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A Bankrupt Field of Dreams

The fraught disputes over how best to recoup the high construction and maintenance costs of the London Olympic stadium conform to a pattern previously seen elsewhere in England and abroad. The story of the Don Valley stadium in Sheffield provides a cautionary tale of how the visionary delusions of ambitious politicians end up ruining the chances of ordinary people gaining adequate access to affordable opportunities for healthy recreation.

“The 25,000-seat stadium, which was built to host the World Student Games in 1991 at a cost of £29 million and is the second largest athletics venue in Britain after the Olympic Stadium, will close in September and is set to be bulldozed to make way for medical research facilities.

Sheffield’s Labour-run City Council said it had no choice but to axe the loss-making stadium due to spending cuts imposed on it by the Coalition Government. The venue costs £700,000 a year to run and the council said it was also facing a £1.6 million repair bill.”
Simon Hart, Daily Telegraph, 2 March 2013,

Sheffield used to be called Steel City because of the important role of steel making and cutlery manufacturing in its thriving economy for over 300 years. A tradition brutally curtailed by the export of investment from British manufacturing and the crushing of the miners encouraged by the Thatcher government of the 1980s. The subsequent dereliction of brownfield Sheffield, accompanied by high rates of unemployment, came to be seen as offering devalued sites ripe for development projects in the emerging leisure economy.

In the second half of the eighties, when there was a credit driven upturn, the idea of staging a major athletics event in Sheffield emerged amongst local Labour politicians and businessmen as a ‘catalyst’ for regeneration. Richard Caborn, born and educated in the city was the Labour Member of Parliament for Sheffield Central from 1983 to 2010. In the late eighties he was the shadow Labour spokesman for regional policy and attacked the Thatcher government for failing to support a proposal to hold the 1991 World Student Games in the city. He said in Parliament that that it would be three times bigger than the Commonwealth Games, and would make a regenerated Sheffield a "window on the world".

The city council set up an arms length company, Universiad GB Ltd. to organize the event. The £147m cost of building the Don Valley stadium (£30m; figures vary) and other facilities necessary to host the Games consisted largely of money which, like the London Olympics, was diverted from other projects. Optimism bias in evaluating the project costings and under-rating the management skills necessary for delivering such a large and complex project to a tight deadline bedevilled the scheme from the outset.

John Cornwell, a former senior local Labour politician, who worked for the organizing company, later described his involvement as;

"a painful experience of being involved right up to the neck." Amid the shambles of over ambitious plans together with chaotic management, both the finance director and chief executive left and an estimated 55 staff quit over two years – "an attrition rate that was worse than Bomber Command".

In 2011 Mike Corden, chair of City of Sheffield Athletic Club said,

“We have the best athletics facilities in the UK but, if you asked me as a taxpayer whether the amount spent was a good idea, the answer has to be no. The scale for Don Valley was beyond belief and the construction cost, around £30m, eye-watering. At the time, Crystal Palace in London was the largest venue, holding 17,000 people but Don Valley was built to hold 25,000. You can’t get 5,000 or 6,000 people to an athletics event these days. It is reasonable to ask why such an amount of debt was taken on,”

From 2008 until 2012 the stadium was the temporary home for Rotherham United Football Club. But since their gates would amount to between 3,000 – 4,000 per match it always looked empty.

A Rotherham United game at the Don Valley stadium. Source: Gibbo's 92A Rotherham United game at the Don Valley stadium. Source: Gibbo's 92

After the Student Games were over it has been a constant drain on Sheffield Council to meet the costs of running and maintaining the venue and paying down the immense costs of servicing the ballooning debt repayments.

Andrew Allison, of the The Taxpayers Alliance, wrote two years ago;

“Twenty years on – and after refinancing – the initial cost of building works (£147 million) has risen to £650 million, with less than half (£296 million) having been paid off…..and it is estimated this debt will not be paid off until 2024.”
Andrew Allison Taxpayers Alliance, 28 March 2011.

Richard Caborn, while serving as Minister for Sport in the Blair government from the June 2001 election to June 2007, continued to support conflicted sports funding policies. Like the removal of £1.5bn from National Lottery funding to make up the expanding shortfall from available financing for the Olympics and simultaneously promoting sports for schools projects whose funding has kept vanishing.

He remains committed to the idea of building the project of Sheffield as a City of Sport.

“With Don Valley Stadium set for demolition, former Sheffield MP, Sports Minister and Trade Minister Richard Caborn laid out a strategy this week designed to uphold the reputation of the City of Sport.

This is an economic wealth generation project which would take the Don Valley Stadium site from being under-utilised to becoming an economic driver. It also builds on the large critical mass of activity around medical technology. More than 200 companies in the Sheffield City Region feed into this global market worth a projected £300bn.

Jobs? Up to 940. Cost? The former Labour politician, an architect of the 1991 World Student Games, estimated it at one-fifth of converting the Olympic Stadium for new sports uses, about £40m. Even so, he admitted they were only his figures and had been “drawn up on the back of a fag packet”.
Sheffield Telegraph 14 March 2013

Oh Dear!

See also: Regeneration of Anfield

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