The success of the 2012 London Olympic Games was a triumph for the nation, underpinned by the collective efforts of a largely unsung, yet none the less heroic UK construction industry.
When International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge stood up in Singapore on 6 July 2005 to announce that London had won the right to host the 2012 Olympic Games it was, for many, something of a surprise.
For those in the infrastructure design, construction and transport planning world it was, in fact, a bit of a shock. Ahead were major opportunities and major challenges - a once in a lifetime chance beckoned and under the global glare, failure was not an option.
“The most important thing was never physical things; the most important thing was always people”
David Higgins, Olympic Delivery Authority
Paris had long been the front running city. London had, after all, come very late to the competition to host the 2012 Games. Yet driven on by enthusiasm from then prime minister Tony Blair - a confessed sports enthusiast - culture secretary Tessa Jowell and London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who saw the regeneration potential for east London, a very credible bid had been assembled.
Under the expert and well connected guidance of Sebastian Coe, patronage of Prince William and the support of footballing superstar David Beckham, the stars aligned, the votes were won and the clock started ticking towards a July 2012 deadline.
Once the celebration of what Blair describe as “a momentous day” for Britain subsided, the scale of the constructing the necessary infrastructure and preparing the city for such a massive global event quickly became apparent.
So too did the inadequacy of the £2.3bn budget quoted in the bid and the higher £4.1bn budget assumed at the time. The masterplan prepared by Edaw with Buro Happold, Atkins and Arup was bold and included a great deal of redevelopment opportunity - opportunity that clearly required much more infrastructure investment than had been first anticipated.
The birth of project client the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) introduced reality and after two years of haggling the £9.3bn public sector funding package was agreed and work to prepare the stage could start.
“The client understanding and being clear with the supply chain about what it is he wants - and why - is absolutely critical”
John Armitt, Olympic Delivery Authority
The arrival of David Higgins to lead the ODA as chief executive at the end of 2005, followed a year later by construction grandee John Armitt as chairman, gave the project a real delivery focus, a focus sharpened with the appointment of the CH2M Hill/Laing O’Rourke/Mace (CLM) joint venture as delivery partner.
“Agreeing the budget is very important,” said Higgins in early 2007 as he submitted planning proposals to redevelop the 246ha site in east London and create the infrastructure to host the 2012 Olympic Games.
“But the most important thing is that the budget is transparent. I am very aware that it is public money we are spending,” he added.
The question, he said, will be “is the work finished in a mad shambles and costing a fortune or in an orderly and planned fashion?”
The five years of construction that followed, taking the project up to the spectacular opening ceremony, demonstrated that it was possible to deliver the latter. The work involved a wide spectrum of the UK’s construction supply chain starting with the masterplanning and design professionals, demolition and decontamination of the Olympic Park site, through to the relocation in underground tunnel of overhead electricity cables, programme management, venue design and construction, environmental assessment, transport infrastructure and logistics planning.
£9.3bn -Value of public spending package for the 2012 Games
246ha -Size of the Olympic Park
7 years -Time from award of 2012 Games to opening ceremony
It was a very testing time for every part of the planning design and construction team. And as ODA chairman John Armitt pointed out just before the Games kicked off last summer, it was also hugely testing for the client. “The role of the client cannot be underestimated,” he said. “Clearly you have to have competent people delivering for you, but the client understanding and being clear with the supply chain about what it is he wants - and why - is critical.”
As has been repeatedly pointed out, to successfully conceive, plan construct and commission over £9bn worth of infrastructure in just seven years - and finish on time - is unprecedented. To then also be able to hand back £476M to the Treasury and finish nearly £1bn below budget was extraordinary.
Clearly, staring down the barrel of an immovable date to start this global sporting event helped and, as Armitt has often pointed out since, “If you haven’t got one on your project then create one”.
It was also highly unusual for a project of this nature to have such a high degree of consistent political cross party support. It is this factor, plus the equally clear vision by all from the start to create not just the greatest Olympic Games ever witnessed but also a long lasting social and economic legacy for the nation that really stands out as the driver for success.
In its recent report “Making the Games”, the Institute for Government (IfG) highlights just these points as key to the success of the project.
“A unifying vision was needed to bring together the different motivations for holding the Games in London,” says the report. “The vision allowed focus on a common goal, supported by a range of tangible subsidiary objectives.”
Political leadership, IfG’s second key “building block for success”, was “a precondition of the Games happening and, as in other major public sector projects, a potential source of risk”.
Not that the project has been without its share of politics, particularly in the early days as the ODA found its feet after the bid was won. As the scheme was shaped, first by the Greater London Authority and Transport for London under the watchful eye of Olympics minister Tessa Jowell, tensions over scope, budget and control eventually prompted the controversial departure of the ODA’s first chairman Jack Lemley in late 2006.
The IfG report identifies five other key success factors including the need to get the institutional design and governance right; the need to get the right people working on the project - including perhaps paying high salaries; ensuring the budget was transparent and deliverable; placing delivery in the hands of those best placed to handle it; and properly managing the project risk and scrutiny.
As Armitt pointed out last year, success meant getting the project set up correctly right at the beginning - a willingness to spend time and money at the front end to hone down with the designers what was wanted and why it was wanted.
Many of the lessons drawn from the London 2012 project can and should be applied to future projects, the IfG report concludes. This will help to ensure that, like the Games, every public project is remembered for the right reasons.
As Armitt put it: “The excitement of the individual sports is transitory - London will not be remembered for a particular gold medal but for the overall success. We want people to remember London as the greatest Games ever.”