The story so far on the Olympic stadium is clear. West Ham have a deal, and a very advantageous one for the Hammers. And the hope of Leyton Orient chairman, Barry Hearn, that the House of Lord’s Select Committee report on Olympic legacy would provide him a way in has not quite worked.
The report did touch on how the deal was done but the noises it made are not strong enough to help Orient to reopen the deal, let alone use of the stadium. In any case the Lord’s report carries no mandatory sanction so it is easy to dismiss it as a lot of hot air.
But that conclusion would be dangerous. For this story is by no means concluded and it keeps getting interesting. My reasons for saying that are the new twists to this long running saga. The twists are provided by Margaret Hodge, chair of the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee and a possible Brussels twist.
On Thursday Hearn met Hodge and came away feeling very happy. He will not say much more than that but it is not hard to imagine how that discussion went. In the last couple of years, Hodge has used her Select Committee, historically the most powerful in the Commons, to become the champion of the tax payer. She has led a crusade against companies like Starbucks who operate here but do not pay much UK tax. The campaign has been so successful that our whole perception of tax paying has changed.
Once it was accepted that tax evasion was illegal. However if you got highly-paid accountants and lawyers to show you ways and means on how to avoid tax by using the law in clever ways then, however much the ordinary tax payer raved and ranted, nothing much could be done about it.
But, as a result of Hodge and her committee’s relentless attacks on companies indulging in tax avoidance, some of them have been so shamed that they have made voluntary contributions. It is as if they are saying ‘sorry we used the law to lessen our tax burden’. What makes this extraordinary is that this apology has been made to our lawmakers who were responsible for making the law that helped these companies avoid tax in the first place.
And it is riding on this charger of looking after the tax payer that Hodge could go looking into the West Ham deal. Has the taxpayer got the best deal? Or is Richard Caborn the former sports minister, who masterminded the deal that saw Manchester City get the 2002 Commonwealth Games stadium, right in saying this is the worst sports deal he has ever seen?
It remains to be seen whether Hodge on her charger produces the same moral revulsion about the stadium deal that her enquiries into multi-nationals not paying tax has produced. But while we wait for that there are other twists in this story that continue to make it fascinating.
On December 11 Hearn will meet Dennis Hone, chief executive of the London Legacy Development Corporation. He has in response to the Lord’s report said Leyton can have occasional use of the Olympic stadium. Hearn’s response will be: we want 23 days in a year. Does 23 out of 365 days constitute occasional use? And how much do you want us to pay?
Hone could respond with an impossible figure, let us say a £1 million a day. But Hearn believes he will, as he has done so far, give no figure. Hearn is driven to that conclusion because he suspects the small print of the West Ham deal rules out any use by another football club. We do not know that because the details of the deal have not been made public. Hearn hopes his constant probing will release the details. He has also filed a Freedom of Information Request to prise open the details.
And if all this fails we get the final twist to this story: Brussels. I understand Hearn has been advised by lawyers well versed in European law that the deal would fall foul of European regulations which prohibit state sponsorship for private entities.
Hearn has not so far gone to Brussels because, while he describes this as state aid for West Ham, in a way he wants to be benefit from the same aid. Except on a smaller scale as for Leyton matches he will use only the lower tier of the stadium seating 18,000 not the entire edifice.
But going to Brussels is his nuclear option. And he is very aware that politicians would not like this nuclear option to be used.
Imagine the situation. Hearn gets nowhere with Hone or even Hodge. He then goes to Brussels and it rules the deal has to be unscrambled. West Ham complain this is yet another interference in how we run things in this country by those know nothing bureaucrats in Brussels. Yet Leyton, and many others not involved in the deal, say how wonderful Brussels is. It has finally produced a wise decision and come down in favour of the British tax payers.
Given how Brussels is viewed in this country, and a rising fervour in favour of Britain getting out of the European Union, this is not an opinion that would be much welcomed by our politicians. And this could mean that in order to stop Hearn from going to Brussels, and showing up all those who made the West Ham deal, poor old Leyton will get to share the stadium.
That is certainly Hearn’s hope. But for that to happen a lot rides on where Hodge heads as she mounts her charger.