The Games changer

The Games changer

Baroness Ford tells Kenny Kemp about her time as chair of the Olympic Park Legacy Company and life as one of the most influential Scots in the UK.

One day there are certain to be statues in the UK capital to Sebastian Coe and Boris Johnson, the Conservative mayor, for landing and delivering London 2012.

If there is, then there should also be a monument to the Ayrshire woman who has ensured that the legacy of the Olympic Games will be properly realised.

Margaret Ford – Baroness Ford of Cunninghame – will squirm at such an ostentatious suggestion, but she has been instrumental in setting east London on the right and proper path.

Few Scots know much about her career, yet she is a major business figure – herself an entrepreneur in Scotland setting up two successful consultancies; a former senior adviser to the Royal Bank of Canada; chairman of utilities group, Norwich-based May Gurney plc (which bought Scottish infrastructure group Turriff last year); chairman of Barchester, a leading healthcare and nursing home group across the UK, and a non executive director of Newcastle-based Grainger plc, the residential homes group celebrating 100 years in business.

She was asked to go to the House of Lords in 2006 by Tony Blair as an active Labour peer.

But three years after leaving English Partnerships – which she chaired since 2002 – she took on the job as chairman of the Olympic Park Legacy Company, whose principal reason for existing is the long-term development and management of the Olympic Park and its venues after the £12.5 billion London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Those currently working on the legacy for Glasgow 2014 will be interested in knowing why this Glasgow University graduate threw away London’s original legacy masterplan for London and set about creating a more sustainable community.

For Margaret Ford, it is the culmination of her ideas, experience and a career in the field of industrial regeneration.

“I’ve worked my whole life with big, dirty polluted sites,” she explains. “I started my working life in the Garnock Valley in North Ayrshire after the steelworks closed in the late 1970s, with the Scottish Development Agency. I’ve been dealing with sites like this all of my life – including the regeneration of the English coalfield communities – and the Olympic site is the one of the largest and most complex.”

She was then working for Cunninghame District Council, in a career that took her to Price Waterhouse (“a great learning place and the only real meritocratic place I’ve every worked”), through to her role as chairman of English Partnerships, working with John Prescott, and where the feather in her cap was selling the Millennium Dome in Greenwich to become the 02 Arena.

On a warm early spring morning – with the trees on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in an incipient state of blossom – she guides BQ on a tour in a people carrier.

“This is an ever-changing landscape,” she says. “There is always something happening. It’s been incredible watching this all.”

After the Paralympic Games, there is another year of construction work when the park will be closed off while the temporary arenas are taken down and new housing finished off. The new neighbourhoods – ultimately with 11,000 new homes – start to re-open in two phases in 2013, with the whole park re-opening in the summer of 2014.

This is when it will become a dynamic and permanent part of London. The 500-acre site is a diamond shape, with the Olympic Stadium in the bottom quadrant, on an island, and the Velodrome at the north end.

The big venues are all complete, finished by the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) and now handed over to LOGOC, the Games organisers.

The once-filthy river Lea, which flows through the site and then into the Thames, has been dredged and cleaned out, and the remedial work – where nasty metals and chemicals were removed – finished long ago.

Small businesses, often in run-down premises, have been relocated, using compulsory purchases orders, and have been moved to better sites in east London.

The tour, starting at the Pudding Mill Lane security centre, takes us past the helter-skelter criss-cross of steel that is the £114m ArcelorMittal’s Orbit, donated by Lakshmi Mittal after London mayor Boris Johnson cornered him at Davos (Boris wanted a vertical punctuation mark to rival the Eiffel Tower which will be used for the Olympic light shows), then through the park with Baroness Ford pointing out the landmarks – and the opportunities.

“When Seb Coe went to Singapore to win the Games it was to bring a genuine legacy for the kids of London,” she says. “People were originally sceptical about that, but now virtually all of the promises that were made before the Games have been fulfilled. We’re really proud of what has been accomplished so far.

“I knew this site before we won the Games. I’ve known it well since 2003 and English Partnerships owned a big chunk of it. Soon after we won the Games, we were working on the site – this is really year seven.”

