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Who will benefit from the London Olympics?
Local Government Chronicle – 1 November 2007

The 2012 Olympics are meant to leave a legacy of regeneration, not just for London, but the whole of the UK. Mark Smulian asks what local authorities should be doing

"Let the break-out session begin!" may not be quite as inspiring as a typical Olympic Games opening, but an attendance of barely 25 people at their Local Government Association conference event got the London 2012 Organising Committee (LOCOG) worried. If senior officers and councillors were more attracted by the LGA's customary fare, something was going wrong.

The London bid was sold to the International Olympic Committee and indeed to the public, who will pay for it. The games are being sold as not just a sports event but something with substantial spin-off benefits across the UK - regeneration for east London, increased public sports participation, educational initiatives, tourism potential, business opportunities, job creation and long-term training. There is little dispute that the games themselves will be a success, but whether these other benefits flow, and where, is more debatable.

This is where local government could come in, if it wants to. Realising this legacy around the country needs councils in the thick of things even if they do not directly deliver much of it themselves.

Chris White (Lib Dem) chair of the LGA culture, tourism and sport board, says: "I think is some ways local government is out of the loop. There are opportunities, but if you just wait for it to happen it will not."

Cllr White sits on LOCOG's nations and regions group, which has committees across the UK, and is involved with his home region, the east of England. Since the east starts a few miles from the Olympic venue and will host two events - canoe slalom at Broxbourne and mountain biking at Brentwood - its councils should be and are engaged.

But Cllr White sees this more as a result of the regional chair happening to be a councillor - Essex CC's Stephen Castle (Con), who is also interested in sport. A survey by the two councillors showed distinctly patchy engagement by councils across the country.

Cllr Castle says: "In the east each county area is represented by a senior officer, so local government is quite well hooked-up. Elsewhere it is different because the government chose to work through the regional development agencies (RDAs) and sports bodies, not local government.

"We have to persuade local government to perform its role in ensuring there is a legacy because no one else will do it; RDAs are not involved at community level."

Cllr White has toured the country talking to councils about the potential offered by the Olympics - a process he describes as "a bit like being an evangelist for the early church".

One of the main opportunities is tourism, both in hosting Olympic athletes, staff, media and spectators, and in showing the UK to new visitors. "In most cases people will see a new image of the UK abroad, perhaps in places we do not get many tourists from at present, and it will be a modern image, not one with beefeaters all over it," he says. "We have to encourage them to come here and then come again."

Local government's leadership and place-shaping role will be important here, because while councils cannot force the tourism industry to mend its ways, it can encourage it. Mr White says: "Hotel accommodation in Britain is not bad quality now, but costs are very high, food is variable and so are the welcomes offered."

Brentwood BC leader Brandon Lewis (Con) hopes the mountain biking event will spur hotel development in the borough, which is not itself a tourist destination but is conveniently close to London.

"There is a lack of accommodation here and our hotels are very oversubscribed," he says. "When Fort William had the world mountain bike championships they estimated it added 1m to their local economy over one weekend, so we are expecting a lot more and hope long-term it will improve accommodation and make Brentwood a centre for cycling."

While the east has the advantage of proximity, some creative thinking is needed for north east England to benefit. Linda Ebbatson (Lab), vice-chair of the Association of North East Councils (ANEC), says the games would be "a wasted opportunity if only London and the south-east benefit".

She hopes the north east will attract some teams for preparation work, which she sees as "an opportunity to let more people know about the north east's best-kept secret, its quality of life".

ANEC sees a role for councils in encouraging the region's businesses to bid for supply contracts for the games, possibly by helping them to mount collective bids to exploit economies of scale. "It is happening, people are starting to think 'We can do this'," she says. "Local government can have a lot of input if we work together to encourage people to be less risk-averse.

The south-west has the advantage of the Olympic sailing events on its patch at Weymouth. Howard Legge (Lib Dem), Weymouth & Portland BC's cabinet member for corporate affairs and special projects, says the council hopes to bring new jobs in sailing and marine engineering to the area.

"This tends to be an area of high employment, but many jobs are low paid and house prices are high," he says. "Younger people leave for job opportunities, and we want them to stay."

One dispute has already arisen with LOCOG, which plans to accommodate sailing competitors on cruise ships, rather than in homes that could be used later by local people. "They have said that if we can come up with a sustainable housing legacy they will look at it, but LOCOG is a bit conservative and says they have always used ships," Cllr Legge says.

If anywhere should benefit from the games it is London, where elaborate plans have been laid for long-term regeneration, and skills training in construction and customer service.

Some at least of this effort is misdirected and misses those most in need, according to Dee Doocey (Lib Dem) chair of the London Assembly committee that scrutinises the games.

"LOCOG is not dealing with very deprived communities," she says. "I have been talking to organisations that deal with children with behavioural problems, former gang members and orphans, and they are being missed out. I think LOCOG really want to do something good, but they are just working with their mates. By that I don't mean that anything improper is happening, only that they are working with people they know and feel comfortable with, not with people outside that.

"All the money is going to traditional charities and large organisations and not to those who really need help, LOCOG just don't get it."

LOCOG's head of government relations Nicky Hughes, who admits she was "not exactly stampeded in the rush" at the LGA conference session, says each region has been left to decide how to work, so local government input consequently varies.

But she thinks councils are missing out on opportunities, whether through pressure of other priorities, or lack of knowledge of the possibilities.

"Local authorities are important, and not just around London but across the UK," she says. "When I talk to the LGA it is very clear that local government has woken up quite late in the day to the Olympics. The brutal reality is that councils have great deal to do and the games are 4-5 years away, so they have not given it priority, but there is now a lot of contact."

Ms Hughes answers Ms Doocey's criticisms by pointing out that LOCOG has a community engagement team "out and about in London almost every weekend, we are in touch with organisations and groups but it is not possible to speak to every one of them".

Engagement with local government is improving, and with last May's elections out of the way Scottish and Welsh councils have begun to get involved enthusiastically. Councils will only realise the Olympics' opportunities if they get involved now, and some at least look unlikely to win any medals.

Olympic Winners and losers

In terms of the lasting effects of the Olympics, the 1976 Montreal Games have haunted all subsequent events. It was a financial disaster that the city's taxpayers finished paying for only last year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sydney's 2000 games are the preferred model for a legacy.

According to a 2001 report for the New South Wales state government, the games yielded some 1.2bn in business investment, one-sixth of which was secured by local firms.

The equivalent of 2.6bn was invested in infrastructure developments and, less tangibly, there was a "greatly enhanced business profile for Sydney, New South Wales and Australia through the equivalent of up to A$6.1bn (2.6bn) worth of international exposure".

The report concluded that in the long term, "the benefits to business generated by the games in terms of skills, contacts, international awareness, partnering and investment, may come to be recognised as their most enduring legacy".

LOCOG will be happy if London can say the same.