Our advisers know the cost of failure and the value of delay. We were warned as early as 2000 by UK urban expert Paul Teschner that London’s Olympics would not go ahead. They began carefully considering the risks of staging something that, globally, was unparalleled. They concluded: that the risk could be managed, but that there would be costs attached and wouldn’t be as attractive an event as originally envisioned. What the planners of the 2013 Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London have now found is that the risk of not staging anything is far higher, about 40 per cent. The bad news from their water reclamation plant on the banks of the River Lea isn’t just the number of people said to have died since summer last year due to sewage overflows and faulty equipment. It’s that they really did not have a plan.
Beijing, long roused to the threat of water shortages, still struggles to cope with pollution
Our assessment of public attitude towards the Olympic park has lately shifted from apocalyptic warnings to more cautious concern about events unfolding. At what costs, those who live and work there ask, and is there actually going to be something there? There are stormy seasons ahead, and very few guarantees. Except of course that it’s a lot of fun being there, seeing the world through your own eyes and learning to do it all again. The same can be said of the spending “experiment” in Edinburgh, Bristol and Newport.
It is astonishing how quickly our public sector planners – like their private sector counterparts in many places in the world – have abandoned any desire to plan for the future with the level of rigour that produced sustainable development, business plans and business models for national lottery projects.
As if planning for the future is not enough, so is the daily burden of the “worst of both worlds”, of being frantically in the eye of the storm and unable to relax a muscle. Boris Johnson and Ed Miliband have been eager to tell us that Labour was on top of modernisation, business and the economy when they were in government and that under Conservatives things got worse. I wouldn’t like to be just about to draw attention to a quiet success story, London’s growing prosperity. The consequences of abandoning planning, or the distrust of planning at work here, means that the private sector has been sitting on its hands, worried about potential investments in the city that it has dubbed “small and slow”. Sadly, the very story that so many believe in (rebuilding London) is impotent unless we are prepared to alter public attitudes. This is all starting to dawn on the Conservative leadership.
Some of us have been reading what they seem to regard as a personal letter to Philip Hammond in July by an unnamed coalition colleague in response to the chancellor’s refusal to let it die. “I wonder if you’re the kind of Conservative who expects policies such as these to be handed down from on high.”The Conservative shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, called the letter a “sign of the times” for Tory MPs who care about the future of the party and the country. There is much of that, certainly in response to Brexit.
A government that understands the importance of planning for the future could have picked up lessons from Beijing, where seven of the 13 times that the quantity of water in the river network fell since its opening to the public in the 1980s has been from persistent pollution of the waters that would normally have provided it. Beijing remains a proud and a beautiful place, but only after tremendous effort and loss of time and money. The Chinese construction team for London – run by a Swedish firm, Ström Larsson – learned lessons from Beijing and they’ve quickly redeveloped the abandoned Olympic park. They could have managed the reclamation plant at an estimated cost of $100m (£75m) back in 2013. Instead, four years on, the cost has ballooned to $750m. Whatever they decide to do about it, it won’t be as attractive as they hoped. It may take more than three decades for them to get it right, and then it may not be as profitable as they thought. Their approach was simple: put the tube in first, we’ll put the water in second. It was shortsighted. We shouldn’t just get caught in the centre of the rabbit hole, but look outwards.
• Bruce Arthur is the Guardian’s environment correspondent