No legacy is so rich as honesty...West Ham supporters were not the only ones celebrating the Hammers’ victory in the Championship play-off final on Saturday, writes the Telegraph's Paul Kelso. The beleaguered London Legacy Development Corporation (the new name for the Olympic Park Legacy Company) and its political paymasters will also have been relieved as it should, in theory, make a viable solution to the Olympic Stadium saga more likely. Promotion means West Ham now only need to confirm approval from the Premier League for their proposed move to Stratford, rather than the Football League, which was proving far harder to convince. Among those cheering on the Hammers on Saturday was the Newham Council chief executive, Kim Bromley-Derry, who is ready to authorise the injection of £40 million of taxpayers’ money into the stadium project.
The LLDC rewrote the tender process last week for the third time in 18 months, and if you didn't know anything about this tortuous story you might have thought this was a response to a dramatic, late intervention from a big player offering a viable, long term alternative to West Ham - the first and only real credible long term tenant for the stadium. Unfortunately for the LLDC nothing could have been further from the truth. Primarily it is an attempt to try and avoid a challenge from Leyton Orient chairman Barry Hearn, which can only further damage the credibility of the officials and lawyers involved in the arduous process.
Hearn has objected to West Ham moving on the grounds that the club do not have permission from the Football League. West Ham have not applied for permission from the league board, which would have to feel it had the support of a majority of the 72 clubs before approving the switch to Stratford. Hearn has considerable influence on the Football League, and his argument that West Ham moving to within a mile of Brisbane Road will kill his club has support among owners of other small clubs. The Premier League, by contrast, has already given permission for West Ham’s move, though Orient are challenging that decision in an FA arbitration process. An irony not missed by Hearn’s camp is that West Ham are relying on some of the same arguments they deployed in objecting to Tottenham’s plans to move to Stratford.
West Ham's pointed failure to obtain permission from the Football League for their move to the Olympic Stadium- even though it was a clear requirement of the LLDC's Invitation to Tender (ITT)- was seemingly a calculated risk. Although privately some sources argue the legacy corporation should have made the requirement more flexible, it seems extraordinary, notes David Bond, that the club would either overlook or simply choose to ignore a clear requirement of the tender process. If the reason West Ham didn't go to the League for permission was because they already felt they had sufficient support for the move from Upton Park in the form of the backing of the Premier League, argues Bond, then one imagines a good lawyer wouldn't find it too difficult to make a case that the permission is required from the league in which the club was playing at the time the application went in, not at the time of the decision. The deadline for bids, of course, was back in March.
In any case West Ham were relying on a permission granted by the Premier League for the original bidding process back in 2011, which ran into the long grass following a legal challenge from Tottenham. On the question of the Football League's support at that time, it is understood West Ham received a letter from the competition's head of legal affairs Nick Craig which appeared to back up the Premier League's position.
The letter, dated 18 July 2011, says:
"The Football League board has been advised that the Premier League's decision would be highly relevant to its own deliberations and that a different decision would only be justified if there had been a material change of circumstances since the Premier League board decision."
West Ham might say there has been no "material change of circumstances". But the decision to terminate the deal with West Ham last autumn and take the stadium back into public ownership would seem like a pretty significant change of circumstances to the casual observer. Surely it would have been sensible for West Ham to go back to the Football League and seek approval for its move. It has been suggested that one of the reasons they didn't go back to them is that they knew Hearn would have used his support on the League's board to refuse permission and that may well be the case. More likely it was the League's requirement to have certainty over their fixtures which prevented them from giving their blessing. This is problematic because the legacy tender this time around was focused on getting a number of tenants to share a publicly owned stadium rather than one anchor tenant effectively taking charge of the venue.
Another problem which was overlooked in the legacy corporation's announcement last week was its requirement to clarify technical improvements to the stadium. Although it is the legacy corporation's responsibility to adapt the stadium from its 80,000 seater Olympics mode to its legacy configuration after the Games, it is up to the bidders to submit clear proposals as to how they want the stadium fitted out. It is understood that there are serious questions about West Ham's technical proposals and exactly how they would like to see the athletics stadium adapted for football.
