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John Armitt interview: 'We will finish this on time'

With four years left to get venues, transport and facilities ready for the start of the London 2012 Games, ODA chairman John Armitt is upbeat about progress, budget and the challenges ahead.

With the Beijing 2008 Games about to start and the ODA reporting on its Milestones to Beijing and setting its next milestones at the start of the 'Big Build', London 2012 suddenly seems not very far away at all. Yet ODA chairman John Armitt tackles the "are you going to be ready in time" question in his trademark calm and measured manner.

Click here for Guide to the 2012 Olympic Park during the London 2012 Olympic Games

"We are exactly where we thought we would be at this stage of the project and have met virtually all the milestones we set a year ago. There are big challenges ahead but we have solid foundations in place. As always with any programme there are bits that are ahead of the line and bits that are behind the line," he explains after a moment of thought.

He continues: "There is nothing significant behind programme and we are three months ahead of programme with the stadium. We have started construction early on the Aquatics Centre, work has started on 30 new bridges that will connect the disjointed area during the Games and in legacy and we are on track to switch power underground so that this autumn the pylons that have historically scarred the area can start to be removed."

Clearly, amid the constant media attention and speculation over precisely how the ODA is progressing and whether or not there is the time or skills for all the venues to be built, Armitt is able to maintain a sense of proportion about the real priorities.

"No one has ever not completed their Olympic park [in time for the Games]," he says. "People love to report last-minute scrambles, but in my mind there has never been any doubt that we will finish in time. The challenge is to do it at the right budget, not overspend to achieve that completion."

Keeping on top of the Ł9.3bn budget is crucial, he says, pointing out that spending plans are now reviewed every quarter to keep a constant check on where the potential savings lie and, of course, where any overspend might be.

"In the event that there are any cost increases that we see as non-recoverable then we have to go to the government and get a release of contingency," he says, referring to the Ł2bn pot that has been set aside for overspend. "So far we have not sought any release of contingency, but clearly we are not immune to the impact of the credit crunch and the deteriorating property market."

The reality for Armitt is that at this stage in the programme, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for cost saving and more and more opportunities for costs to rise. With construction activity on the vital venues and facilities starting and major infrastructure contracts let, the time for change is running out.

For example, the recent saving from reorganising venues for handball and basketball and moving fencing out of the park took nine months to plan and approve. Coming up with similar high-value savings will, he says, be difficult as there is less time available.

That is not to say further changes won't be required to the 2012 plans, not least due to the so-called "Beijing factor". Lessons from the Games in Beijing may cause a rethink of designs or operations even at this late stage.

Armitt's role will be to ensure that any changes that are proposed at this stage are made with a full understanding of the consequences. "For people who don't understand construction I am trying to bring a greater understanding of the construction process and the risks and the capacity of the industry," he says "I am trying to give people confidence in the industry to deliver.

"In the immediate term the biggest challenge is building things on time and to budget - that is what we are there to do," he insists.

That said, controlling costs in the current global economic situation will not be easy - underlined by developer Lend Lease's ongoing problems in securing funding for the Athletes' Village.

The rising oil price is a source of uncertainty and a potential source of cost hikes - and something Armitt knows he must try to mitigate.

"Our key materials such as cement and steel are very energy driven and that must be a concern," he says. "Where we can forward buy we are forward buying." Hence talks are already well under way with Olympic Stadium contractor Sir Robert McAlpine and steel fabricator Watson Steel to see what materials can be ordered now and fabricated in advance and similar discussions are ongoing across the site.

An economic downturn could impact in some areas, but may take some pressure off resources in the industry Đ particularly labour.

While labour supply isn't a problem now, Armitt is aware that finding 20,000 people across the site in the next couple of years will present problems. "We need a very conscious approach by all our contractors and suppliers to take in untrained people and provide them with training and opportunity," he says, adding: "From what I have heard so far it is happening."

This is just one aspect of the Games legacy that Armitt stresses still remains top of the agenda in London. Not least since new mayor Boris Johnson has underlined the need for the 2012 Games to bring lasting change to many rundown parts of the capital.

"From the mayor's perspective it is the legacy that matters," says Armitt. "Here is an opportunity to deliver the kind of regeneration that would otherwise take decades to bring about."

Total budget for the London 2012 Olympic Games

4 years
Until the Games take place in the UK

Number of new bridges on site that work has started on

Armitt is also acutely aware that getting the 2012 show ready on time is the absolutely crucial part of his job. That means handing over venues and infrastructure to organiser LOCOG in time for testing in 2011.

"After getting quickly out of the blocks, the project has made a solid start and is on a firm footing. There are big challenges ahead, however I'm confident that together with the UK construction industry, we will deliver," says Armitt.

"People love to report last-minute scrambles, but in my mind there's never been any doubt we will finish on time"

Here is an opportunity to deliver regeneration that would otherwise take decades to bring about

10 milestones for July 2009

Almost all of the Olympic Park cleared and cleaned. Overhead pylons removed and erection of the new perimeter security fence under way.

2 Seven bridges structurally complete, 10 further bridges and underpasses under construction and the building of the permanent roads started. Refurbishment of the waterways in the Olympic Park complete.

3 The new primary substation at Kings Yard substantially complete, with the new equipment also in place to transmit permanent power to the Olympic Park from the wider national network.

4 The foundations of the Olympic Stadium complete. Work on the upper seating
structure and roof under way.

5 Foundations of the Aquatics Centre complete with work on the building's structure well under way.

6 Work started on the foundations of the Velodrome and International Broadcast Centre/Main Press Centre.

7 Contracts let, designs agreed and work about to start on the Handball Arena. The design of the Basketball Arena agreed, and the process of appointing construction contractors started.

8 Building work started on the majority of the Olympic Village plots.

9 Significant progress made on the transport projects needed to support the Games.
Of the 25 started, 13 will be
nearing completion.

10 Outside of London ODA work at Weymouth and Portland complete and ready for use. Construction work also under way on the Broxbourne White Water Canoe Centre.

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