The OPLC was created in May 2009 with the three founders; the Mayor of London, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport.

The company, split between the Mayor and the UK Government, acquired the Olympic Park at Stratford and the Three Mills Estate in September 2010 from the London Development Agency for £138m.

Stratford, in the east London borough of Newham, is home to 250,000 people, with 73 languages spoken in the borough’s schools.

It has London’s youngest population, with the biggest concentration of young people between 17 and 25.

It is a bustling place and the international station, which bisects the site, is buzzing with nine mainline train tracks coming into it, plus the Docklands Light Railway.

It is ten minutes from Canary Wharf and London City airport, and three miles to the City of London.

“It is already busier now than Victoria railway station,” says Baroness Ford. “This is a new part of London. What we are creating here is a whole new piece of the city. We take our responsibilities very seriously. The construction of the site for the Olympic Games is chapter one – what I’m interested in is the bit after. This is the part that the UK government put huge store by. The Olympic Games was given to London on the understanding that the legacy would bring massive benefit to a run-down and broken part which was ‘a tear in the fabric of London’.”

It’s all gloriously bright and news as a buzz of activity continues for the UK swimming trials. “The ODA, who have done all the project management and the delivery, have done a great job in involving companies from all over the UK,” she adds.

On tour, the orange containers of Scottish company Aggreko – the exclusive supplier of temporary energy services – are everywhere, while Barr Construction, from Paisley and working on the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games aquatic centre, built the temporary 12,000-seater basketball arena.

Scottish companies – such as Barr +Wray – have done very well here. It is mainly UK companies that have built everything on the site. The project management was CLM – CH2MHill, Laing O’Rourke and Mace, the team that did Terminal Five at Heathrow.

The ODA used a lot of the learning from such an exemplary construction project. Sir Robert McAlpine built the athletics stadium; Carillion built the broadcast centre for the Olympic Broadcast Service; Balfour Beatty did the Aquatics Centre; and the Velodrome was designed by architects Hopkins, built by ISG, and affectionately known as “The Pringle”.

Baroness Ford says: “Very few foreign companies bid for many of the contracts, which surprised us. But this site has been a godsend for the UK construction industry, through the whole credit crunch and the downturn. This has really been the best of British construction and project management here. And CrossRail has taken up that slack.”

Baroness Ford says these big infrastructure projects have been hugely helpful to the UK’s economy. And she believes the quality of the build and the spec of the landscaping – 4,000 maturing trees, and 300,000 wetland plants, and nectar-rich meadow plants sown to flower during the Games – will have done the country proud.

Margaret Ford INSET

“The Olympic Village has been presold – people said it couldn’t be done and that you’ll never sell 5000 units, but we’ve done it,” she says, gesturing to where athletes will relax in a few months’ time.

“The East Village will be retro-fitted after the Games and the homes will be a mixture of affordable homes, owned by a housing association, and a large privately rented portfolio, owned by Delancey Quatari Diar. This is long-term, patient money committed to creating a great place and committed to doing it over the long term. And all that money has been paid back to the public purse.”

Her own first development, Chobham Manor, is adjacent to the Olympic Village – family oriented, traditional housing that will come to the market after the Games.

She says that for every £1 spent on the London games, 75p is staying as part of the legacy.

“The local people have been incredibly patient; this has been dust and noise for seven years, and people have been marvellous about it because they realised there is a hugely important thing happening here.” She finds it fascinating that during last year’s London riots it was one of the few boroughs – which was the poorest in terms of deprivation – that had no trouble.

“There was no trouble in Stratford,” she says. “I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I think the people here really get that it is a massive investment in the area and they should be proud of that.” What has helped is involving the youth through a panel with all the schools.

“I think people feel very proud of what’s happening in their area, and feel very proud of it. This is what the new East End of London looks like – not what you see on a television soap opera. Londoners love parks and the big parks are the lungs of the city. For example, people like to live around Regent’s Park and like to get out there and enjoy it, or those who work beside one of the squares.

"The Olympic Park is in the tradition of the great London neighbourhoods where it will have lots of great housing surrounding the parkland, but in addition it will have these fantastic sports venues.”

