Wednesday, March 07, 2007

PAC On Olympics Nightmare

How can he stand it?
On Monday I attended the first ever Public Accounts Committee on the looming 2012 Olympics disaster.

If by some mischance you're ever tempted to attend the PAC, the one thing you need to know is that, although it's held in a very grand Parliamentary committee room- Committee Room 15, overlooking the Thames- there aren't actually enough seats to go round. Even worse, when it comes to the off, we taxpaying punters are held back til last.

The departmental civil servants there to "support" the "witnesses" get let in first. For the Olympics there were at least 30 of them. Then the journos, who have special reserved seats but spread themselves around all over. So when they finally let us punters in, there's a no-holds-barred musical chairs style scramble for the two bench perches left over.

You wouldn't like it.

Anyway, on Monday I posed as a civil servant, schlepped in, and grabbed a bench.

On the agenda was the first of a planned series of National Audit Office reports on the whole slow-motion train crash. On the rack were Jonathan Stephens, the new DCMS Perm Sec (successor to the unfortunate Dame Sue), and David Higgins (pic), Chief Exec of the Olympic Delivery Authority.

Both men played brazenly straight bats, with ex-Treasury Stephens in particular showing the sort of brass neck Sir Humphrey would have been proud of.

Not very much new, but just for the record:

  • Management structure- this is a bureaucratic quagmire, with no single individual in charge. Instead we have the mush of an Olympics Board supposedly holding the ring between central government, Mayor Ken, and the IOC. It is the classic recipe for muddle, delay, and wild, wild overspending.

  • Budget- why was there no proper budget? Stephens said repeatedly "this is the first opportunity we've had to review the costs in the light of actually winning the Games". Er... what!? As the PAC chairman noted, without a proper budget before bidding, taxpayers have been sold "a pig in a poke".... another one.

  • Open-ended commitment- Higgins made clear that his client is the International Olympics Committee, and he waxed lyrical about how expert they are. But they are a very particular type of client- they can demand whatever they want, but they don't have to pay. We poor schmucks have to pay, and under the terms of the deal, our Simple Shopper government has underwritten the whole shebang. Whatever the IOC wants.
So far, so bad.
We've got another 5 years to run, and I fancy these regular PAC 2012 meetings are going to get a whole lot more interesting.

PS Higgins at least came across as someone who sounded like he might be able to run an Olympics construction project: he's ex-Lend Lease, the big Aussie property group, and he was centrally involved in building the Sydney Olympics (biog here). But (a) he's clearly going to insist on a proper do-able budget (ie a BIG BUDGET), and (b) will he be able to stand working for our hopeless backsliding buck-passing politicos? Jack Lemley couldn't.

PPS Interesting interview with Sir Christopher Gent- ex-head of Vodafone, Chairman of GlaxoSmithKline and all-round top man- in which he calls for a referendum on whether the whole fiasco should just be stopped. Can we do stuff like that? Why weren't we told sooner?

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