London mayor Boris Johnson insists it is still "overwhelmingly likely" that West Ham will end up as tenants of the Olympic Stadium despite the latest delay to the error-strewn process of securing its long-term future. Two weeks ago the LLDC, which is responsible for finding a legacy solution and reports to Johnson, delayed the final decision for at least eight weeks, meaning no solution will be finalised until after the Olympics. It had originally been due to make a final decision about the stadium’s future on May 21, but insisted it still hoped to have the stadium reopen as scheduled in 2014. The LLDC denied that the new process, which includes new terms that give bidders more leeway over the stadium’s configuration, could see the running track removed after the 2017 World Athletics Championships. "The LLDC remains fully committed to retaining an athletics track within the Olympic Stadium for the lifetime of the concession agreement of up to 99 years," a spokesman said.
The LLDC, struggling to retain its credibility, has not simply restarted the entire process, but has also been forced to reopen bids to all interested parties. West Ham and the University of East London have been preparing offers to become tenants of the stadium, along with two other bidders, one of whom is thought to be event organiser Live Nation. They will now have to submit new bids in line with revised terms, and could face competition from the 12 interested parties who walked away from the process in March. The terms of the tender have been rewritten. Bidders will have more time to get permission for a move from their sport’s governing body, will have more latitude to make changes inside the stadium and can take part in naming-rights negotiations. All three changes appear designed to make it easier for West Ham to complete their bid successfully.
The Hammers have long been in pole position to take on the stadium, but have now twice been told to resubmit their bid because of legal challenges from others. There is huge frustration within the club's hierachy at the delays, but Johnson believes they will still end up occupying the arena from 2014. "I don’t think we should read too much into these delays,” he said. “It is very important to get all the legal nails hit squarely on the head so that the thing does not come unstuck. That is taking a bit of time. I still think it is overwhelmingly likely that there will be a footballing solution and that would be a good thing, but it is not in my view absolutely essential. I can envisage all sorts of other legacy solutions for the stadium.
“It is very important that it should be legally watertight, and if you look at the fate of stadiums around the world, look at Beijing and Athens, stadiums are the most difficult things to make sure you get a serious legacy proposition for. In London we are incredibly far advanced compared to other Olympic cities and it is important that we button it down, and that is what this process is about. This is a difficult process. This is a major piece of public infrastructure with big state aid implications that we are trying to transfer to commercial concerns and that is always going to evoke very complicated legal problems."
Johnson said he would consider negotiating directly with Hearn, but was not prepared to discuss on what terms. "There may or may not be a negotiation with Barry Hearn but I am not going to discuss it now," he said. "The point for me is that its is overwhelmingly likely that football will be part of the solution and it will open on time in October 2014." Sports minister Hugh Robertson ruled out spending public money to buy off Hearn’s objections. "You cannot use public money to make the problem go away. We would be forever reaching for the chequebook were that the case," he said.
If the London Mayor remains confident that a football club (ie West Ham) would still end up as the main tenant at the stadium after the Games, other senior figures are not ruling out the possibility of yet another rethink or a return to the 25,000 seater athletics "base case" which the venue was originally designed for in legacy mode. The departure of former OPLC chairman Baroness Margaret Ford and her replacement by the Mayor's close political ally Daniel Moylan and six new board members could lead to a completely fresh approach to the long running problem.
All of which leads back to where we started and the Hammers’ victory in the Championship play-off final on Saturday. Clearly this is not only a matter of obtaining permission from whichever League West Ham happen to be playing in, but is an issue of cold, hard cash. The truth is promotion to the Premier League has made West Ham's business case much more convincing. Remember, states Bond, this is a club with £91million of debts according to their 2011 accounts. Servicing interest payments on that lot plus an annual lease payment to the legacy corporation becomes much harder if you are still in the Football League. Promotion to the Premier League guarantees more than £30m a season making the annual rent much more comfortable. Time the move right and West Ham would also be able to reduce their debts by £20m through the sale of Upton Park.
