UK will not get World-Renowned Centre of Science and Technology.

Jeremy ‘BSkyB bid does not need to go to the Monopolies Commission’ Hunt, the culture secretary, hailed the sale of London’s Olympic Village to the Qatari ruling family’s property company in a deal that leaves UK taxpayers £275m out of pocket. as a:

 “fantastic deal that will give taxpayers a great return and shows how we are securing a legacy from London’s Games”. (1)

Qatari Diar, the oil-rich state’s investment arm, and UK property developer Delancey Estates have teamed up to buy the athletes’ village next to the Olympic Park in East London for £557m.

In preferring this, and other privately owned rental schemes, the Olympic Delivery Authority passed up an extraordinary opportunity:

The chance to create a unique, world-renowned centre of science and technology. Unfortunately, this innovative venture from one of Britain’s most respected bodies is being sacrificed for a deal with a foreign potentate. (2)

The proposal by the Wellcome Trust, Britain’s biggest charity, was to create a global hub for research and innovation, focused on health, technology and sports science. The plans, which included a museum, social housing and the creation of 7,000 jobs, envisaged the melding of scientific study with the spirit of Silicon Valley. The difficult-to-adapt media centre was intended to become a “life sciences innovation centre” housing (3)  two universities – Loughborough and University College London – together with venture capital and technology giants. (2).  Welcome would also have invested huge sums in cutting-edge facilities at a time when pharamaceutical companies were closing down research laboratories in Britain.

However, the proposal to take over the whole park was considered a ‘high-risk strategy’ because the government could not have accepted it without ending negotiations it had already entered with other groups over the Athletes’ Village. Ministers would also have had to launch a whole new tender process (3).

This so-called ‘risky’ venture was a proposal from the only AAA credit-rating body in Britain (outside of government), and had the potential to regenerate East London and provide long-term benefits for Britain.

But, the ODA preferred to focus on short-term profits to be gained by selling the lucrative athletes’ village to the Qatari royal family (in conjunction with a private firm of property developers). The village will now be converted into a neighbourhood with 2,818 homes, including 1,000 family homes with three or four bedrooms. The rest of the properties range from studio flats to five-bedroom apartments. (1)

Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt and London mayor Boris Johnson said that the Welcome proposal did not offer taxpayers sufficient value for money and would have caused too many delays (3).  As Steven Boxall wrote (5.08.11)

‘Interesting definition of value for money: A bit more now, or a lot more spread across the whole economy for a long time.’ 

Nontheless, Britain has lost an unique opportunity for a world-beating centre of life science, with all the benefits that it would bring to a very deprived area of London, so recently the scene of riots.  Furthermore, a proposal from a charity without the usual baggage of funding from vested interests.

Is this what George Osborne and Vince Cable mean when they talk about ‘growth’, job creation and supporting investment in the sciences?  Jeremy Hunt’s ‘fantastic deal’ should be filed alongside George Osborne’s frightening complacency that the UK’s economy is doing well.  This is yet another example of ‘selling off the family silver’ to a foreign investor.

(1) http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2011/aug/12/olympic-village-qatari-ruling-family

(2)  http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2011/mar/17/wellcome-trust-bid-olympic-park

(3) http://www.bdonline.co.uk/news/plp-and-wellcome-trusts-£1bn-bid-for-olympic-park-rejected/5022754.article

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