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Armitt for the ODA?

Comment

So what next for John Armitt now that he has stepped down as Network Rail chief executive?

Well if I was David Higgins, chief executive of the Olympic Delivery Authority, I would be wasting no time before putting my case to my bosses that they batter down Armitt's door to bring him on board for London 2012.

As a Londoner and as a UK tax payer I can't think of anyone that I'd prefer to put my faith in to take over the role of ODA chairman left vacant in September by Jack Lemley.

Armitt is surely the man to deliver this incredibly complex and political project on budget - whatever that may be - and in time for the start of the London 2012 Games.

The bottom line is that a project like the London Olympics needs a chairman - a leader - with a strong political and delivery track record.

In contrast to Lemley, who has complained that political interference made his job impossible, Armitt is acutely aware that political interference - or political interest, call it what you will - is the name of the game when it comes to spending large amounts of public money.

Out of the frying pan into the fire it may be, but the same could be said of his move from Costain to Network Rail five years ago. Say what you like about the state of the UK railways - and they are not out of the woods yet - but they are in a much better shape today than they were when Armitt took over the helm of a beleaguered Railtrack in 2001.

In dealing with the industry Armitt has always been tough but fair. Deliver and there's money to be made. But as some have found to their cost, letting him down comes at a price.

He took radical action to change the culture on the railway. The result has seen safety improve and a billion pounds in efficiency savings. He has been bold and he has challenged existing practice.

But let's also be fair. His successor, deputy chief executive Iain Coucher has hardly sat around in the background. He has been a fundamental part of the team now transforming the railways and will be a confident and competent successor to take the company forward to meet the challenges of the future. And they will be signicant. In a post-Eddington world and a pre-Brown era it is very clear that getting hold of the kind of public cash put Network Rail's way of late will be increasingly tricky The Armitt legacy is the condence that the government now has in the railways. Network Rail is no longer a basket case. As far as the government is concerned, it is a safe pair of hands.

And it is a safe pair of hands that the government is looking for at the ODA. Higgins is already doing a very sound job in preparing to ground to deliver the games.

What is vital right now, particularly at this delicate stage just before the build really kicks off, is for the ODA to win government and public confidence.

Armitt would be an ideal person to do just that.

Of course we are in a hypothetical world here. Armitt insists that he has not been approached for the ODA job and insists that his mind is totally open to the opportunities that are ahead of him.

But as he says 'I would not rule anything in or anything out'.

If I was Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell I'd pick up the phone today to rule him in with an offer he can't refuse.

Antony Oliver is NCE's Editor

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