The cleaned-up Lea is also an asset for the site.

“I love the water features,” she says. “I was brought up at the seaside and I lived there. I love what water does to a place. This knits the whole park together. It will be one of the reasons why people want to come and live here.”

Next door to the site is the £1.5bn Westfield shopping centre – Europe’s largest – anchored by John Lewis, Waitrose, and M&S, and with all the leading high street brands.

Baroness Ford believes it is a game-changer for the area. “There wasn’t an M&S in Stratford before it opened,” she says. “The Westfield centre has never missed a beat through the whole credit crunch. The Australian investors, the Westfield Group, have shown incredible faith in the East End of London. It has surpassed all expectations in terms of trading since it opened.

“Someone said me this has opened five years before it should have – I said no, it’s opened 50 years before it should have. Without the Olympic investment, it would not have happened. The Games changed everything. They change the feeling of what this part of London could be.”

Adjoining the site, and across the canal, on the western edge beside the Broadcast Centre, is Hackney Wick, with its artistic and creative community, now among the most vibrant in the UK.

The community there will become Sweetwater. There are several bids in for the Broadcast Centre, with its high-speed fibre connection. What did she bring in terms of her experience from English Partnership?

“I had a lot of experience working with the Treasury and public finance, which was vital. When I came there were challenges; the project wasn’t well capitalised and financed, although the Games and construction has been funded, there was no budget for the legacy. There was a huge £600m debt attached to the park and I spent the first year negotiating with the Treasury and various parties to get the debt rescheduled – and some was even cancelled. Then I had to negotiate a strong capital settlement to finish the park, which was reviewed when the coalition Government came in. They never missed a beat.”

She advised the Treasury that the creation of Milton Keynes, a new town and development corporation, was still remitting cash to the UK government 30 years after it was first built – and this slow-burn financing should be the model for the Olympic legacy.

They agreed and they now have time to build the real value. When Margaret Ford arrived there was a small team working on the legacy in the Canary Wharf tower, and her first decision was to come out of the 23rd floor and move the offices into the community. (“We should be in the middle of the action.”) She inherited an embryo masterplan which she decided to throw out as she saw it as unsuitable – filling the park with high-rised two-bedroom flats, giving it all the subtly of Hong Kong or Singapore.

“Nothing in it said, ‘This Is London’,” she says.”It was a pile ‘em high, sell it cheap model. Yet this was a once-in-a hundred year chance to create the best of London. So we took grid patterns from the best squares in the city to find the normal dimensions – it was about creating a human scale.”

Her engagement involved pounding her own shoe-leather out in the parks and streets, shopping and community centres asking people what they really wanted, and doing her own “mystery shopping” where people were often extremely frank.

“A lot of what went into the new masterplan came from these conversations with mums with buggies, who wanted good schools for their kids, and older people who said they want a nice place to go and eat,” she says.

“Urban planning is not rocket science – people will tell you what they want. In the 1960s and 1970s, so-called professionals just ignored what common-sense people wanted – safe, well-lit, nice with green space. Everyone wants to live in a nice place.

“It’s funny, because I’m Scottish and Andrew (Altman, the chief executive of OPLC) is American, we see things differently. We just adore London. The scale is right. Most of the people hated the original masterplan; everybody loves the new masterplan.”

If it all works, it will be for these things that she deserves her own monument on the park. Her other business duties keep her busy and alert to the obvious overlaps in housing, health and social healthcare.

“Most of the things I do have a big property element around social infrastructure. This is my area of interest and my tendency has been to specialise in this.”

On the debate on women on boards, she says: “Don’t expect to jump three hurdles in one go. I’ve had a 20-year apprenticeship on the boards of private companies, and a 10-year apprenticeship on a listed company. I’ve worked at it and didn’t expect things just to happen. Serve your time and then you’re of value – and try and specialise.”

he appears calm and unflappable and agrees that while she is exceptionally busy, the real stress was 25 years ago working as a consultant with Price Waterhouse (where she met her husband David) and had to juggle her work with two children under five.

