Olympic hammer

A coalition of supporter groups, including the Dons Trust, have been pressing for the public release of details of the deal behind West Ham United’s move to the Olympic Stadium. Their campaign has had a successful outcome, as Kevin Rye (Coalition Campaign Manager) and Neil Springate (Fulham Supporters Trust) report.

The protracted saga that led to the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) accepting the second bid by West Ham United to be the primary tenant at the Olympic Stadium in 2013 is now history. However, the content of the arragement – or rather its largely “rumoured” content – remained highly contentious.

As you would expect, there were those who attempted to present the move as broadly popular and a good deal for the taxpayer, but from the moment the ink dried on the deal, the LLDC fell largely silent, repeatedly refusing a proper inspection of the deal by the very public that funded the stadium.

And so was born the Olympic Stadium Coalition. It began as a campaign that emerged from the Charlton Athletic Supporters Trust, and specifically one of its directors, Richard Hunt, and was joined early on by the Leyton Orient Fans Trust. It grew into an informal grouping of 14 supporters’ trusts from clubs concerned about how the deal might affect the competitive balance of the Premier League, including those at Norwich City, Everton and Leicester City, and also those on the doorstep of the stadium, such as Leyton Orient and Charlton Athletic, or in the wider London region, as was the case with the Dons Trust.

The Coalition’s primary aim has been to seek full publication of the financial terms of the contract agreed between the LLDC and West Ham United, a goal that was achieved just a couple of weeks ago.

Since 2014, Hunt had been pursuing a Freedom of Information request on the grounds that the LLDC, which controls the Olympic “assets”, such as the stadium, swimming pool, cycling track and other arenas, is a public body, and so is directly responsible to the Mayor of London, and that the public therefore had a legitimate interest in the deal. The then Labour Culture, Media and Sport Shadow Secretary, Chris Leslie, and others backed calls for a public enquiry to get the deal out in the open, and the public rallied: a petition to Parliament achieved 25,000 signatures in the space of a week.

Various versions of the contract were released to Hunt in dribs and drabs, but most details of real interest were redacted, making it impossible to work out whether it was a good or a bad deal for the taxpayer. The actual rental cost was withheld, as were other important details.

The Coalition had itself established an efficient lobbying campaign. It got questions asked in Parliament and put to other potentially relevant public bodies, and it had a unanimous Greater London Assembly demanding answers. Gareth Thomas MP wrote to the National Audit Office to demand an investigation into the public subsidy being granted to a Premier League club, while Tom Brake MP asked questions of John Whittingdale MP, the Secretary of State for Sport. Sections of the media – particularly the BBC and the Guardian – kept the issue in the public eye, the BBC carrying out an in-depth investigation.

Hunt and the Coalition asked the Information Commissioner (who rules on these issues initially) to order full publication of the commercial terms of the agreement. This request was granted in September last year; predictably, the LLDC appealed against the ruling. Eventually, on 11 April, a tribunal rejected the LLDC’s appeal in full, and just three days later the entire agreement was released.

So what now? We know now that West Ham United will pay just £2.5 million in rent each year, but the full agreement runs to 207 pages and we need time to digest it and work out the costs – both financial and otherwise – to the taxpayer and to football in particular. Our campaign has shown that supporters, when organised, focused and willing to work together to achieve a collective goal, can win, and win big. We’d like to thank the Dons Trust, owners of AFC Wimbledon, for their substantial contribution to that victory.

 

This article originally appeared in the matchday programme for the game against Leyton Orient, played on Saturday, April 23, 2016.

 

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