that the Coalition’s scrapping of School Sports Partnerships was a big mistake.
Although we hunted for White Elephants among the facilities created for the Games, we didn’t find them. But the unseemly squabbling of West Ham United and Leyton Orient football clubs over the Olympic Stadium was most unedifying. It is important that more effort is made to ensure that this national asset is put to good use with maximum possible community use, including possibly by the club that was unsuccessful in the bid process.
That is the overall lesson of the report: the London Games were a huge success but much more still needs to be done to ensure the nation gets the maximum possible return on its investment.
Lord Toby Harris of Haringey is a backbench Labour Peer and chaired the Olympic and Paralympic Legacy Committee
Published 18th November 2013