Beyond the Games
I have formed a uniquely bad habit. I miss Olympic parties on a hemispheric scale. I was in London when Sydney was dazzling the world with the best Olympics of the modern era and I am in Sydney while London ups the ante. I blame my Aussie mrs for these misses. She seduced me to stay in London in 2000 when I’d had every intention of enjoying the Sydney party and brought me to live here recently when I was gearing up for the 2012 knees-up in London’s East End where I not only lived but where I’d spent much of the previous fifteen years working for the renewal of East London, helping to bring the Olympics there along the way. It’s all about timing at this level.
The good news? I get to celebrate Sydney’s extraordinary contribution to both the 2012 Games and the Olympic legacy for East London as the Chief Executive of the Committee for Sydney without actually having to suffer intrusive body searches by over-eager squaddies more used to Kabul than Stratford or being quarantined in Heathrow for the duration. That’s both an honour and a profound relief.
I’m not sure that Australia has made enough of its global city’s role in London 2012. Let me do it as a newly fervent Sydneysider with a Cockney passport. Sydneysiders built the Olympic venues and Park. They built the Athletes Village. They built the massive retail cathedral at the entrance to the Games that is providing thousands of jobs for some of the most disadvantaged communities in the UK. David Higgins , former CEO of Lend Lease ran the Olympic Delivery Authority which built the stadiums and the setting for the Games. Dan Labbad and Rob Johnson also of Lend Lease – the former now returning to Sydney as the company’s latest Chief Operating Officer – built the Village. John Burton, formerly of Sydney Airport, led the development of the biggest Westfield in Christendom, now the only man-made landmark outside China which can be seen from the moon. Further un-named Sydneysiders brought the expertise gained in 2000 to bear on London 2012.
I met most of these whilst working to transform East London. I met my future de facto and sponsor of my resident status in Australia while we both lobbied for investment to come Eastwards – to places like Stratford, Barking , Hackney and Greenwich which had seen better days and are now the locations for the Games. We played our part in the process which brought London 2012.
Our aim and the aim of the councils which I represented at the time was not to secure a few weeks of elite sport and have Zil lanes open only to Olympic officials bringing traffic chaos to an already congested city. It was to harness 75% of the $15b that is not being spent on the sporting spectacle but on land reclamation, infrastructure, connectivity , housing and urban design as a long term legacy . When the Games caravan moves on East London will have thousands of quality new homes and new jobs, the best sporting facilities in the UK and the biggest new Park created in Western Europe since the War. The fact that it will also be the first new Royal Park created in over a century pleases me not because I am a monarchist but because of the re-branding and market profile this Royal badging , more associated with the prosperous West of the capital , gives to East London. It’s telling that the marketing for the homes in the Olympic Park after the Games refers to this part of the city as not being East London but East Village. It symbolises an end to the division in London between East and West, which helped stigmatise people for their origins. This is now just London: a superb legacy from 2012 .And also I hope food for thought for key decision-makers about the importance of re-balancing East and West within Sydney, my new home-city, too.
I think a lot in my current role about the spirit I know was here in 2000 . You could feel it just watching television on the other side of the world. I also think of the divisions overcome in Sydney then between West and East , the various tiers of government , media and the community. Everyone pulled together, sorted out big-city problems with big city thinking, turned things around and delivered a united city with a civic pride and a civic achievement that delighted both your fans around the world and indeed Sydneysiders themselves. Perhaps the celebration went on a tad long into the subsequent decade – but then parties have a habit of going on too long and revellers often overstay their welcome. The morning after the night before cannot unfortunately be deferred for ever.
Maybe that’s the best way of understanding what I’m told by Sydneysiders was a decade of ‘coming down’ after the Games. The spirit of 2000 got lost somewhere. While I worry a bit that Australians seem unaware that their ‘down’ is so much more successful than most countries ‘up’ , I see some force in this self-analysis. But renewal is never far away in Sydney and the spirit which made this place the must-come to city has not been extinguished. You,we, have just concealed it for a while. What it needs to reveal itself again is what caused it to explode at the turn of the century. It needs a big challenge for a big city and it needs leadership of the scale to match the ambitions and needs of its feisty inhabitants. I have an idea.
The One Sydney I saw from afar in 2000 needs to get back up on the winner’s podium. One piece of advice from a former advisor to both the elected Mayors for the whole of Greater London – Red Ken and Blue Boris :it’s difficult for 43 councils to share a medal whatever the colour. The achievement of Sydney in 2000 was to create a virtual and unified Greater Sydney which now needs to take concrete form in a revolution in governance that would be the best ,if deferred, legacy of the Sydney Games.
This great city would be greater still if we could come together for more than a few weeks. Other cities in Australia, and internationally, are unifying their cities and strengthening their capacity and performance through creating more metropolitan scale government structures. Brisbane has a single council for a million people. Perth is consolidating. Auckland has amalgamated 7 councils into one representing a quarter of the national population. London now has a single metropolitan government to plan the strategic direction of a city of 8 million. Sydney has 43 councils , no metropolitan expression or governance and no unified strategy. In sporting terms it’s under-performing – under delivering the homes and infrastructure our communities and economy need. It‘s like a thoroughbred that’s handicapped by carrying too much weight.
This is why I urge the ongoing NSW government review into local government finance and organisation to be radical. Don’t miss this opportunity to unleash the dynamism of this city through reducing the myriad of small councils and giving this spiritually big city the big city government it needs to face up to its big challenges. Go for gold.
Dr Tim Williams
CEO Committee for Sydney
This is a version of a speech delivered on Thursday 26 July at 5pm at Beyond the Games: an event hosted by Arup and Sustainable Business Australia.