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Man who delivered 8.1bn Olympic Park
Published 13/08/12

AS hundreds of thousands of visitors enter the Olympic Park each day of the London Games, the man behind its construction looks on a job well done.

Sir David Higgins was chief executive of the Olympic Delivery Authority and was responsible for delivering the park on time and within the 8.1billion budget.

The 58-year-old Australian, who lives in Henley, was paid 395,000 a year to supervise the transformation of the 2.5 sq km site, which stretches across five London boroughs.

The former managing director of Lend Lease Group, the firm that built Sydney’s Olympic park, remained in place until February last year when he was appointed chief executive of Network Rail.

Sir David says: “I was first involved on the planning committee for the legacy of the Games in 2003 when I did some preliminary work on the site.

“Work properly started after the successful bid in July 2005, when the Government asked me to negotiate a complex land transaction with Stratford City and to do a land transfer of that so the masterplan could be designed.”

He was appointed to lead the project at the end of that year and his first job was to recruit staff and negotiate a budget with the Treasury. The budget had been set at a “robust” 2.4billion to build the venues and a further 1billion on “legacy”.

By 2007, the budget had soared to 8.1 billion.

Sir David was determined to provide value for money and avoid the problems of previous Olympics where control of costs and timetables have been lost.

In Athens in 2004, saplings were still being planted around the main stadium two days before the opening ceremony.

In his office on the 23rd floor of the Barclays Bank skyscraper in Canary Wharf there were wall charts that detailed the design, construction and schedule for each Olympic venue.

The plans also included the removal of 52 electricity pylons, the construction of an electricity sub-station, the laying of miles of underground power lines and the construction of numerous roads and bridges.

One of the biggest challenges was to co-ordinate not just the construction project but also the numerous stakeholders, ranging from local and regional government to the International Olympic Committee.

Sir David would publish a detailed breakdown of progress and deadlines on the budget to make the process open as well as motivate his team and the stakeholders to hit their targets.

He says: “There were so many stakeholders, funders, departments and local authorities so we had to come up with simple concepts. We had very complicated charts looking at all the requirements.

“I would come up with simple things. I would say to them, ‘seven years from the start of the Games to completing it. Two years planning, four years building and one year to test it’. It was two, four, one, something that all the politicians could remember.

“They would ask for an idea of the scale of the project and I would say ‘it is twice the size of [Heathrow] Terminal Five and we are building it in half the time’.

“We did a huge amount of prior planning because we couldn’t get control of the land for the first two years and a lot of people were starting to panic.

“In August 2006 independent experts said we couldn’t possibly finish it on time and a year for testing was ludicrous.

“The first few years were tough, particularly with all the big tunnelling going horribly wrong when burying the power lines. There was contaminated ground and we lost about 10 weeks.”

Work was also delayed when contractors uncovered an unexploded bomb, weighing about 1kg, left over from the Blitz.

Despite the setbacks, Sir David insisted on tackling the complex tasks by making them easily understood.

He says: “I came up with the concept that every year we would only assure 10 milestones and we would publish them a year in advance.

“If I thought we would miss any I would write a letter [to the stakeholders] and say that we were running the risk of missing so then decisions could be made.

“I would say ‘there are just 10 things this year and they are really important and if you don’t make these decisions with the stadium roof we will miss them’. It all made sense and worked very well.”

Sir David also set up a “scope document” detailing exactly what the plans were and how much they would cost.

“It was set up with the six different funders,” he says. “The Mayor, the National Lottery and Locog would see it and it would last for four years.

“If there was a dispute like ‘how come the roof was only two-thirds’ we would look at it and say, ‘if you wanted more of a roof you should have said something and we could have asked you for more money’.

“We had the best plan and we stuck to it and that’s why we were more than 1billion under budget.”

Sir David took a hands-on role in the design of the “Big Five” venues — the main stadium, aquatic centre, velodrome, athletes’ village and media centre — and there were many changes.

“The original concept was very different,” he says. “There were a lot more temporary venues on the site.

“The volleyball is now at Earls Court and the fencing and boxing is at the Excel centre when originally they were going to be on the park, which would have made it a lot more expensive. We made agreements to use them and that was a big win.

“Having negotiated the deal with Stratford City, we were able to move the village into the middle of the site and the velodrome across the road.

“Much of the site was going to be huge bridges and permanent walls but in its final state the park has much smaller and thinner bridges, saving a huge amount of money. Also the roof of the aquatic centre is a third of the size that it was going to be.

“Every Friday for a couple of years I would bring in all the individual design teams and we would review the designs. It is all about attention to detail.”

When the Olympic Stadium was completed, one critic called it “tragically underwhelming” and another like “a bowl of blancmange” and not a national icon like the stadium in Beijing for the 2008 Games.

Sir David responds: “It was a national monument in Beijing but London didn’t need a national stadium — it has Wembley and the stadium didn’t need to compete with that.”

He points out the feedback he received was largely positive.

Sir David says: “I think everyone loves the velodrome as it reflects the sport and also the curves of the aquatic centre, which the head of the IOC loved when he saw it.

“The stadium I love for its functional simplicity. It has to cover a lot of functions — it needed to be built as an athletics centre and also for the opening and closing ceremonies. It is very light and you can see through it. It works.”

The London Games organisers learned from the mistakes of other Olympic host cities, which built venues only to find no use for them after the event.

Sir David, who used to run the regeneration agency English Partnerships and received his knighthood in 2011, says: “The most important thing is the whole community development. There are three million people living in east London and the only place they can shop is west London.

“If you got a government job, there were no grade A office facilities in east London, so no Whitehall jobs east of Tower Bridge, but the future of the community is office buildings and hotels and residential in the village and all that works incredibly well.”

The media centre, originally planned to be temporary, will be converted into accommodation for knowledge-economy companies. Likewise the aquatics centre has been scaled back from 17,500 seats to 2,000.

After the Olympics, the park will be known as Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to mark the diamond jubilee.

Sir David is proud of what was achieved. “It was a great job,” he says. “The people I worked with were brilliant and such fun.

“I was going in there the other day and saw all the wild flowers whereas in Beijing and Sydney there was a lot of stone. You can be at the park with a couple of thousand people and go to the edge and sit with the wildlife.

“In England, people love their gardens and visitors can come to the Olympic Park and see the wetland and hear birds tweeting.”

Sir David, who is married with two grown-up children, attended the opening ceremony and thought it was “amazing”.

He insists he was as thrilled to see Great Britain’s gold medal haul as he was when fellow Australian Cathy Freeman dominated the world in the 400m. “I love it all,” he says.

Published 13/08/12

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