They both left and set up Eglinton Management Centre, a leadership and development business, which still operates in Paisley, and then Goodpractice.net, a web-learning firm, based in Edinburgh and run by Peter Casebow since 2002.

“The big secret of not getting stressed is managing your time and being superorganised,” she says.

“But you also need a bit of luck too. London winning the Olympics has been great for the UK – and for Scotland too. Apart from Seb, Tessa Jowell had this dream to bring it to fruition, and they have stuck with the programme.”

She says working alongside John Prescott, the former deputy prime minister, who was involved with massive regeneration projects across England, was an exceptional time.

“What people perhaps don’t give John Prescott credit for is that he personally drove the sustainability agenda in the UK. He is deeply knowledgeable about the town planning system; it could be his Mastermind specialist subject.”

A quietly-spoken Scot from the West of Scotland, now in her early fifties, she studied English and history at Glasgow, and later completed a masters in economics.

Her mother, who passed away last year at 90, was a head teacher and education was important to the family.

“She was taken with the idea that ‘her lassie’ was in the House of Lords,” she says.

“I often get asked to speak to groups of young women who are thinking about their careers and I’m asked, ‘Did you have a plan’ and I say ‘no’. Maybe some people have a plan, but I didn’t have one. I’ve said that what you should plan to do is enjoy everything you do. My two pieces of advice to people are, really enjoy your work, throw yourself in, and good opportunities will come along. And the other thing I say is, ‘Don’t work for lousy people. Go and work for someone else, life’s too short.

“I don’t take myself too seriously, but I take my work seriously. I try to do a good job wherever I go and leave decent tracks.”

After the London Olympics, Margaret Ford is stepping down from OPLC. “After the Games, it will become a development corporation and it becomes a London-focused project, rather than a national one,” she says.

“So perhaps it’s time for a local London person to take the reins. We will have delivered everything the UK government asked for – and more.”

Perhaps for Margaret Ford, a Scot who has witnessed the importance of regeneration in Scotland, the sweetest achievement will be the legacy she has created across England, especially in the East End of London.

Margaret Ford inset

Scotland will benefit, says Baroness Ford

Baroness Ford, the chair of the Olympic Park Legacy Company, believes there will be similar legacy benefits for Glasgow and Scotland as a result of the Commonwealth Games.

“I’ve not been following the whole story in Glasgow – but I’m sure they can achieve the same kind of success that we have in London.

It’s a great opportunity for one of the poorest parts of the UK to pull itself out of the doldrums, so there is plenty to play for,” said the Glasgow University educated business woman.

Glasgow 2014’s Organising Committee and Games Partners recently welcomed an assessment from the independent public spending watchdog that planning for the XX Commonwealth Games is on track and on budget.

Audit Scotland’s Glasgow 2014 Progress Report 2, says planning for the Games is on track, infrastructure projects are forecast to be on time and organisers (Scottish Government, Glasgow City Council, Commonwealth Games Scotland and Glasgow 2014 Ltd) are committed to delivering the Games to the required standards and within the approved budget.

Baroness Ford says there are obvious similarities between London and Glasgow and a lot of learning is being collected and has been passed on, when requested.

“I’m sure the team in Glasgow are very capable – but there is a great deal of help available at the Olympic Park Legacy Company, should they require our help.”   Meanwhile a Glasgow 2014 Organising Committee spokesman said: “We welcome Audit Scotland’s assessment that progress in planning for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games is on track and, together with our Partners Scottish Government, Glasgow City Council and Commonwealth Games Scotland, we are committed to delivering the Games to the required standard within the £524million budget.

“We are pleased the Progress Report also recognises that, with 70% of infrastructure already in place, the risks around delivering Glasgow 2014 are less than for other Games.

“As identified in this report there are risks associated with delivering a complex multi-sport event of this scale. However we are pleased to note the Auditor General’s comments that Partners are identifying key risks and managing them.

"The focus for Glasgow 2014 and our Games Partners continues to be delivering an outstanding Commonwealth Games experience.

In challenging economic times, it is essential we make every effort to ensure best value in delivering a dynamic and exciting Games experience for athletes, spectators and for Scotland.”