OPINION PIECE: The Shaded Side of the Olympic Stadium

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The future of the Olympic Stadium has been in and out of the news since the deal between West Ham and the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) was signed. As the body formally charged with overseeing the Olympic Park, and accountable to the elected Mayor of London - now Sadiq Khan - its responsibility has been to secure the future of the stadium itself as a facility not just fit for Premier League football, athletics and other uses.

This ‘legacy’ use has been where things have begun to go wrong, because it was during the Mayorality of the always controversial Boris Johnson that the deal was signed for West Ham to occupy the stadium. Although there were problems in terms of the process that led to this arrangement - and some would argue that The Premier League has a case to answer that it failed to properly scrutinise the move using the powers in the handbook introduced after Wimbledon’s franchising to Milton Keynes.

The same goes for the members of the Olympic Stadium Coalition, brought together initially around a group comprising the Charlton Athletic and Leyton Orient supporters’ trusts, and latterly joined by another twelve supporters’ trusts from clubs as wide as Manchester United, Aston Villa, and The Dons Trust, owners of AFC Wimbledon. All of these groups were concerned at the silence around the deal, and more tellingly, the desire to keep the terms away from the public. The Charlton Athletic Supporters Trust was the first to begin to ask questions, and the groups that pursued this simply wanted the truth to be published.

The suspicion was always that the occupation of the stadium was being done on terms that weren’t just favourable, but potentially meant a significant subsidy from the London taxpayer to a club in receipt of £100m a year just for being a member of The Premier League.

So it was that the Coalition pushed for publication, using the important Freedom of Information Act (FOI) that provides for the right for members of the public to know information about the decisions of government.

There have been several major challenges with this campaign: one has been to navigate the sometimes tiring and wearing attempts to prevent the release of information under FOI; the second, ensuring that such a diverse range of groups can be accommodated; and arguably, ensuring that the campaign itself doesn’t become something seen as an ‘anti-West Ham United’ one. The FOI route has taken time, and involved multiple requests, eventually leading to a tribunal which found in favour of one of the stalwarts and brains behind the idea, Richard Hunt, a board member of the Charlton Athletic Supporters Trust, who applied for the case to be heard. Ensuring that all groups have remained onboard has been less of a problem, because with a campaign of this sort, it always falls on a few in the group to coordinate it effectively, and that’s the route that the campaign has taken. The ‘core group’ of activists has done the lion’s share of the work over the past few years. The final challenge - that of ensuring that the campaign remains focused on its core aim of ensuring that the result of what it does leads to a fairer financial deal for the taxpayer and therefore for football both in London and across England - has been relatively easy. All those involved have seen the important point that the campaign is seeking to make, and are content that the rivalry between clubs belongs on the pitch, not off it. 

So where is the campaign now? We’ve taken it through the FOI process, and achieved publication of the deal, which was one of our main aims. Having done that, we aimed to get the deal scrutinised by a competent public body. 

The original idea of seeking what’s known as a full ‘Public Enquiry’ would have been too much of a challenge, even for us. Trying to persuade senior politicians to appoint such an enquiry when two of those who would be investigated as part of it were influential government figures (Lady (Karren) Brady and Boris Johnson) - not to mention the actual phenomenal cost of such an process - was a non-starter. As a result, we were content for it to be an inquiry conducted under the auspices of a ‘competent public authority’. So it was that Sadiq Khan appointed solicitors Moore Stephens to investigate the deal, a report which was published at the end of last year. We believe that it is in part down to the strength and determination of our arguments, and our campaigning for such an investigation, that helped to lead to it. (You can read a summary of the key points of the inquiry via our website.)

Now, we’re at a stage where it’s about seeking to ensure that the main aim of the campaign is met: to ensure West Ham United pay an increased contribution to the running costs of the stadium, and the taxpayer pays less. West Ham do have an extraordinarily generous settlement, paying a net annual rent (the matchday overheads that other clubs pay but which they don’t, for example stewarding, ticket office staff, pitch maintenance…and famously, the corner flags) of around £200,000 a year - a drop in the ocean, compared even to some clubs in League One and Two. 

This can’t be fair, and Sadiq Khan, now at least politically in charge of things now, is seeking to find a way to ‘rebalance’ the deal away from the taxpayer. There is a lot of work behind the scenes with a campaign like this, and most of it is political. The Coalition is now focusing on its work with Greater London Assembly AMs and others, seeking to persuade them to support shifting the burden away from the taxpayer. 

Whether this happens and to what extent will, in the end, will be the measure of the success of this campaign. 

Written by Mat Roper, Leyton Orient Fans Trust, part of the Olympic Stadium Coalition

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