Steve Beauchampé considers the prospects for a Birmingham bid for the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
The Commonwealth Games Federation’s announcement that the South African city of Durban will no longer host the 2022 Commonwealth Games presents Birmingham with a dilemma. What would have been the first African Games were cancelled after the hosts were unable to meet the financial and organisational criteria required by the CGF. Almost immediately Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson confirmed that the city, which was considering a bid for the Games in 2026, was prepared to step in as a replacement. Since when Manchester City Council have stated that they would be ready to hist the event, possibly in conjunction with another city.
Thus Birmingham, which was also assessing a bid for 2026, must decide whether it too wants to stage the Games four years earlier than it had envisaged and was planning for. The city is awaiting the results of a £170,000 feasibility study (£120,000 of which is coming from BCC, £50,000 from the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership) currently being undertaken by London-based Origin Sports and due for completion in April.
Early indications are that the likely host of the Games will be English, with Edmonton in Canada having earlier decided to concentrate on 2026, Australia’s Gold Coast already appointed hosts in 2018 and with an Indian candidate unlikely, following Delhi’s disappointing organisation of the 2010 Games. But while other bidders might yet emerge (London and Melbourne have also been mentioned), should Liverpool, Birmingham or Manchester be chosen as hosts for 2026, then it is unlikely that the Games would return to England for some time.
In many ways Durban’s withdrawal could not have come at a worse time for Birmingham City Council. Substantial and ongoing central government cuts have left it in a truly parlous state with many experienced staff lost (there is currently no Chief Executive) and savage cuts made to vital public services. Additionally, the authority is undergoing yet more internal structural and political reorganisation, with the continued threat that central government will impose commissioners to run the city on behalf of Whitehall.
Neither is there yet the certainty of cross-party political support for a Games bid in either 2022 or 2026, nor confirmation that neighbouring authorities, who will almost certainly be needed to help stage some events, are willing or able to do so (although the not insignificant backing of the West Midlands Combined Authority seems most probable given its financial support for the feasibility study). And that’s before crucial financial guarantees and central government support are secured.
These matters could probably be dealt with (or in some cases perhaps will no longer be relevant) ahead of a bid for 2026, but the CGF need to select a new host for 2022 urgently (just over five years to prepare for an event as large as the Commonwealth Games is fairly tight, even in the most favourable of circumstances). So unless the issues outlined above can be satisfactorily addressed, then an inevitably rushed decision to go for the 2022 Games is one that Birmingham might live to regret.
In terms of existing facilities the city and region could probably manage, and it would not be unreasonable for Birmingham to request money from central government for a major upgrade to the Alexander Stadium in Perry Barr (long term plans already exist to replace the aged stands alongside the home straight) so as to stage the athletics.
Aquatics could be held by importing a temporary 50 metre tank into one of the halls at the NEC (Melbourne used a similar solution for the 2006 Games) whilst the remainder of the complex could be utilised for many of the indoor sports. Bowls could be staged at Leamington Spa (where Victoria Park is home to the English national championships and a complex of five superb greens), lawn tennis at the Edgbaston Priory Club, rugby sevens at various regional grounds including Villa Park. with Edgbaston Stadium, the National Indoor Arena and Derby Arena velodrome, also utilised.
But, and this is a major downside, the five year lead in time of hosting in 2022 would effectively negate the kind of substantial urban regeneration that 2002 Commonwealth Games hosts Manchester built into their bid, and then built upon, in a way that has turned that city into the UK’s primary centre for sporting events outside of London, while also now being home to several national sports governing bodies.
For Birmingham, a 2022 bid likely means no velodrome, no aquatics centre, no new outdoor stadium capable of holding 40,000 plus, along the lines of the City of Manchester or London Stadiums, no accompanying urban regeneration as well as the danger that many visitors will see little of Birmingham other than the NEC complex or the Alexander Stadium environs and Gravelly Hill Interchange access roads.
In a head to head contest with Liverpool, where existing or easily adaptable sports facilities will be the key determining factor, Birmingham can make a strong case. However, that may not be ao where Manchester is concerned. Because whilst the financial constraints and staff cuts that have beset local authorities in greater Birmingham are just as prevalent on Merseyside, and whilst Liverpool has neither a large athletics stadium, a sizeable velodrome nor anything to compare with the NEC’s facilities, Manchester’s sporting infrastructure dwarfs that of both cities, and is for the most part already in place and near state of the art. Only temporary athletics facilities are absent, a problem that is by no means intractable.
A joint Manchester/Liverpool bid might produce an even stronger candidacy, bolstered by the flourishing of Liverpool’s cultural scene since it was awarded the 2008 European Capital of Culture title, an artistic renaissance replicated in Manchester. Yet even if the Commonwealth Games Federation, backed by Commonwealth Games England, eschew such considerations on this occasion, and award the 2022 Games to the city or region they most trust to deliver a well organised sporting event, on time and to budget, and at relatively short notice – all of which Birmingham is capable of achieving – as events rapidly unfold, there is perhaps a deepening sense of foreboding that matters are conspiring to ensure that the city yet again misses out on staging a sporting or cultural event of global proportions.