Fun and Games: Part 1
In the city of Willies,
always come last
the Tontine Building being made ready for the Commonwealth Games backroom staff. But why the need for an expensive refurb in a city
groaning with empty office space?
This is the story of two houses. The first house wasn't worth much – £30,000 in compensation when they decided to pull it down – but for the family in the east end of Glasgow who lived in it, and who liked living in it, it was their home.
They turned down the derisory offer and refused to budge. They dug in for a long fight. In the end they barricaded themselves into their own house. It took a deputation of about 60 – the police assisted by miscellaneous bureaucrats – to break down the barricades and evict them. It was an unpleasant scene at 5 o'clock one morning, but all over within a couple of hours.
Mission accomplished: they demolished the house. Quite soon it will be part of the car park for the 10-day party known as the Commonwealth Games 2014. This is one of the unappreciated little ironies of all major sporting events – the first requirement is somewhere for the sedentary to leave their vehicles.
So much for the first house: it's gone. If there is a lesson to be drawn – what is sometimes called a moral – it is only the usual one. The losers in the big race are always the powerless. The Accord, a centre for people with learning disabilities in the east end, is also out of the running for a medal. Its building is going too, sacrificed to athletics.
The second house, not far away in the same city, is a more distinguished property, once frequented by the tobacco lords. After its association with smoking and the fortunes to be made from the habit, the building is being converted into a temple of health as the administrative headquarters of the Commonwealth Games 2014. It will be a symbol of the early 21st-century fetish for competitive sport at any cost – almost literally any cost.
Formerly known as the Tontine Building but now re-named Commonwealth House, this property is being restored at a cost of – well, what? When City Building LLP proudly announced some time ago that it had won the contract for the refurb, it said nothing about the value of the job. Nor, so far as we can see, did anyone else mention a figure.
We should not be surprised by City Building LLP's reticence in this matter. It is renowned for its reluctance to divulge details of its own financial transactions.
When, for example, it gave some work to a refrigeration company owned by a man called Willie Haughey, it refused to put a price on the work on the grounds that such information was 'commercially sensitive'. But should commercial sensitivity have been outweighed in this case by political sensitivity? As it happened Mr Haughey was at that stage the most generous financial backer of the Labour Party in Scotland. As it happened, most of the directors of City Building LLP were Labour councillors. As it happened, the company was owned by the Labour-controlled Glasgow City Council. There was speculation that the value of the contracts to Mr Haughey's company might have been as much as £10 million.
Last month, the managing director of City Building LLP, Willie Docherty – you don't have to be a Willie to be involved with this lot, but it helps – took early retirement in his mid-50s. He seems to have become bored with retirement, as people do, and has an exciting new job as managing director of Morrison Scotland LLP, 'a leading repairs and maintenance provider in the housing sector', with close links to North Lanarkshire Council.
Suggestions that Mr Docherty left his former employer with a pay-off not unadjacent to £600,000 have been neither confirmed nor denied by City Building LLP, which says that the terms of his severance are confidential. The fact that a public body with duties of public accountability – Glasgow City Council – is ultimately responsible for this company seems to count for little in the city of Willies.
We have not asked City Building LLP how much their contract at the Tontine Building is worth. If they would like to tell us, these columns are open. But when our deputy editor visited the site recently, she was told informally that the refurb is costing £7 million. If true, this is a veritable snip in the context of the total spend on the Commonwealth Games 2014. Why, the Sir Christopher Hoy Velodrome is coming in at £13 million and rising. But there is a difference. While Glasgow is relatively short of velodromes named after Sir Christopher Hoy, it is positively groaning under the weight of empty office space.
One estimate puts the surplus at 1.7 million square feet. No doubt the organisers of the Commonwealth Games could have walked into a ready-made office block at a highly advantageous rent. Instead, they have entered into a business relationship with a company which invariably attracts the adjective 'controversial'.
According to the games' official website the Tontine deal is a 'shinning example of advanced thinking'. Big on the high jump, relatively poor on spelling – although 'shinning' could just about qualify as a new Commonwealth Games sport. But 'advanced thinking'? Grandiose, certainly.
Once the 10-day party is over, and the Tontine Building is vacated, it will be available for rent as office space, competing with all the other office space which lies vacant in Glasgow year after year. It will be part of the 'legacy' of the games about which which we hear so much – along with the Sir Christopher Hoy Velodrome, the car park and the bitter memory of an eviction. But the Accord Centre hopes to be given a room in another building. That's something.
Tomorrow: Part 2 of Fun and Games
Kenneth Roy is editor of the Scottish Review