John Armitt: 'I'd be the first to admit if there'd been cock-ups'

Amol Rajan meets the man who must deliver the Olympics on time, on budget – in a recession
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The Independent Online

John Armitt is a man with the weight of expectations on his shoulders. As chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA), he is responsible for building London 2012. He is answerable to a catalogue of people – all of whom have a lot riding on his competence.

First, there is Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who cannot afford to have Labour associated with yet another white elephant.

Then there is Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, who needs his members' decision to award the Games to London to be justified.

The London Mayor Boris Johnson, the Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham, and Tessa Jowell, the Olympics minister, all have a keen interest in Mr Armitt and his £9.3bn budget.

And the residents of the five Olympic boroughs, who are divided about the benefits of the Games and the impact it will have on their lives, will not take lightly to broken promises on jobs, transport, and infrastructure. All of which made Mr Armitt's job rather daunting even before the worst economic crisis in since the Second World War gripped Britain's economy.

"If there were major cock-ups", he says, "I'd be the first to admit it. We can't afford to be complacent, but so far, so good". He would say that. London won the Games in a time of economic plenty but is building them in a global recession. Private-sector funding has shrivelled, and public faith has been shaken by the apparent tripling of the cost.

In fact some of this increase is artificial: the first estimate discounted VAT, inflation, and security – the last of which rocketed following the terrorist attacks on London the day after the Games were awarded. Nevertheless, a drastic change in the headline budget has left the ODA hostage to a narrative it has recently been trying to rewrite.

The new riff claims that London 2012 is the very summit of Keynesianism. "We are now one of the major certainties in terms of opportunities for work, training, and for jobs – not only for companies in London but across the UK who will be part of the supply chain for delivering this," Mr Armitt says.

"If you were looking at it in pure socio-economic terms, cutting back on the cost and the scale of this would not be the right decision in these circumstances because here is an opportunity to provide a fillip in a difficult economy."

Over a seven-year period, up to 50,000 people should find employment on the site in Stratford, east London, of whom 10 per cent will have been previously unemployed.

Nearly two-thirds of the 800 companies sharing 7,000 contracts related to 2012 are small and medium-sized businesses.

In all, the project is forecast to account for 4-5 per cent of the capital's gross domestic product over the next four years, with the help of 70,000 volunteers who will be recruited in 2011. And Mr Armitt, a former civil engineer and head of Network Rail, suggests that not all the effects of the credit crunch have been negative.

Collapsing commodity prices have provided "some competitive opportunity in terms of prices", he says. "We don't have to worry about inflation in products like oil and steel and concrete in any way like we had to."

For many of the venues it is too late to be seeking huge efficiencies. "Saving opportunities are in the initial stage of design", Mr Armitt says. "Once you've started construction it's too late."

From his 23rd-floor office in London's Docklands, the 62-year-old Arsenal fan who grew up in Islington and whose family have roots in nearby Dalston, is able to see progress on the Olympic stadium – one of his lesser concerns in fact. A much greater worry is the £1bn Olympic village, for which he is continuing to seek private funding from Lend Lease, the Australian firm that is preferred developer.

"Lend Lease have never backed away from being able to provide credit. The question is what sits alongside that in terms of equity, and what are the detailed requirements of the lending world at the moment. Those terms are a lot more onerous than they would have been two years ago," he says.

The other main worry surrounding the Games, though it is the province of the Metropolitan Police and Home Office rather than the ODA, is security. This week, General Sir David Richards, the next head of the Army, said security for the Games kept him up at night, as it emerged a £600m policing plan had been delayed for a third time.

A senior source at one of the major sponsors of the London Organising Committee has told The Independent that the lack of a security plan is a continuing concern. But Mr Armitt insists the appointment of Sir Paul Stephenson as Metropolitan Commissioner will erase some of the "uncertainties" created by the departure last year of Tarique Ghaffur, the assistant commissioner in charge of 2012 security.

He is critical of the excessive pessimism that governs British attitudes to major infrastructure projects, and champions a track record he feels is unfairly neglected. "The trouble is we always remember the downs but not the ups," he says.

"Let me try to think of the last infrastructure project in this country that was delivered very, very late: Wembley. Wembley in the past 10 years," he says.

"In the same time you've had the Jubilee line extension, we've had the Channel tunnel rail link, the whole of King's Cross – a phenomenal achievement. The Emirates Stadium was on time and on budget. The Dome was in fact on time and on budget, though what went in it caused a lot of discussion. Terminal Five (at Heathrow airport) finished on time and on budget – there were operational difficulties on day one but that had nothing to do with the basic engineering and construction achievement," he argues.

"We will finish on time," he say confidently. "The issue is at what cost and with how much of the contingency [budget] left over". Watch this space.

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