RABBIL SIKDAR reviews the dodgy dealing behind West Ham’s new home ground
MOVING into a new home is never easy but even West Ham could not have envisaged how difficult their move from the Boleyn Ground would be. Crowd troubles, poor results and now fresh revelations about the stadium’s conversion costs have arisen, prompting London’s mayor to demand an independent inquiry into the rise of the stadium bill to £323 million.
The details of the financial cost of converting the stadium, largely borne by the public, have whipped up another storm of controversy for the east London club in the wake of fan unrest within the ground, recently erupting into fights.
The original cost of converting the Olympic venue had been estimated at £154m when West Ham signed the tenancy deal.
Trouble with the roof saw it rise to £193m and then finally, it seemed, £272m.
Now it’s gone up another £51m to £323m. Just as the roof was more expensive than expected, the cost of retracting the lower seats to expose the running track has multiplied alarmingly from £300,000 to possibly £8m a year.
That puts the overall cost of West Ham’s stadium at £752m.
West Ham, who pay £2.5m in rent a year, contributed £15m towards the cost while the largest slice of the funding came from the public purse, at £148.8m.
Another £40m came from the original Olympics budget, central government £25m, UK Athletics £1m and the London Marathon Charitable Trust £15m.
Newham Council, representing an impoverished borough, agreed in 2011 to borrow £40m to help out. The rest of the conversion budget had been financed by the London Legacy Development Corporation. The rising cost of the seats, in moving them in time for concerts and athletic events, means there will be a hit to the profits.
So far the stadium has drawn controversy, questions and crowd trouble. Laid bare for all to see is how much this has sucked out of the public finances. It has brought Sadiq Khan into the equation. The mayor, who recently promised an investigation into foreign financial investment at a time of growing poverty and inequality within the city, was alarmed at “total and utter mess” of the finances for the Olympic Stadium.
The dodgy deal has for a while been contentious. Before West Ham won the competition for the stadium, a tug of war occurred between them and Tottenham. West Ham were particularly reluctant to allow Spurs to occupy their natural space in east London. The controversy has also threatened Leyton Orient, who battled furiously against West Ham’s plans, believing that moving closer to Orient with a bigger stadium threatened the existence of the club. Since that time, Leyton Orient have dropped to League Two.
West Ham were selected but since then the involved parties have been left scarred by the financial scandal but also their failure to plan for crowd trouble.
This has been particularly difficult for Newham Council. In a time of reduced budgets and escalating homelessness, the decision in 2011 to approve a £40m loan went down poorly with locals. It never made sense and many would argue that it still does not. Leader Sir Robin Wales is under pressure to get something for their money. An attempt to recover some reputation was made here: the council spoke about the need for the independent inquiry — which will report back jointly to them — in order to properly scrutinise the soaring costs. Wales spoke of a “duty to taxpayers” but many may now feel the damage has been done.
For the West Ham board these have been times of growing difficulty. A stadium switch that felt like leaving a home for something not quite the same has been combined with an early tide of disappointing results. Basic security has been poor, the stewarding chaotic amid an overriding sense that there’s no-one who knows what to do. The unrest has rattled the players, notably during West Ham’s 2-1 win over London rivals Chelsea.
There are three parties involved who have many questions to answer. The first of course is West Ham. How much of the total conversion cost were they aware of? Why has the organisation of stadium security been so poor? A legitimate defence would of course be that West Ham are having to work with other parties and, in general, it’s unclear how much sway they’ve had during discussions. Laying the blame entirely at their doorstep excuses others.
Boris Johnson looms large. The former mayor of London did not wish to see the Olympic Stadium stripped down to 25,000 seats and searched for possible tenants. What has arisen since then is a further stain on a legacy marked by indifference to dodgy finances and hidden money. Johnson allowed taxpayers to pick up the bill for this without ever asking the necessary questions. As Khan pointed out, this is a big mess and Johnson left plenty of others across London.
Newham Council must look at themselves too. They have staked a lot on this stadium redevelopment, loaning out £40m while faced with deep cuts, rising poverty, homelessness and evictions. Newham has become disorderly, a town increasingly haunted by gentrification and crime. That was £40m which could have been invested in infrastructure and skills but has instead gone towards a club many of the locals now feel disconnected from.
A resolution is needed and quickly. The legacy of London 2012 seemingly rests on the regeneration of east London that so far has been, in Khan’s words, a “total and utter mess.”