Belfast Telegraph

Damian Collins blasts 'astronomical' cost of converting London Stadium

The cost to the taxpayer of converting the Olympic Stadium for use by West Ham has been branded "astronomical" by the chairman of the Commons Sports Committee.

Damian Collins said it looked like ex-London mayor Boris Johnson, now Foreign Secretary, wanted to bring Premier League football to the Stratford site at "almost any cost".

Collins' comments about his fellow Conservative MP come after London mayor Sadiq Khan ordered an investigation into the conversion costs after they rocketed by £51million.

Speaking to BBC Radio Four's Today programme, Collins contrasted West Ham's deal with Johnson to the one Manchester's local authority struck with Manchester City for the centrepiece of the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

"These costs seem to be out of control. Compared to the conversion costs for the Commonwealth Stadium in Manchester, these seem astronomical," said Collins.

"The big concern is does it look like, ultimately, the mayor of London was determined to get Premier League football into the Olympic Stadium at almost any cost? Because that is what it looks like now."

Khan, who succeeded Johnson in May, announced on Tuesday that he was "deeply concerned" at the way the conversion costs at the venue now known as the London Stadium had been allowed to soar.

Johnson said in 2015 that the switch from its Olympic configuration to use by West Ham would cost £272m, a figure the Greater London Authority (GLA) now says has risen to £323m.

West Ham, who have a 99-year lease on the 60,000-seat venue, made a one-off contribution of £15m to the costs and pay £2.5m a year in rent. The total bill for the taxpayer-funded stadium is now £752m.

Khan's intervention was also welcomed by the Olympic Stadium Coalition, a campaign group comprised of supporters' trusts and fans' groups from 14 clubs across the country.

The coalition was formed to force the mayor's office, London 2012's legacy development company and local council Newham to reveal the details of their deal with West Ham - a campaign that ended in victory in April 2016.

"This is a breakthrough in our long campaign to highlight the intolerable burden on taxpayers of the rebuilding of the Olympic Stadium to the specification of a well-off Premier League football club," a coalition statement said.

"We have never objected to the idea of West Ham playing at the stadium; the question is simply one of how much the club should pay, and how much the taxpayer should be expected to fund."

The group pointed out that the stadium's much-publicised difficulties this season, with several incidents of crowd trouble and criticisms about a lack of atmosphere, appear to have delayed a naming rights deal, which West Ham would have shared with the GLA.

"We believe this means the stadium will operate at a loss for the foreseeable future, especially if the police seek to recharge the costs of their increased presence at the stadium due to crowd control issues," the coalition added.

"The entire deal, and not just the rebuild costs, should be examined in detail, by the mayor and the taxpayer."

Khan's intention to unpick the legacy he had been left at the Olympic Park was revealed late on Tuesday.

A spokesperson for Khan said: "The mayor is deeply concerned about the finances of the Olympic Stadium, which have clearly been left in a total and utter mess by the previous administration at City Hall.

"The former mayor announced just last year that the total cost for transforming the stadium was £272m. In reality this is £323m - a difference of more than £50m.

"We remain committed to the future of the stadium as a venue for football and other sporting and cultural activities, and we are confident that London will host a fantastic World Athletics and Para Athletics Championships in 2017."

When asked for reaction, West Ham chose not to comment.

John O'Connell, the chief executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance, placed the blame for what he described as a "shabby deal" at Johnson's door.

"Instead of focusing our anger on West Ham for taking advantage of this ludicrously generous taxpayer-funded subsidy, we should instead be demanding explanations from those that signed off on this agreement and ask how they ever thought that this offered value to those of us footing the bill," said O'Connell.

"It's now down to those in charge of the inquiry to get to the bottom of how West Ham were gifted the deal of the century while ensuring their investigation doesn't end up costing the taxpayer as much as the stadium."

Khan's investigation will cover all stadium costs but it is the retractable seating system that was installed to get fans closer to the pitch that is causing the most alarm.

It is understood that the seats are not as "retractable" as hoped and they actually take 15 days to remove or replace.

This means extra costs and delays - a major concern when the stadium's business plan depends on concerts and other events during the football off-season. Depeche Mode are scheduled to play a concert on June 3, three weeks after the football season.

And Sky News has reported that West Ham could be forced to play on the road for the first month of next season.

The original estimate for moving the retractable seating was £300,000 but that is now believed to be wildly optimistic. A tendering process is currently under way for a contractor to do the job going forward, with Sky News suggesting this could cost £8m.


From Belfast Telegraph