Thursday, May 21, 2009

Why the secrecy?

Finally, the city council has come out and said that it will fund the Special Olympics in Leicester with up to £1m of taxpayers money, but why did it take so long to say it?

Ever since I arrived in the city three months ago, it has been clear that there was a large hole in the funding plans for the games. In only my second week I met with a representative of the organisers who bubbled with enthusiasm for the 'best games ever' and talked about their aspirations for a 'world class' event, but squirmed horribly when I asked about the funding. They had hoped for a £2m injection from Visa, but it had not been forthcoming. Over the next couple of weeks I spoke to several people about the funding. Nobody seemed that keen to talk about it, but nobody seemed that bothered about it either - it was clear that somebody had said they would underwrite the costs and it didn't take much to work out that it was the city council, but nobody would confirm it officially.

Why not? Well, I'm guessing that everybody was worried that if the council said out loud that it would fund the games, any slim hopes of getting anybody else to put money in would just disappear. At the time, the organisers were still talking about commercial sponsorship, even though the games were no more than a dozen weeks away, but apart from the sterling efforts of the Lord Mayor, it was pretty clear that nothing was going to be forthcoming.

I don't have a problem with the city council putting the money in. In fact, I think it was the right thing to do (and we've said so in our leader column in today's Mercury), but I'm uneasy about the way it happened. £1m is a not an insignificant amount of money from an authority that worries about its income and feels the need to push up council tax at a time of deflation and recession. So where will the money come from? Which departments or projects will lose out?

Everyone, whatever business they are in, knows that it is a matter of priorities - the council has a finite amount of money, it has to set priorities. Having decided the games are a priority (a decision we support) I'd like to see the discussion around where the money is coming from. I don't like the fact that these sort of discussions go on increasingly behind closed doors away from the public gaze. This is not an issue confined to the city council, local authorities across the land have switched from the old committee system to a new cabinet controlled form of government. In itself, that didn't need to mean that there was much less public debate, but our councils have taken the opportunity to make sure that this was the outcome.

And perhaps there is a bigger lesson to be learned from this. It's important that the city goes into major decisions with its eyes wide open. Take the bid to make Leicester a host city if England win the right to host the 2018 World Cup. On the face of it, this looks like a fantastic opportunity and the Mercury supports the bid. But, the first piece of work that needs doing - and it is already underway and may well cost the best part of £100,000 - is to gather a thorough understanding of what might be involved. We already know that the Walkers stadium will need to be expanded. Mr Mandaric is on record as saying that this would happen if Leicester City are promoted into the top division (and look like staying there?), but what if they are not promoted or, as happens with many clubs, they yo-yo in and out of the top division while they try to establish themselves? Will we be in the same position as we are with the Special Olympics where we really have no choice but to go through with the event? Who will pay to enlarge the stadium if Leicester City do not? How much other work will need to be done in terms of infrastucture around the city to handle the expected influx of fans?

None of this means that Leicester should not be looking at making a bid to be a host city, but there should be a full and public discussion about the possible cost as well as the undoubted upside that the tournament would bring.

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