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Olympic sporting legacy – whose responsibility ?

There has been no end of promises for a sporting legacy for London in the wake of the 2012 Games. But fine sentiments alone are not going to deliver it to future generations of Londoners, argues Kurt Barling, BBC London.

Queen Elizabeth Stadium in Enfield, north London, was built in the post Olympic glow of 1948. Officially inaugurated in 1953, the year of the Coronation, QE served many generations of school athletes. Local children of all ages, including myself, pitted themselves against their local peers. A few even went on to achieve athletic greatness. All this was provided and maintained out of local government revenues.

In recent years the stadium has begun to look tired and worn. Maintenance of the infrastructure has waned and many local people have begun to wonder if this reflects the commitment to keep young people involved in sport.

Last week, almost unnoticed, the athletics running track was closed after it failed a UK Athletics safety inspection. The future of the stadium has been hotly debated in recent months. Various local sporting outfits, football, rugby, athletics would like to use the venue but no agreement can be brokered without the participation of the local authority because it is their land and their responsibility to get the best value for money for local council tax payers. Enfield Council did tell BBC London that it is: “..committed to ensuring a viable future for the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium as a sports stadium and is currently consulting residents and the local sporting community about how they would want to use it in the future”.

Sport England has an online inventory of sports facilities around the country. In London it lists 21 athletics tracks including the QE stadium and the Barn Elms athletics track, managed by Richmond Upon Thames council. The latter is also under threat. As in Enfield, local people in Barnes have discovered that it has become less of a priority for maintenance. The council has said the only way to raise the investment funds needed to rejuvenate the facilities is by selling off some of the public land. The council has put on hold a sell-off plan in order that the local community can come up with £4 million pounds to save the playing fields and facilities for public use.

It is very difficult to see how a legacy can be created out of the Olympics when local decisions like these seem to pass under the radar of those supposedly responsible for building it. For this to happen there needs to be a cultural change. The new Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has appointed Kate Hoey MP as his Olympics adviser. It seems that if she is to come to grips with the legacy issue she will need to scrutinise on Londoners' behalf many of these decisions that are being taken at a local level.

Indeed the Mayor and his advisers already have within City Hall a document which maps out the scale of the problem. In May 2006 the Greater London Authority carried out an audit of playing fields in the capital and found that there were around 1500 in total. Most are owned and managed by local authorities on behalf of communities; many others are managed by clubs or private organisations. The report recognises that in the past five years the loss of playing fields has slowed down but that lack of access, safety and attractiveness of facilities will put people off using them. In these circumstances it becomes easier to justify selling off public land and facilities.

Talking last week to its author London Assembly Member Murad Qureshi he made the simple point that new ways of financing and managing public facilities will be needed if we are to preserve our publicly accessible sporting venues. For this to happen there needs to be genuine dialogue between those seeking a sporting legacy, those charged with managing it i.e. local authorities and those communities who will eventually benefit from them.

At the QE stadium in Enfield the council has no doubt taken advice that it must, for health and safety reasons, keep the public out. I understand that a local Athletics Partnership has sought to keep the facility open by offering to do the maintenance work that the council won’t do. That offer has, allegedly, been ignored. Seven local secondary schools canvassed for their views have said that the facility is a key part of their ability to deliver a sporting curriculum. They would like to see the facilities maintained for their use.

It is to be seen just how effective local consultation will be over the coming months. Based on this consultation, the plan is to have a range of proposals on the table by the autumn. These will then be put to the local decision makers who in turn have promised to let local people know what the choices are before finalising what should be done.

If an Olympic legacy is to be realised across the capital and beyond, then scrutinising these decisions and not just the building works at Stratford, will be crucial.

From: Sporting legacy – whose responsibility ? Kurt Barling, BBC London, 28 May 2008

More at: BBC London

See also: People doubt Olympic benefits

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