Ahead of the Games?

21 September 2006 (Last Updated September 21st, 2006 18:30)

With one deadline already extended, can the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games be delivered on time? While the proposed Aquatics Centre has stalled, Chris Mugan explains how, in other areas, the Olympic scheme looks to be on track.

Ahead of the Games?

Even before their timetables were laid out, UK sports bodies faced a wave of cynicism regarding the failure to open one key project on time, the new Wembley Stadium. Then, earlier this year, Zaha Hadid's plans for the Aquatics Centre were sent back to the drawing board.

London's Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA), the government quango responsible for building venues and infrastructure for the games, states that the centre is under review as it looks to integrate the watersports site with the surrounding Olympic Park – the area in east London earmarked as the centre of the 2012 Games, also home to the main stadium and other facilities.

"Is London 2012 set to face the same last-minute concerns that affected the 2004 Athens Games?"

There have been complaints that Hadid's original plans went significantly over the £75m budget, unacceptable to a government eager to be seen as having a firm grip on the public purse. While site preparation has begun, an ODA spokesperson admitted that the centre would not be finished by its original completion date of 2008, but that it would be ready before the Games opened.

LAST-MINUTE CONCERNS

This has caused observers to wonder if London 2012 is set to face the same last-minute concerns that affected the 2004 Athens Games, though facing such issues at an early stage could show that the UK team are much better prepared.

Given global interest in the games, a successful Olympiad provides evidence of a nation's ability to deliver massive projects. As well as the intangible feel-good factor, the Olympics boost tourism and investment, and facilitate regeneration and development.

So, understandably the UK Government is taking a close interest in the development of the infrastructure of the Games – the new venues to be built around the country, along with accommodation and improved transport links. Indeed, a successful bid was only possible with the government's backing and it has been instrumental in devising the structure of the bodies that will run the Games.

While its rival New York floundered following the city's failure to secure planning permission for proposed facilities, London was able to beat the favourite Paris with a detailed scheme that had already secured consent.

THE PRICE OF SUCCESS

Lord Sebastian Coe has insisted the Games can stay within budget, citing three areas of preparation that were in place before the London bid was accepted.

"Unlike pretty much any previous city, we went to Singapore with three very important things in place, which have allowed us to develop the programme very rapidly," he explains. "There was the finance, nailed down by government, the 500 acres of outline planning permission as well as the land acquisition."

"Lord Sebastian Coe has insisted that the Games can stay within budget."

There is even a minister specifically responsible for the Olympics, Tessa Jowell, who was responsible for setting up the ODA. This was incorporated by an Act of Parliament in 2006 as a separate body to the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, the entity headed by Lord Coe to oversee its general planning.

This is more than a bureaucratic step, for the act established the ODA as a local planning authority in its own right.

The ODA's main source of finance is a £2.375bn funding package agreed between the government and the Mayor of London in 2003. This is beyond the £800m that the government plans to spend on infrastructure in the Lower Lea Valley, the site of the
park.

THE OLYMPIC DELIVERY AUTHORITY

Jowell has also appointed the ODA's board members. Their experience includes a whole range of specialisms that benefit the authority, from disability issues to construction, though perhaps the most eye-catching appointment is that of Sir Howard Bernstein,
chief executive of Manchester City Council.

The authority has yet to divulge what it has learned from past sporting events, though Bernstein had an important role to play in the successful development of facilities for the Commonwealth Games, including construction of its stadium.

In June, Howard Shiplee was appointed to the ODA as director of construction. He was previously redevelopment chief executive of Ascot Racecourse, the flagship horseracing venue that received many plaudits when it reopened after a wide-ranging rebuild earlier in 2006.

ODA chief executive David Higgins says "Howard's work at Ascot has been rightly praised as showcasing British construction at its best – first-class facilities delivered to time and to budget."

"Over-budget plans are unacceptable to a government eager to be seen as having a firm grip on the public purse."

When he joins this September, Shiplee's role will be to develop and manage contracts for the Games' venues and facilities.

The former director of construction consultancy High Point Rendel is responsible for developing the ODA's work as an 'intelligent client', a proactive outlook that includes the monitoring of construction inspections, workmanship standards and on-site best practice.

This area of delivery is key to ensuring that projects are completed on time.

One of the problems with Wembley has been the fractious relationships that have developed between contractors, such as Australian construction company Multiplex and steel subcontractor Cleveland Bridge UK, both of whom went to court earlier this year.

Investigators, meanwhile, have criticised the original appointment of Multiplex as main contractor. In a report from 2001, company troubleshooter David James insisted that the contract failed to achieve industry best practice due to a lack of control over the tendering process. While the ODA refuses to point out what lessons have been learnt from this tale, its take on procurement is markedly
different.

FINDING A RUNNING PARTNER

Apart from the Aquatics Centre, one of the ODA's most pressing concerns at the moment is the appointment of a development partner to manage the programme to build the Olympic Park.

The contestants on the shortlist are Bechtel and three consortia. CLM features CH2M Hill International, Laing O'Rourke and Mace, while G3 includes AMEC, Balfour Beatty and Jacobs. Finally, Legacy is made up of former Wembley applicant Bovis Lend Lease, Capita Symonds and Kellogg Brown & Root.

To ensure a process that is, in Higgins' words, "rigorous and copper-bottomed in its integrity", the ODA moved members of its procurement team into a secure central London location and brought in external experts such as legal advisors.

"It is estimated that the Olympics will create 33,500 extra jobs."

They assessed 80 bids on technical and commercial criteria. Then, a technical assessment team, with eight external staff, evaluated the submission and recommended a shortlist to the ODA board.

The team's report was also examined by a compliance and oversight group, drawn primarily from outside the ODA.

Throughout this process, the authority is working towards a timetable first set out by its ultimate client – the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which is responsible for the Games as a whole. It set out a master schedule, which was expanded on in greater detail by the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG).

The IOC is taking an increasingly hands-on role in the delivery of individual Olympiads and for the first time has participated in seminars to improve coordination with the national organising committee. While the proposed delivery of the Aquatics Centre has slipped, in other areas the Olympic scheme looks to be ahead of schedule.

For the Olympic Park, the ODA has taken advantage of the parallel Stratford City Development (SCD), a mixed-use project on a 180ac site that is part of the former Stratford Rail lands around the proposed international railway station. Planner EDAW has moved the Olympic Village further south to integrate with SCD's existing plan and allow a large part of its accommodation to be delivered through the latter's housing provision.

This means contractors can start construction earlier than anticipated as the site is already prepared and remediated for development. SCD submitted a separate plan for the area, as it preferred its programme to not be reliant on the success of the London Olympic bid. Now the Games have been won, the two have agreed to work closely together.

AN OLYMPIC WORKFORCE

With all the discussion surrounding design and planning, one issue that is overlooked by many observers is a potential shortage of construction workers during later phases of development.

Builders of the facilities for the 2012 Olympics will have to compete for skilled workers, leading to a potential shortage in the labour market. ConstructionSkills, the council established by the government to ensure the industry has enough qualified workers, estimates that the Olympics will create 33,500 extra jobs.

"Zaha Hadid's plans for the Aquatics Centre have been sent back to the drawing board."

Its forecasts suggest the peak year for employment would be 2010 when 7,500 workers would be needed. This is on top of an already massive demand for skilled labour.

In the southeast and Greater London alone there is £34bn of major projects, with Olympic facilities up against major transport projects such as Kings Cross, the East London Line and the expansion of UK ports.

Flyers have been distributed in areas surrounding the park that offer training in building skills, though it is too early to say what effect this will have on the labour shortage. Despite the ODA's detailed plans, many challenges still lie ahead.