Hammers Chairman David Gold reiterated yesterday that West Ham's move to the Olympic Stadium remains on course, despite showing some confusion with regards to the level of public support for it. Last month, Gold insisted that he had the backing of "70 per cent of our fan base", but in an interview with Talksport that figure had dropped by a substantial margin. "Our surveys suggest that better than 50 per cent of fans are wanting to go to the new stadium," he told the Breakfast Show. "Also, over the years, clubs that move to new stadiums and build new stadiums have always been successful in their move. They've always increased fanbase, it's always worked out. It's very hard to pick a move that's beeen a failure".
The latest independent poll on the move, conducted by campaign group WHU's View in April, resulted in 87 per cent of those polled voting against the move to Stratford. Their poll asked: "Based on all available information do you agree with West Ham United’s proposed move to the Olympic Stadium?" Of the 2,431 supporters asked before entering the stadium 13.4% said ‘Yes’, while 86.6% said ‘No’. The results have been sent to the LLDC, Mayor’s Office, FA, DCMS, and the club itself.
"There has been no widespread consultation or attempt to seek the views of the vast majority of supporters," a WHU View spokesperson said. "Prior to the initial bid in 2011, West Ham United invited comments from supporters by email, but there has been no publication of the views submitted, the number of emails received, nor any indication that supporters’ comments had been acted upon. West Ham United have relied upon a single meeting with 49 members of the Supporters Advisory Board (SAB) Olympic Group for ‘consultation’. At the SAB meeting on 23rd February 2012, the club presented some information about its bid for the Olympic Stadium. Those members present were required to sign a confidentiality agreement so were unable to discuss this with other supporters."
WHU View state the club appointed one SAB member to collate comments from supporters, but did not make a general request for feedback, for example a statement on its website. "Many fans are concerned that the club’s comments in the media with regards the level of support for a move have been made without consultation, ignores the SAB report, previous polls and as such may misrepresent the views of the majority of fans.” Meanwhile the most recent KUMB.com poll - conducted in February of this year - resulted in 60 per cent of supporters voting against the move to Stratford, with a further 17 per cent stating they were 'unsure'.
Last month West Ham United vice-chairman Karren Brady claimed fans who were presented detailed plans of the planned stadium move, were supportive of the idea. The club has previously denied the need for any public opinion survey, be it a poll run at Upton Park gates on matchdays or independent research within the club's fanbase. "We're very excited about the future of the Olympic Stadium and of course we don't want to move there as you see it now," revealed Gold yesterday. "We're all bound by rules not to discuss this but the hint is that there will be changes. You're not going to go into the stadium when the Olympics finish. There's a whole programme of changes [planned]."
An ebullient Sam Allardyce just wants the stadium tied up as quickly as possible. "I just feel it's an unbelievable stadium for the football club to move in there," he stated after Saturday's victory. "I know a lot of diehard West Ham fans would like to stay where we are but, believe you me, the way forward is to go to a venue like that. It would be like playing at Wembley every week. The atmosphere would be electric as long as it gets converted the right way."
Speaking on Sunday, David Sullivan insisted that if West Ham fans enjoyed their Wembley experience, they would 'like our new stadium'. "The similarities are amazing and, if we get the plan we want, it will be very special and our fans will be very proud of it," he said. "It will be great for East London. It's a wonderful stadium and if we are going to compete with Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea, Manchester United and Man City then we have to have a bigger stadium. And that is the aim. It might be five or six years away but I don’t think the aim is to survive every year and scrap along at the bottom and pray you have a cup run. There is a very big gulf to jump but that is what we must aim for. And once we get all the debt paid off, which we hope we can do in three or four years, we can then build a team to take on the bigger clubs. West Ham are coming again. The days of decline are finished."