Hamish McRae: Don't let the sprinters ruin our Olympics

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The Independent Online

So how do we stop the London Olympics turning into a disaster?

It may seem a bit negative even to suggest that but the portents during the past few days are not good. The costs are rising and look like turning out to be at least three times the number first thought of. Already cuts are being sought. The builders of the residential part of the project have now discovered that they cannot raise the readies to fund it. Boris is aghast that there has apparently been no planning for the aftermath – what the various venues will be used for afterwards.

More anecdotally, I was talking the other day with some people who were involved in the planning and they were appalled at the quality of the stuff they were supposed to be putting up. So many corners were being cut that, though it would look all right on the night, it would fall to bits a few years later. That is surely the nub of it. Of course it will be a good party. We know how to party in this country. What we seem to be less good at is creating high quality, long-term infrastructure. Yet it is the legacy that matters. It is not hard to organise a good show if they are given £10bn or whatever to do it. To blow that on a fortnight's fun, however, is at best insouciant, at worst deeply irresponsible.

The precedents are not great. Leave Beijing to the side for the moment because resources are being thrown at it on a scale that even we would baulk at and it may not even turn out to be that great a party. Nor, I suggest, is there any point going into hand-wringing mode and say it is bound to be a disaster because we always seem to screw up.

The legacy of the last great party venue built in London, the Millennium Dome, demonstrates that, with good management, it is possible to create a real triumph out of an apparent disaster. After the not-so-great Millennium party it languished idle for several years until it was rescued and rebranded as the O2 centre for pop concerts and the like. Now it is the largest such venue in the world, passing Madison Square Garden in New York in terms of the numbers of seats sold a year. Yes, the world.

If you look at the legacy of previous Olympics the story is more mixed. At the unsuccessful extreme there is Montreal, which just finished paying off the debt for its 1976 games a couple of years ago. That coincided with the start of the gradual economic decline of Montreal vis-à-vis Toronto, not a direct consequence of course for there were other political and language issues, but certainly a demonstration that holding the games does not of itself bring significant positive economic benefits.

At the successful extreme most people would probably cite Barcelona, which used the games as a clever promotion of what had been a none-too-well-known second city of Spain. It also carried out an interesting exercise in town planning, extending the network of avenues northward and reviving its shoreline. But, while it has brought in a lot of convention and tourist business, locals still grumble about the additions to their tax bills.

Athens and Sydney both ran great games but there, too, there have been problems using the facilities to the full afterwards. Atlanta did a surprisingly poor job of the games but has got good facilities as a result. Arguably it focussed too much on the after use and not enough on the logistics of the games themselves, an odd error because Americans are usually good at logistics.

This points to a fundamental truth. A one-off exercise, be it building new stuff or running a huge party, requires a different set of skills from the long slog of running and maintaining any economic entity for years to come. It is not so much that one is easier than the other, though I do think that in Britain we find sprint comes more naturally than slog.

It is more that it is tough to get the right balance in the decision-making process between the sprinters and the sloggers. The former have to have the lead role in the run-up to the event but they have to listen to the latter because ultimately the long-term success of a huge part of London is more important than having a good party.

Ken Livingstone understood this, though more in the sense of getting hold of some of the cash that was flooding out of London to subsidise the rest of the country and it is good news that Boris Johnson is focussing on what happens after the games. But I suspect that neither can really grasp the scale of the opportunity or the costs of a cock-up.

If you compare London with other large cities it has a number of characteristics. It is, as everyone recognises, a collection of villages. It is also quite low-density: one-third the density of Paris, half that of New York or Moscow, a factor that has enabled it to scramble by despite underinvestment in infrastructure. It has recently developed from having two prime central business districts, the West End and the City, to having a third, Canary Wharf. That last move, an unplanned effort to do something with the derelict docks area, was born out of desperation – lift the planning controls and see what happens – but has been a huge success. Not only has it taken pressure off the other two centres but it could, with the benefit of investments such as City Airport and now the O2 centre, be developed into a third focal point for London.

The more that London can build up a third true centre, the more it can take pressure off the other two and make the whole agglomeration more liveable and more successful. But at the moment this third centre is very uneven. This is partly a legacy of wartime destruction and low-quality post-war development, partly the result of the disappearance of the docks and the replacement with completely new activities. At any rate it is not a balanced community.

Nor is it likely to become one for a couple more generations. You cannot wave a wand and undo history. So just blowing money on sports facilities and building some low-quality housing will not help rebalance London eastwards. Done badly it will make matters worse. If, on the other hand, the core aim of the Olympic planners was to lift the quality of the built environment of east London, then the games could become another plank – along with Canary Wharf, the Dome, City Airport and so on – of a gradual lifting of the whole eastern aspect of the conurbation.

But things have to be done well and that will cost money. It is no good building rubbish, and quality is expensive. That will mean letting the private sector have its head rather than corralling it into a planner's box. It also means accepting a bumpy ride, as in their different ways those three projects noted above have all experienced.

There is no ideal model for the economics of the Olympics, but there is surely enough of a record of success and failure to enable us to learn what not to do and how to make thing work better. And there is still just time to do it.